China’s World Influence and the Rise of the Asian Male Movie Star

There have been several things that have been at play within the last few weeks. We’ve seen some new trailers featuring Asian actors, such as Blackhat, co-starring Leehom Wang and Terminator Genisys, co-starring Byung-hun Lee. There’s also Brian Tee in Jurassic World  and Takamasa Ishihara (Miyavi) in Unbroken. We’ve also have heard troubling stuff from the Sony hack, such as Aaron Sorkin saying that there weren’t any viable Asian male stars. 

leehom-wang-blackhat

First of all, that bit doesn’t make any sense, since America is now knowingly or unknowingly on the lookout for the next breakout Asian star. I say “knowingly or unknowingly” since America is currently trying to placate Asia, specifically China, with films, leading to a dramatic rise in the amount of Asian actors, specifically male actors, we’ve seen in the new crop of film trailers.

Why is it that we’re seeing a big boon of Asian male stars in our upcoming films and films that have premiered in the last two to five years? It’s because America’s no longer at the top of the food chain when it comes to influence, power, and money. Sorry, America, but we are no longer the leading world power, or at the very least, America is getting closer to becoming more like bedfellows to Asian culture than some Americans would like to believe.

Byung-hun-Lee-Terminator-Genisys

China became thought of as the burgeoning new world power in 2014, with Forbes, Business Insider, The Guardian and books like David Shambaugh’s China Goes Global: The Partial Power declaring the news.  Forbes has stats from a Pew Global survey:

Of 20 countries surveyed in both 2008 and 2013, the median percentae asserting China as the “world’s leading economic power” increased from 20% to 34%. At the same time, the figure for the United States has fallen from 47% to 41%.

The expansion of China is seen in all venues, from finances (of course) to pop culture, including entertainment (which I’ll get into later). To quote the synopsis of China Goes Global:

In two decades, China has moved from the periphery to the center of the international system. Every day and everywhere, China figures prominently in global attention. Wherever one turns, China is in the news — gobbling up resources, soaking up investment, expanding its overseas footprints, asserting itself in its Asian neighborhood, being the sought-after suitor in global governance diplomacy, sailing its navy into new waters, broadening its global media exposure and cultural presence, and managing a mega-economy that is the engine of global growth. China’s global impact is increasingly felt on every continent, in most international institutions, and on many global issues. By many measures, China is now clearly the world’s second leading power, after the United States, and its aggregate economy is due to surpass that of the United States sometime around 2025.

China has already passed the American economy. The Guardian states that China probably passed us years ago, but the news just went mainstream last year thanks to the World Bank. The Guardian also gets into what I was alluding to above — that people probably feel like the world’s about to end if America’s not at the forefront of the world economy.  The Guardian explains why this fear is unfounded and why those who are afraid of America not being at the top should do well to get over it:

Still, there is a powerful ideology of American exceptionalism and a widespread belief that if the US does not run the world, somebody worse – possibly China —will. The fact that the US and its European allies still have more democratic societies with more developed rule of law than most middle-income countries — despite the setbacks of the past decade — reinforces this notion that the world will be worse off if the US loses power and influence.

But the US lost most of its influence in Latin America over the past 15 years, and the region has done quite well, with a sharp reduction in poverty for the first time in decades.

America has woken up to this fact and are trying to act accordingly, even though some acts could still be seen as American superiority, such as America trying to contain China in trade with the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). (There’s, of course, more complexities that are illustrated in the linked Forbes article).

Miyavi-Unbroken

Hollywood, which is a big part of the American economy, seems to be a lot more in bed with the Chinese and pan-Asian economies than the American government, what with their constant dealings with the Chinese economy and the Chinese audience, such as having certain parts of American awards shows filmed specifically with the pan-Asian (specifically Chinese and Korean) audience in mind like The Chopstick Boys performing at the AMAs and Jason Zhang (Zhang Jie) winning the AMA for International Artist, with the segments only seen on Asian televisions, Iron Man 3 recut for Chinese movie goers with four minutes of added scenes featuring popular Chinese movie stars, and a definite ramp-up of pan-Asian actors in mainstream American movies in recent years, such as Ishihara in Unbroken, Ken Watanabe in Godzilla, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Unforgiven, Tee in Jurassic World (along with B.D. Wong and Irrfan Khan)  and several popular television shows, Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim and 47 Ronin, Sung Kang in the Fast and Furious franchise and Bullet to the Head, Wang in Blackhat and Lee in Terminator Genisys, RED 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and G.I. Joe: Cobra.

“But some of these actors, like Watanabe, have been in American movies for years on years!” you might be saying. Of course, there are examples of all-Asian movies that have a huge audience in America, like Memoirs of a Geisha, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The House of Flying Daggers. But these movies seemed like they were presented to America as “exotic,” even Memoirs, which is an American-made movie. But all three of these films feature all-Asian casts, which, of course, means, everyone’s going to be featured in the trailers. However, while Memoirs or Crouching Tiger featured their Asian cast in the trailers, there would be another film, a mainstream one, that could have an Asian cast member, but you wouldn’t expect that member to be featured in the trailer.

Take for instance the trailer for Jurassic Park, which also featured B.D. Wong in a minor, but very important role in the film. Wong’s character was the one in charge of the dinosaur incubation room. Is he in the trailer?

Contrast that with the trailer for Jurassic World, featuring Tee as Hamada, a character I suspect is also minor or at least secondary since we’re only given his last name. But look at the much different treatment he’s getting. The trailer is basically pulling a move from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug when the camera kept going back to the five minorities they’d hired for Lake-town citizens. The Jurassic World trailer is literally  shouting at you (and that coveted Asian international audience), “HEY LOOK! WE’VE GOT THIS ASIAN DUDE!”

It’s not just Jurassic World that does it; it’s literally all of the trailers nowadays that feature Asian-American or Asian international stars. Take a look at this smattering of trailers, including Terminator Genisys, Blackhat and Unbroken:

The characters these actors are playing range from being secondary to main, so some get more screen time than others, but all of them have a whiff of the trailer editors being told to make sure there’s a certain amount of Asian character saturation to make sure the Asian-American and international audience comes out to support the films. I’m not knocking this by any stretch; I’m just saying what I’ve noticed over the past few years, especially the last two.

Brian-Tee-Jurassic-World

The one similarity I’ve noticed with how Hollywood treats other minorities is in the case of African Americans. There was a time that it was considered “necessary” to show the African American character or characters in trailers, like that Jurassic Park one for instance featuring prominent moments with Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a way to showcase the actors of color as well as to yell to the minority (in this case, black) audience, “HEY! WE GOT A BLACK GUY IN OUR MOVIE!”

To me, it seems like from the late ’60s all the way up to the late ’90s or early ’00s, the black audience were seen as a “new” audience demographic to cater towards (as if black people haven’t been going to the movies since movies were invented). As the “new” audience, studios were adamant about showing their new demo that yes, we do have people that look like you in our films. The same thing’s happening to the Asian audience, now the new “new” audience.

So what am I saying about Terminator Genisys and Jurassic World? Nothing but to go enjoy those movies. Support them and show Hollywood that yes, Asian male stars are not only in existence, but are bankable stars. With more money thrown at films with Asian actors, who knows? Soon, we might see an Asian film renaissance featuring Asian actors doing more than just kung fu or being portrayed as “exotic,” similar to the one we’re living in concerning black films.

(From top to bottom in post) Leehom Wang in Blackhat. Byung-hun Lee in Terminator Genisys. Takamasa Ishihara (Miyavi) in Unbroken. Brian Tee in Jurassic World. 

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