Recently and on their own initiative, my 11-year old child became interested in Greek mythology. As a single co-parent father continually desperate for reasons to relate to and bond with my child, this delighted me, because by coincidence I became infatuated with Greek myths when I was young. As a broke Vietnamese refugee nerd kid, I’d go to the Franklin library and read up about the messed up Gods, the flawed heroes, the fantastic creatures.
My kid asked me to get the audio books of the Percy Jackson series, wherein Greek myths were modernized by author Rick Riordan, so we could listen to them together in the car. It’s been a delight to chat, debate, and laugh about a subject we have in common. All the while, I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be nice if Asian Americans had something like this, with their own heroes and creatures and myths?
A month later, I put a mask on and drag my cynical, pessimistic ass to go see Shang-Chi on an IMAX screen. Should I go in with high expectations, or low? I could say I’m going in there with an open mind and no expectations at all, but that would be a lie. Okay, I thought, maybe it won’t be great, but it will at least be watchable, right? Marvel may be a corporate machine, but that machine is competent, resulting in movies with a low floor. Then again, wouldn’t it be just our luck that the first Marvel movie with an Asian American superhero is the one that sucks the hardest?
So you could say I brought a lot of baggage into that theater with me.
And here’s the thing — at some point, I let the movie win me over, and melt my cold, cynical heart. The action sequences were well choreographed and generally well-shot. The actors were skilled, and charming. The filmmakers and writers, most of whom are also Asian American, seemed to actually understand why Asian Americans, especially those of us who were fans of the late ’90s genre of over the top Hong Kong action films, loved stars such as Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung. Contrast this with the Russo Brothers’ utter waste of the great Hiroyuki Sanada in Endgame. The jokes about noraebang, “Hotel California,” Dance Dance Revolution, and congee for breakfast. The auntie wondering when you’re going to marry that person. The great Sir Ben Kingsley ret-conning the Mandarin and having a blast while doing it. Wow, Morris is actually a somewhat obscure creature from Chinese mythology called a DiJiang. And they finally got Wong to come out of his shell have some fun at karaoke!
I sat in the theater with a huge smile on my face, and thought to myself, wow. They made an Asian American comic book nerd martial arts fantasy movie. I’ve been a film buff for over three decades, and for the first time, I said to myself, so this is what it feels like to have a movie made with you as the target audience.
But to be an Asian American is to prepare yourself mentally for motherfuckers throwing a wet blanket onto your party. And we internalize it.
I’ve seen a lot of Asian Americans, critics and otherwise, profess their love for the film, and yet, feel obligated to add a qualifier:
- “I know it’s not perfect, but…”
- “I know it’s not as good as ________, but…”
- “I know I just like it probably because I’m Asian, but…”
- “People in China will probably hate it, but…”
I’ve done this, too. When people have asked me if I liked it, I’ve replied with some version of “I loved it, but I recognize it’s probably because, as a movie, it fits right into my racialized pop culture nerd wheelhouse.”
Why do we, as Asians, feel compelled to knock ourselves and our own people down a notch before we announce our support or joy?
I’m not trying to shame anyone. As ever, I’m interested in the question, what does this tell us?
Contrast this with the public and critical reaction to Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a couple years back. I saw the movie, and — problematic representation of Bruce Lee and the character of Sharon Tate having no lines notwithstanding — I thought while it was a well crafted movie with good performances, it was nonetheless self indulgent and boring. I really didn’t see what the big deal was. And yet white male critics, and non-white male critics who are taught to think and critique like white male critics, seemed to really love the film, perhaps because they enjoyed seeing white men enact a fantasy hero vision of past Hollywood that never really existed.
But they by and large did not seem to have to defend their championing of the film based on their identity and what they brought as an audience member when they saw it, nor apologize for it. They just argued the quality of the film. And though it didn’t win Best Director or Best Picture, losing out to Parasite, it’s not like there was a lack of recognition for the film or the creators.
While those of us who are not white men champion the films we love, there is either a covert or overt assumption that it’s all about our identity, and/or there’s a value judgement. That our work is objectively lesser and only important due to representation. You can see that in many white reviewer’s reaction to Shang-Chi, even the positive ones. “I thought it was just okay, not one of the better Marvel movies, but I recognize the importance of Asian representation” etc.
Again, not trying to guilt or shame anyone. People can like what they like. And I am not inviting a discussion about how “well actually Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is objectively better than Shang-Chi” because honestly, you can believe that, and I do not give a shit. Like what you want to like. It’s fine. That’s not the point.
Also, if you’re Asian and for whatever reason didn’t like Shang-Chi, that’s fine, too. We don’t owe Disney or Marvel anything, really. Certainly not our allegiance. Again, not the point.
Nor am I arguing that Asian people should solely like films with Asians in them, or white people should just like people with white films in them (though statistically I am sure that the numbers will show that Asian people do in fact see tons of films where there are no Asian characters).
I’m interested in the question, who is afforded the right to not even have to question that perhaps their identity and baggage is part of the reason why they love some particular piece of pop culture, while the rest of us do? Especially those in the culture who are gatekeepers and allowed to set the standard, whose opinions can sway audience participation, make or break a career, get attention for awards, and so on, and so forth.
It becomes bigger than just a difference of opinion and perspective when you aid historical and institutionalized oppression to the equation. If Wonder Woman fails, Hollywood and public perception will think it’s because no one wants to see a female superhero. If Shang-Chi fails, they’ll assume no one will support an Asian male superhero. But if Thor stumbled? No one’s gonna stop making movies with white males in them.
And I admit my envy, that folks can just go see a movie without carrying all this baggage and wondering what our opinion and support means, and what the consequences are, for our entire race of people who have been historically marginalized by a Hollywood system belligerent towards our kind. I honestly didn’t want to publicly say or write a damn thing about Shang-Chi. I just wanted to enjoy it for what it was, and what it meant for me, and leave it be.
But the world isn’t tilted that way for us, so maybe the best we can hope for is that this is a moment in the zeitgeist to have these conversations. How is an Asian different from an Asian American can be couched as how is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon different from Shang-Chi? How the inequality of the global industry can be — like, did you know Tony Leung was in the original movie that Scorcese’s The Departed was based off of, and why do more people around the globe know who Leonardo DiCaprio is than Tony Leung? And so on, and so forth.
My kid isn’t into Marvel or superheroes, but I showed them a picture of Morris from the movie, and they immediately fell in love with the rotund, furry winged creature. Although my child is part Chinese, they’ve never heard of a DiJiang. I can’t wait to learn more about it with them.