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‘Harold and Kumar’ Did More for Asian-American Representation Than ‘Shang-Chi’ Ever Could

Real representation doesn’t come from putting faces that look like ours into IP monopolies — it comes from telling real stories of lived experiences, like those of a couple of dirtbag stoners with a serious case of the munchies

As the theatrical release of Marvel’s latest superhero flick Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings inches closer, many are talking about what the movie is doing to represent the Asian diaspora. Featuring Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience) as superhero martial artist Shang-Chi, it’ll be the first Marvel movie with an Asian lead. As such, many people feel the film is a “bright light” of representation for Asians on the big screen, and Liu himself has even said he believes the film is “truly going to change the world.” And while I can respect those opinions, I just don’t think that’s the case.

I’m sure everyone who worked on the movie did a great job, and they should be very proud of what they did. But Shang-Chi, a superhero whose power is being really good at kung fu, is nothing new. There are plenty of action films with Asian stars performing martial arts and being heroes, many of which I grew up with and felt plenty represented by (Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon is a standout). And while Shang-Chi features Hong Kong cinema legend Tony Leung (In The Mood For Love, Chungking Express) in the antagonist role, the Cantonese actor plays a character called “The Mandarin,” and that’s only because Shang-Chi’s original archenemy, “Fu Manchu,” was deemed too offensive.

Again, I get why people are excited about Shang-Chi as the next big superhero thing from Disney. It’s emboldening to see a reflection of yourself on the big screen, especially in the role of a hero. But if the draw is that said hero is now in the blockbusting Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside Spider-Man and Thor, Disney referring to the film as an “experiment,” barely promoting it and releasing it in September — one of the movie-going dump months — doesn’t show an abundance of faith in the project. My guess is Shang-Chi will probably be as good as any heavily market-researched kung-fu film that’s backseat-directed by a board of executives. Either way, real representation doesn’t come from simply putting faces like ours into all-consuming IP monopolies — it comes from telling stories that speak to our lived experiences. 

A Brief History of Asian-American Films

In Asian countries, Asian actors are given an abundance of material to work with and incredibly layered roles, such as in the films of Park Chan-wook, Wong Kar-wai or Hirokazu Kore-eda. But in Hollywood, Asian Americans have remained one of the least represented demographics for decades. In both film and TV, Asian-American actors have long been relegated to background roles and pushed into playing ethnic stereotypes such as math geniuses, computer nerds or martial artists. Yellowface and whitewashing of Asian roles has been prevalent in Hollywood within the last decade, and actors are still often asked to put on heavy accents for comedic effect. 

The Asian-American experience is distinctly different than that of Asians living in Asian countries. Often, we’re othered by both our nation of origin and our ethnic homeland, and so, we truly cherish stories where people like us are at the center. There are breakout films like Crazy Rich Asians and critical darlings like Minari and The Farewell, but most films centering the experiences of Asian diaspora focus on a connection to the country of our parents, not our experiences coming-of-age in America. 

There are exceptions, of course. Better Luck Tomorrow was based on a true story of young Asian Americans in Orange County committing crimes (it also featured Fast & Furious character Han Lue years before he entered that franchise with Tokyo Drift). Meanwhile, Netflix’s Alway Be My Maybe looks at a charming romance built into the Asian-American community of the San Francisco Bay Area. Gook is another notable mention. 

But there’s one film that exemplifies the Asian-American experience more than any other, and that film is about smoking weed, trying to get laid and eating tiny hamburgers.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

Harold Lee (John Cho) is an investment banker who gets taken advantage of at work and can’t find the courage to flirt with his neighbor. Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) is a smart slacker who feels pressured by his dad to go to medical school. Both are horny stoners living in New Jersey who get the munchies and decide that they must eat White Castle before the night is up, no matter the cost, risk or distance.

Throughout the duo’s journey, they get waylaid by constant hijinks. But more than that, most of the film’s conflicts are built out of anti-Asian racism. Kumar and Harold are constantly demeaned and harassed by white guys for their ethnicity, with Harold’s co-workers going so far as to make him do their work for them. Some extreme sports bros also harass them and call them names based on Asians in pop culture, like Apu from The Simpsons or Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid. A cop makes fun of Kumar’s name for not being anglicized and arrests Harold for jaywalking. By putting Cho and Penn (who are of Korean and Indian descent, respectively) in the middle of a cast of mostly WASPs, Harold and Kumar portrays what it’s like to be a person of color in an adversarial, white world. 

But while the film plays with ethnic stereotypes, it also deconstructs them. Harold (or “Roldy,” as Kumar calls him) does work at a job that involves math and is afraid to ask for what he wants, and Kumar is naturally gifted when it comes to medicine. But beyond that, the characters are fully fleshed out and humanized as chaotic American young adults in ways actors of their ethnicities hadn’t yet been depicted. 

In the genre of the raunchy sex comedy that Harold and Kumar inhabits, Asian Americans have long been relegated to side characters. Before Harold and Kumar, Cho was most known for popularizing the word “MILF” in American Pie (billed as MILF Guy #2), and Penn’s biggest role had been as Taj in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder

Cho himself has admitted to having dealt with a lot of racism in his career and felt freed by the role of Harold, a character who becomes more confident over the course of the film and stops tolerating white people’s bullshit. As for Penn, he got to play the archetypical dumbass fuckup of the genre, not the stereotypical sidekick we were meant to laugh at instead of with. Overall, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle did something radical no film had the courage to do before: It canonized the Asian-American dirtbag in cinema, and nothing has ever made me feel so represented. It destroyed the model minority myth.

On top of all of this, the film is just really funny, with a frenetic pacing that takes viewers through one raunchy vignette to another. They try to score weed at Princeton, stumble upon two women playing a game of “Battleshits,” get roped into performing open-heart surgery and have their car stolen by an ecstasy-fueled Neil Patrick Harris. As with most comedies, a lot of the jokes haven’t aged well, with more than a little bit of its humor being based in gay jokes. And though its sequel is smarter than I remember, the title of Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay alone makes me cringe.

But beyond the occasional misfire, Kumar and Roldy form a perfect funny-man/straight-man duo, and their friendship is surprisingly endearing. Before Judd Apatow had become the King of the Raunchy R-Rated Comedy with Heart, Harold and Kumar told the story of two underdogs determined to get what they know they deserve, even when society says otherwise. And be it respect for your personhood regardless of your heritage or 60 little hamburger sliders, Harold and Kumar are dead set on getting it. 

Also, they smoke weed with a cheetah. I bet Shang-Chi doesn’t do that.