‘A Leading Man’ Explores The Struggles of Asian American Actors in Hollywood


Leader of the Snakeheads gang. Gay boyfriend. Doctor. Lab technician. Another gangster. Chinese consulate guy. Another gangster. Such were the types of roles actor Jack Yang has assumed over his 15-year acting career in Hollywood. Then, Steven J. Kung, a young, up-and-coming director, finally saw what was there all along in the handsome, 6-foot-tall Yang: a leading man. And both Kung and Yang got to play around with this idea of the coveted role that has long evaded Asian American actors in a new indie film, appropriately titled A Leading Man.

a-leading-man-2Yang plays GQ Chi, a talented actor who is fired after he takes a stand on the set of a racist television show, and then sets out to salvage his career in some eyebrow-raising ways. Circulating throughout several international film festivals in the past year, the movie has sparked conversations about the struggles of Asian American actors in Hollywood. It has also been steadily collecting a number of honors, including best lead actor and best director nods from the Asians on Film Festival, in addition to the Special Jury Award for Best Cinematography at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

The acknowledgement has been especially satisfying for Kung, for whom A Leading Man is a very personal project.

“The reason I made the film was because, when I grew up, I was tired of seeing Asian Americans on television in bit parts that were sort of degrading and demeaning,” said Kung, who has worked as an assistant to Matthew Weiner on the TV series Mad Men.

“So, when I went to film school, my entrance essay was about putting Asian Americans in front of a camera, particularly men, and making sure that they weren’t sexless or emasculated, showing that they were three-dimensional characters and they had all the complexity that white characters do. And so, it was important to me that my first film be about that, just that issue.”

Kung said he purposely made A Leading Man a fictional narrative because he thought there were already plenty of documentaries exploring the topic, and even satires—but not a fictional drama.

“When you make a fictional drama, it sort of addresses the audience and engages the audience in a different way,” he explained. “And the way they suspend disbelief for a drama, they’re willing to accept the world and the rules of the world, and the rules of this world are the same rules in your life, which is that, if you’re an Asian American, you’re going to go out for crappier parts and you’ll have fewer opportunities. So I feel that people, once they watch this, they’re more easily educated and will realize what’s going on in real life.”

And, unfortunately, real life can sometimes be more offensive than fiction, the Taiwanese American director learned. In the film, there’s a fictional TV show called PuPu Platter, which lampoons the racist tendencies of comedies, and Kung actually wrote some pretty offensive jokes for the scene. “It’s funny,” Kung said. “After I shot the movie, there was a show on Fox called Dads, and the first episode was more offensive than any of the stuff I’d put in the script. I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I wasn’t offensive enough!’”

Notably, while A Leading Man succeeds in examining Hollywood’s discriminatory practices against Asian males, it does so without martyring the film’s so-called hero. The film’s novelty,in fact, lies in its nuanced depiction of amorally ambiguous Asian American leading man, who goes so far as seducing women to his professional advantage.

“For me when I read [the script], it just rang so true,” said Yang. “It’s not a perfect world. He’s not a perfect character, and it’s not a perfect situation. You know a lot of times when you tell a story in Hollywood, it’s about, ‘Oh, here’s this wonderful thing and we’re trying to root for this guy because he’s so great, and he’s going to get the girl.’ It’s not always so cut and dry.”

Yang, who has tasted the struggle of Asian American actors in the business firsthand, said this project immediately spoke to him. “All the movies I grew up watching that I loved, I went back and watched them, and there wasn’t a single Asian person in any of them,” said the Canadian-born Taiwanese American actor. “Now they’re finally writing roles for just people and you can insert the character of whoever they want. That’s great. But 10 years ago, 15 years ago, definitely not. It was almost impossible, but because of that, it made me want to do it even more.”

Kung said even today, amid the many strides Asian Americans have made in the media, he believes there’s still a need to alter popular perceptions about the Asian American man. “There’s this [Nigerian] writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who says that very dark women have a hard time in the media, and the other group [that does too,] is Asian men,” he said. “I think it’s true because we’re not seen as sex symbols. We’re seen as sexless.”

That’s why he said he wanted to make sure that, in the film, his lead Asian American character did all the things a leading man would do, and that included doing a sex scene. “At first the lead actress (Heather Mazur) is like, ‘Do I have to do this?’” noted Kung. “I’m like, if this is going to be about making an Asian leading man, he has to be the romantic, he has to get the girl, and he has to have sex. And when I explained that to her, she’s like, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ She understood, absolutely. I want to show a full range of emotions. I want to show him very happy. I want to show him triumphant. I want to show him down. I want to show him sad and depressed. I want to show him angry. So, I put all of those elements in the film to justify that he was a true leading man.”

Check out the trailer:

This article was published in the July 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).