A New Yellow Fever: Alternative Forms of Masculinity on the Big Screen

It is needless to repeat countless of other news articles and culture/entertainment critics, but Asians have long been left out of the spotlight for far too long. For a society that prides itself on being progressive and multicultural, the lack of Asians onscreen has taken a backseat in all our minds. We acknowledged it, but did nothing to change it. 

Why did it take so long? Perhaps it was that we didn’t know what we were missing, we were so used to seeing the whites tell all the stories that we didn’t know what it meant to see ourselves on the screen. Perhaps it was that we didn’t know how to get our people onscreen; we thought we had no power, always pushed to the sidelines while other minorities like the Latinos and the Blacks crafted their representation sooner than us. Regardless, someday someone somewhere decided Asians on the big screen is a great idea, and we have finally decided it is now time to demand change, to demand that we see faces that mirror ours in order to tell the stories closest to our hearts. 

With ethnic representation also comes increased representation of the many faces we wear. Women have their own stereotypes with the dragon lady or the lotus flower, but the men also have their own grief with the emasculation, sorry Bruce Lee, or hyper masculinity, as in Harold & Kumar. Let’s take a look at some of the men in recent years who have started to change the game of Asian masculinity in film. 

Hayden Szeto, The Edge of Seventeen 

Back when this film came out in 2016, this seemed like the first whisper of the wave of Asian representation that everyone had been waiting for. It was only a whisper but at least we could feel some water. The film follows sharp-tongued high school junior, Nadine Franklin, who is generally insecure and over dramatic, which is exacerbated by her equally dramatic, self-absorbed mother, her “perfect” brother Darian and the recent death of her father. Nadine’s best friend Krista starts dating Darian, and Nadine takes it as a betrayal, shunning her friend. Enter Erwin Kim, the Korean American kid in Nadine’s American history class who tries his best to get to her know her, despite his awkward approaches. 

Hayden Szeto skillfully plays Erwin, drawing a fine line between shy and awkward. His hesitation and awkwardness comes from his fervent desire for Nadine to like him, not bashfulness. In their earlier scenes, Erwin is always the first to speak to Nadine, the first to ask her out on a date. When Nadine doesn’t seem keen on the idea, he quickly backtracks, not out of shyness, but out of a fear of imposing his will on her. Perhaps the best part about his character, Erwin is self-confident but always humble, opting to not tell Nadine about his drawing or his wealthy lifestyle. He wants Nadine to like him because he likes her; he just really wants the relationship to work out. 

Erwin seems like a good enough student compared to Nadine, but he is no nerd; he is not scrawny or absorbed in his studies. Erwin is a good height, dressing like an average teenager with jeans, a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie that don’t swallow him up. The kicker, Erwin is an artist, the classic passion-or-practicality question taking on another layer in light of the model minority stereotype. 

My favorite scene by far is when Nadine goes over to Erwin’s home to swim in his swimming pool, and she asks “Do you wanna have sex right now?” After slight hesitation he responds steadily, “Okay.” After years of brainwashing by watching white people, I had expected him to say no. His steady “Okay,” floored me, and I had to remind myself that as a healthy 17-year-old boy, his sexual drive should go without question. A white boy would have said yes, why should Erwin be any different? When she reveals that she was just joking, having intended to reenact a movie scene, Erwin sulks. He gets out of the pool, smoothly revealing his six-pack, and says “You don’t say that stuff to a man.” Subconsciously I had thought, “You don’t that stuff to an Asian man.” Because Erwin is a man, regardless of his ethnicity, and his Asian Americanness shouldn’t do anything to detract from his sexuality or attractiveness, as portrayed by his six-pack. 

John Cho, Star Trek

After George Takei, John Cho was one of the most recognizable Asian faces in Western TV and film who carried the weight of Asian representation on his shoulders for quite some time. He was Harold Lee in the Harold & Kumar series, the hardworking Korean American investment banker, and despite the weed, unfortunately a mild version of the model minority. However, Cho really hit the mainstream when he played Hikaru Sulu in the new reboot of Star Trek, in which he was absolutely fantastic. Sulu is the senior helmsman of the USS Enterprise, usually handling situations with expertise and poise. His first scene in Star Trek is great too, he makes a slight mistake that prevents the ship from going into warp speed. It’s a great introduction scene, showing that Sulu is a very capable pilot, but even he is prone to nervousness and mistakes. 

The alternative masculinity comes into play in Star Trek Into Darkness when Sulu has to bluff to the enemy, delivering a great line, “If you test me you will fail,” with bone-chilling menace. Gone is the unsure Asian man who hides in the corner, and instead the Japanese American pilot sits front and center in the captain’s chair, lying his ass off with ease. The real cherry on top appears in Star Trek Beyond when the USS Enterprise stops by Yorktown, a space station, and Sulu reunites with his young daughter and Asian husband. Not only is Sulu a capable pilot, but he also seems to be a loving family man. I love that his sexual orientation is taken in stride in the film, it doesn’t disrupt the flow at all and no one really pays much attention it; it is merely part of Hikaru Sulu. Asian men are often portrayed as stoic, cold fathers but the pure joy on Sulu’s face and the way he sweeps his daughter into his arms shatters that image. 

Cho really turned heads in the 2018 film, Searching, a worthy follow-up to the smash summer hit of Crazy Rich Asians. It is known as the first mainstream Hollywood thriller with an Asian American as the lead actor. Again Cho plays a family man, based on the time he spends watching old family videos. The depths he goes to find his daughter when she goes missing is admirable to say the least. This finally feels like a real representation of Asian parenting. Yes, Asian parents are immigrants, have high expectations and make sacrifices, but at the end of the day Asian parents would do anything to ensure their children are safe and sound, just like any other parent would.