One of the more important scenes in my moviegoing life is in Dragon, the 1993 Bruce Lee biopic starring Jason Scott Lee. Bruce is on a date with his future wife, Linda (Lauren Holly), who takes him to see the Audrey Hepburn classic Breakfast at Tiffany's, which features Mickey Rooney playing an outrageous Japanese stereotype named Mr. Yunioshi. It being 1961, Linda thinks nothing of it and laughs at Mr. Yunioshi's antics along with the rest of the crowd. But when she turns to see how Bruce is enjoying the movie, the look on his face speaks volumes, making her realize what she's taking part in. See the clip below.
This scene was important to me because it was something I'd felt several times in real life. As we know, it's validating to see your own experiences reflected back to you, and this scene was perhaps the first I'd ever seen that showed an Asian-American character experiencing anti-Asian stereotypes in America. It's a heartbreaking and powerful scene that moves me to this day.
The time I most felt like Bruce Lee watching Breakfast at Tiffany's was when I was watching the John Hughes film Sixteen Candles at a friend's house. You can probably imagine why.
It's hard to explain how embarrassing it was to see characters like this, and it was worse to think that people who didn't know any Asians might assume we were all like Long Duk Dong. So you can imagine why I was concerned about 21 & Over after seeing the trailer, since it seemed like it might be Weekend at Bernie's (with two white guys caretaking a blacked-out Asian guy instead of a corpse) or a film full of "it's funnier because he's Asian!"-type antics, where the Asian guy is solely comic relief. Would this just be the modern incarnation of Long Duk Dong? Or, nearly 30 years after Sixteen Candles, would 21 & Over more accurately reflect the more diverse landscape younger people take as a given? Watch my ReThink Review of 21 & Over below (transcript following).
The portrayal of Asians in American film and television has come a long way. Unlike when I was younger, I now often see Asian characters speaking without thick accents, sometimes in leading roles, and with jobs other than Japanese businessman, martial arts expert, or the owner of a dry cleaners or restaurant. But something you might not understand if you've never been a minority is how your gut instinctively tightens when you see a member of your race in an ad for a TV show or movie, and your brain automatically does a frame-by-frame analysis, searching for signs of stereotyping. And that's exactly what I did when I saw the trailer for 21 & Over, a teen comedy from the writers of The Hangover about an Asian American college student and the trouble his two friends get him into on his 21st birthday.
My brain doesn't do this analysis out of a desire to be the PC police, but out of a sense of self-preservation. I want to see whether this thing is going to help me or potentially hinder me by perpetuating a harmful or demeaning stereotype. No matter how confident you are in your identity and worth, it's never fun to be reminded of how little someone thinks of you, or that it's still acceptable to demonize or ridicule people like yourself if it elicits the desired reaction.
In 21 & Over, Miles Teller and Skylar Astin play Miller and Casey, childhood friends who decide to surprise their friend Jeff Chang (played by Justin Chon) at his college for his 21st birthday, not knowing that Jeff has an important medical school interview the next morning set up by his stern and terrifying father (played by François Chau). But Miller talks Jeff into getting a drink, which turns into more, and eventually launches a one-night adventure as the immature, sex-crazed Miller and the straight-laced Casey attempt to get Jeff sobered up and back home before his interview, avoiding obstacles like the police, a gauntlet of drinking games, some bullying male cheerleaders, and a sorority of angry Latinas, while Casey tries to fan a romantic spark between him and one of Jeff's classmates (played by Sarah Wright) while Casey and Miller grapple with how much the three friends have drifted apart. As is customary in this type of R-rated film, there's plenty of bare flesh, some gay panic, and lots of bad behavior.
Before seeing 21 & Over, there were a few things that put me on stereotype alert. First, the film's plot seemed to be a lot like the '80s comedy Weekend at Bernie's, but with the two white guys babysitting an Asian instead of a corpse. There was the characterization of Jeff as a straight-A student parented by a cold-hearted, education-obsessed disciplinarian, consistent with Asian stereotypes. There's the directors' involvement with The Hangover, which featured Ken Jeong as a swishy crime boss potentially insulting to both Asians and gay people. And if you go further back, there's a sad history of Asians relegated to comic relief stereotypes in teen comedies, the worst example being Gedde Watanabe as the infamous sex-crazed exchange student, Long Duk Dong in 1984's Sixteen Candles.
But fortunately, the makers of 21 & Over seems to know its largely post-racial audience better than that. Jeff is only incidentally Asian, in that his character could've been played by an actor of any race, though Jeff gets in a good culturally specific dig when Casey and Miller try to convince him to rebel against his father. And the fact that Jeff is such a fun, hard-partying guy who's having difficulty coping with the pressure of his father's high expectations actually defies Asian stereotypes while highlighting something many U.S.-born Asian Americans struggle with.
21 & Over is a movie I expected to hate on many levels, but with its modest goals, it manages to overachieve with some funny, quick-fire dialogue, winning performances from its leads, a relatively plausible "one crazy night" story, and some surprisingly heartfelt grappling over what it means to become an adult. 21 & Over isn't high art, but it delivers, and I can't help but feel heartened that it seems to recognize that young audiences today would rather see racial stereotypes skewered instead of perpetuated.