Is all representation good representation?
On June 2, the day the final season of the popular Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience” was released on Netflix, actor Simu Liu, who portrayed the wayward son Jung Kim, uploaded a long Facebook post citing the reasons why the hit show was coming to an abrupt end.
Liu cited the lack of diversity among the crew working on the show. With the exception of the original writer Ins Choi, the rest of the writers and producers were “overwhelmingly white,” despite the fact that it was a story that revolves around the daily lives of the Korean-Canadian Kim family who run a convenience store in Toronto. Liu said he felt that this lack of diversity led to a lack of room for his character to grow.
“We were a cast of Asian-Canadians who had a plethora of lived experiences to draw from and offer to writers,” he wrote in the Facebook posting. “But we were often told of the next seasons’ plans mere days before we were set to start shooting [...] There was deliberately not a lot of leeway given to us.”
In the post, the actor also expressed his affection for the show, and shot down some fans' speculation that he was leaving the show to take on the role of Marvel’s first Asian superhero in the upcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
Actor Jean Yoon, who played Mrs. Yong-mi Kim, the mother of the family, backed up Liu’s criticisms, tweeting that when the cast received drafts for the scripts of the fifth season, “we discovered storylines that were overly racist, and so extremely culturally inaccurate that the cast came together and expressed concerns collectively.”
Liu's Facebook post, after creating a swirl of confusion and controversy, was later deleted. Neither CBC, which broadcasts the show, nor its distributor Thunderbird Entertainment, commented on the situation.
Liu’s revelation calls into question what constitutes as racism when it comes to the portrayal of Asian characters in the media especially at a time when Asian content, mainly K-pop, Korean films and streaming content are joining the mainstream of the global entertainment industry.
“Kim’s Convenience,” which first aired in 2016, was the first Canadian show to feature a predominantly Asian cast, and to this day remains one of the few programs to do so in the West.
The depiction of the Korean immigrant family in the show, however, drew mixed reviews from viewers.
The characters of the parents are portrayed as traditional and conservative — a stereotype often associated with Asian parents. Mr. Kim is patriarchal, proud, and blunt while his wife is kind but meddlesome.
The stereotype of the strict Asian parent is amplified in the American television series “Gilmore Girls.” In stark contrast to the friendly, loving mother-daughter relationship between the main characters — young mother Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter Rory — Rory’s best friend, a Korean character named Lane Kim, suffers under the wrath of her strict mother, Mrs. Kim, who sets curfews, forces her to go to church, limits her hobbies and constantly nags her that she must marry a doctor.
Local film critic Molly Kim points out that the difference between the two shows lies in the ethnicity of their creators.
“Generally speaking, if I was a Korean creator [like Ins Choi], and I was making content targeting white audiences while featuring Koreans as the main characters, I could not help but use those stereotypes that white people often associate us with as a comical factor in the story. If the genre was different — if it was a drama piece or a feature film, a whole different type of content like ‘Minari’ can be created, but the sitcom [Kim’s Convenience] is a satirical drama based on a particular race. Personally, I’ve never thought the story and the characters were grossly exaggerated. It’s different, however, for other shows that use Asian characters as a sub-plot.”
“Kim’s Convenience” received praise for the fact that the majority of the cast were in fact of Korean descent and had a proper understanding of the culture they were portraying to the audience.
In the popular Netflix series, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018) which became one of the first successful rom-coms created by Netflix with an Asian actor as the main lead, the actors who play the three sisters born from a Korean mother and a white father each have a different heritage.
In an interview with the American media outlet Metro, director Susan Johnson talked about the difficulties of keeping the ethnic heritage the same as the original book written by Korean-American writer Jenny Han.
“There are just not hundreds upon hundreds of specific Korean-American actors for roles,” she said. “[But] the story of the three girls is not that they are Asian American [...] We didn’t want to make it about the Asian-American experience. Because that is not what the book is.”
While Johnson argues that the ethnicity of the actors is not necessarily important if the plot does not reflect aspects of their cultures, what about when it does?
In “Gilmore Girls,” the Korean that Mrs. Kim and Lane speak is barely comprehensible, perhaps due to the fact that both actors are in fact Japanese-American.
More recently, in Marvel’s “Black Panther” (2018), there is a brief scene where the protagonists visit Busan and banter with one of the owners of a street shop. Again, the weird Korean mimicked by the owner had Korean audiences scratching their heads.
However, it turns out that the owner was indeed portrayed by a Korean-American actor, Alexis Rhee.
“Alexis Rhee is an iconic Korean-American actor who has played background characters in other films such as her role in the 1983 'Blade Runner' as the geisha which is a Japanese character,” explained assistant professor Margaret Rhee of Media Study at the State University of New York — Buffalo in the College of Arts and Sciences. “She also plays a significant Korean character in the film ‘Crash’  which features a Korean-American couple who speak Korean. [In this film], ultimately the Asians are portrayed in a dehumanizing way as the characters are the villains in the story of race relations.”
Rhee contends that this phenomenon of Asian-American actors portraying different ethnicities is a positive one, creating solidarity amid the community.
“Asian-American actors in the U.S. and on Canadian Television play different ethnicities and often play other Asian and East Asian ethnicities,” Rhee remarks. “Although [for Korean characters], we would like them to speak fluent Korean, it may also be useful to take into account how Asian-Americans have often created coalitions across Asian ethnicities which makes their performances portraying these different roles a positive thing. But certainly production teams should take special care and respect, as in any artistic representation, with different languages.”
Instead of casting Asian-American actors for roles requiring specific Asian ethnicities in the film “Cloud Atlas” (2013), white actors “transform” to portray characters of Asian heritage. The choice led to a wave of criticism for depicting “yellowface.”
Communications professor Kent Ono at the University of Utah traces the roots of the problem to a lack of diversity in the Western entertainment industry, as Liu pointed out in his Facebook post.
“It is not automatically racist that visual editing and post-production techniques are used to transform a non-Asian character into a character that has features common to people of Asian heritage,” Ono said. “What is a continuing problem is the lack of Asian and Asian-American actors, both monoracial and mixed-race, being hired to produce and direct films, write film scripts, and act in films. That is the major problem. The second most important problem is simply the lack of complex stories about Asian and Asian-American people, and thus the lack of roles Asian and Asian-American actors are asked to play. So, for instance, it is upsetting to many Asian people when Asian characters are recurringly played by mixed-race Asian people, even though there are next to no mixed-race Asian narratives for mixed-race actors to play. It is also upsetting when the media make no distinction between, for instance, a Korean character and a Chinese actor. For many audiences across the globe, this rightfully feels like a slight.”
The two fundamental problems — underrepresentation of Asians in media production and lack of racial and ethnic-specific roles — can only be resolved with a much more robust presence of Asian producers, directors, media writers and actors, Ono remarks, which is the long-term goal that the industry should strive for.
“Not every film made, for instance, has the budget to get every cultural part of a given film right,” he said. “At the same time, we need every part of the media industry to understand the racial, economic, cultural, and political issues that relate to the representation of people of color, and this requires good media stories about this phenomenon, good teachers, and a lot of research.”
As the entertainment industry begins to wake up to the notion of representation, some are trying to fix their past wrongs.
Writer and actor Tina Fey sparked backlash last year when she requested episodes of her sitcom “30 Rock” be removed from streaming platforms over the use of blackface.
Her request earned her criticism that she was being hypocritical considering her derogatory use of Asian characters in her works. In one of her best-known films “Mean Girls” (2004), the background Asian characters who feature as Vietnamese students in high school fight over the school's gym teacher with who they are both in a romantic relationship with, while their names are also culturally inaccurate. One of the names, Trang Pak, is a fusion of a Vietnamese first name and a Korean last name.
It’s only a very recent phenomenon that Asian actors got to have a say in Western content, as Sandra Oh did in the British series “Killing Eve” and the growing influence of Korean content as seen with boy band BTS and films such as “Parasite” (2019) and “Minari” (2021).
Korean actors are also proving their worth overseas. Seventy-four-year-old “Minari” star Youn Yuh-jung is reported to have finished filming the eight-episode Apple TV + series “Pachinko,” based on the Korean-American author Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel of the same title, which tells the story of ethnic Koreans in Japan who faced severe discrimination. Actor Kim Eui-sung was reported to have left for the U.S. last month to film for Apple TV + series “We Crashed,” starring alongside Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway. Actor Ma Dong-seok is also set to appear as one of the powerful immortals in the upcoming “Eternals” directed by Oscar-winning Chinese director Chloe Zhao.
“In the early 2000s, there were actually a lot of films created by Korean-American directors, but they were targeting a minority group — Koreans living in the U.S.,” film critic Jeong Min-ah said. “The fact that films such as ‘Parasite’ and ‘Minari’, and BTS are resonating with global audiences is phenomenal and deserves a standing ovation because we weren’t intentionally aiming for the global market. And as hallyu [Korean wave] content enjoys global spotlight in the Western mainstream, it will definitely play a critical role in overthrowing racism toward Asians and stereotypes.”
Film critic Molly Kim believes that the industry will naturally set course for self-purification.
“We are living in an era where people in general have a wider awareness and deeper understanding of gender and race,” she said. “I think it’s a huge achievement that Korea is enjoying its prime at the center of global attention when merely 15 years ago, the roles of Korean characters were portrayed by Chinese or Japanese actors. I believe the world will eventually move past this [racism] but there’s no rules or guidelines to steer us through.”
BY LEE JAE-LIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]