On the topic of Asia and cinema, which I touched on yesterday, a recent article in The Hindu by writer Parvathi Nayar asks whether casting choices for new Mikael Håfström thriller Shanghai, (which includes names like Rinko Kikuchi, Ken Watanabe Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li in key roles) might be a ‘sign that Asians have arrived in Hollywood.’
Nayar’s not the only one to have commented in recent months on the fact that in a range of popular Hollywood films and hit TV shows—from blockbuster Inception to the ode-to-Broadway runaway hit comedy Glee—there’s an increasing interest in casting Asians in leading roles.
But Nayar argues that while Asian actors may be more prominent now, they are still yet to really make their mark at the top of the Hollywood game.
So, should we see the diversity glass as half full or half empty?
I spoke with a film critic for a leading Japanese newspaper earlier this year about Inception and the casting of Ken Watanabe in one of the leading roles in Christopher Nolan’s latest hit. I asked whether his selection for a character that was not ethnically specific might be a sign of things to come. But he reminded me that in Nolan’s Batman Begins, Watanabe played ‘a stereotypical wispy-bearded martial arts sage who disappeared early on, and was later revealed as a "mask" being worn by a white guy.’ Add in Watanabe’s casting as a samurai warrior in The Last Samurai, and even the fact that he played a wealthy, conservative businessman in Inception, and it’s clear there’s some way to go before Hollywood can really claim to be breaking down boundaries.
More recently, Jung Bong Choi, a professor of Cinema Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, shared with me his thoughts on the ‘so-called’ globalization of culture. Choi said of the notion that Asian products are becoming popular around the world thanks to globalization:
‘We too often use the term globalization as if cultural globalization is really taking place, and I consider it a complete fallacy…Only a limited American product is treading the entire planet. From Coca-Cola to MacDonald’s to Sex and the City…What’s not happening is the other way around. Now reggae pop culture, reggae music, gets circulated around the world, but it’s only through major American or European media moguls not by themselves.’
Choi went on to warn that many Asian cultural exports attempt to globalize the product ‘the same way America did and European society did,’ making it in-effect, a potential ‘duplication of hegemonic cultural imperialism.’
Are Asian stars in Hollywood then more product than groundbreaking symbol? With their popularity still tied to Hollywood casting decisions, articles like that inThe Hindu are probably justified in questioning whether the current trend is groundbreaking or just feeding into a fad on Hollywood terms.