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The Hangover Part 2 Hangover:”No prejudice, no lens”

The Hangover Part 2 Ken Jeong poster
The Hangover Part 2 Ken Jeong poster

I finally got to see HANGOVER 2 this weekend. In some parts of the Asian American community, the film generated a bit of controversy. “Looking for a Hangover Cure,” an article from “Asian Pop” writer Jeff Yang really stirred the pot. I posted a link to the San Francisco Chronicle on my Facebook wall and Twitter page as “interesting reading” without having seen the movie.

Bluntly and inexplicably offensive…

In summary, Jeff said “As an Asian American who enjoyed the first film, I found the sequel bluntly and inexplicably offensive — with the fact that the movie opened in the waning days of May being soy sauce in the wound”… “I can’t believe this is happening again.” But the bulk of the article goes on to vent frustrations about the state of Asian Americans in Hollywood (painful, despite the large pool of available talent) and summed up by one veteran film producer who was quoted as saying “For a group of people that are supposed to be good at math, you guys must be retarded to keep making Asian American films”.

As I sat in the Regal Cinemas at LA Live in Downtown LA, I tweeted:

About to see #Hangover2 so I can log in with an informed opinion about portrayals of Asians – but I loved the first and looking to laugh.

My friend Ted Kim tweeted back “no prejudice, no lens”. He usually tweets about the fabulous bottle of red wine he is drinking and it was ironic that he was spending the weekend in Las Vegas with some of his friends who work at the studio that made HANGOVER.

Released in 2009, the first HANGOVER was made for $35 million and became the surprise breakout hit of the year. The Warner Bros. release earned $277 million in the US and $467 million in worldwide box office. The slogan “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” was given cinematic life. This high concept comedy featured two cameos that created a ton of buzz: Mike Tyson and Ken Jeong’s penis.

The Hangover Part 2 - Ken Jeong
The Hangover Part 2 - Elevator scene

A sick feeling in the pit of my stomach…

After reading Jeff Yang’s article, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. As an entertainment industry professional with over 25 years experience and someone committed to issues facing the Asian American community, I braced myself for another firestorm. We’ve had our fair share of controversy relating to the depiction of Asian Americans in the media. These are just a handful of incidents over the past few years off the top of my head:

1) Radio jock Adam Carolla’s “ching-chong” mocked the first nationally televised ASIAN EXCELLENCE AWARDS, a celebration of Asian Americans in the arts, entertainment and pop culture created by Taiwanese American singer Welly Yang.

2) Columbia Pictures’ “21” showcased two Asian Americans – Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira – in supporting roles and starred white actors even though the film was based on the real life exploits of a group of Asian American MIT students.

3) Paramount Pictures cast white actors in the lead roles in M. Night Shyamalan’s disastrous adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated series, AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER.

4) A white UCLA coed went on a racist YouTube rant about ASIANS IN THE LIBRARY and reprised the old standard “ching-chong”.

Lingering effect from a distressing experience…

One of the definitions of the word “hangover” really applies here, “any aftermath of or lingering effect from a distressing experience.” Jeff Yang wasn’t the only one who found the sequel to be distressing. When I posted his article, someone named Ric with the Twitter handle of @aamodelminority (his profile photo is a picture of Rupert Murdoch with wife Wendy Deng) responded with indignation. Here’s our exchange:

@aamodelminority
is this a good thing for western Asian stereotypes

@teddyzee
The success of Ken Jeong is great, but I haven’t seen the film yet. Waiting for the film that’s a hit & changes perceptions

@aamodelminority
not sure “success” is right term here. $, Yes, but movie still shows AM (Asian males) are not = to white. AFs (Asian females) are just white man side tool.

@aamodelminorityim glad you are not putting down $ for Hangover. No self respecting asian persion would @jamiechung1 unless you are sellout.

@teddyzee
Thx for your opinion @aamodelminority but I still plan on seeing #hangover2 and should be allowed my own opinion.

@aamodelminority
i hardly call it “opinion”. Every $ you give them it allows Hangover 3, with same theme come to life. More jokes at ken from leno

@aamodelminority
humans never follow blindly as herd? why would I go see a train wreck and not expect to see dead mangle bodies?The Hangover Part 2

I can’t dismiss @aamodelminority since a friend of mine from Hong Kong, a successful business executive in his late 30s (who happens to share my birthday), wrote to me after seeing the film. Here’s what Brian had to say:

I thought of you today after seeing the movie Hangover2 here in HK (prob release is later than US) but nevertheless seems to be getting lots of promotion in the region b/c it was filmed in Thailand. Just 2 weeks ago I was in Bangkok and more of the same kind of publicity.

After watching the film, as you might imagine, i was aghast at the level of disrespect dumped on the local Thais (or Asians for that matter) and their culture (whether it be the monk scenes or just overall depiction of the bride (submissive Asian woman) and her family. I probably don’t need to say anymore but I was specifically interested in your view on this since you know Hollywood and the kind of mentality in the industry.

To be honest, I was really looking forward to the film. I had thoroughly enjoyed the first. I tempered my enthusiasm knowing that I wanted to give an opinion that went beyond the film’s entertainment value; speaking of which @therichliu really summed it up when he tweeted:

The 2nd one is far less funny because you know what kind of jokes are coming. Plot is carbon copy of first with very slight twists.

My girlfriend Julia, a recently naturalized US citizen from Seoul, Korea, was less generous when she summed up the film with one word, “lazy”. She wasn’t offended, she just wasn’t entertained.

The controversy…

I know I’ve been long winded before finally getting to the controversy about HANGOVER 2. If you want controversy, then you’ve got it when Mike Tyson’s tattoo artist sued Warner Bros. over the alleged copyright infringement resulting from the use of the tattoo on the face of actor Ed Helms that was designed for Mike Tyson. How about the film crew’s protests over the planned cameo of Mel Gibson? That was controversial. Did anyone actually see the penises in the film? I’m not talking about Ken Jeong’s – which was thankfully hidden behind in bush. I’m talking about some of the dancers who were walking around the dressing room with their breasts a blazing and members hanging. How the heck does that get past the MPAA ratings board?

But back to Jeff Yang and his article. While I can understand where he’s coming from, I didn’t think the film was “bluntly and inexplicably offensive.” The film had enough laughs to occasionally distract me from the issues at hand and to me, most of the offensive stuff was easy to explain (thus not inexplicable). In terms of controversy, I was left wondering where was Guy Aoki and his watchdog organization Media Action Network for Asian Americans?

While I don’t want to go down the whole laundry list of problems, I want to underscore that the film did reinforce one specific ugly stereotype. Since the Vietnam War, Thailand has gained international notoriety as a destination for tourists interested in procuring sex. While government authorities strictly enforce laws prohibiting sex with those under the age of 18, prostitution is tolerated and practiced openly throughout the country despite being illegal. With a population over 60 million, it is conceivable that the number of sex workers in Thailand could exceed 3 million.

It is unfortunate that this situation currently exists in Thailand, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. For this very reason, I think we understand why the studio chose Thailand as the perfect setting for HANGOVER 2, just as Warner Bros. leveraged Las Vegas reputation as “sin city” in the original. I doubt either film will deter tourists from visiting either place. In fact, these cities probably enjoyed or will enjoy a spike in business as a result.

Here’s a film that the Thai government welcomed with open arms and I haven’t read about widespread protests and boycotts in Thailand. While we witnessed some seedy parts of Thailand, the film also provided a glossier view of the country including some upscale locations and a Buddhist temple. The ugliest people in the film just happened to be our protagonists and the other foreigners who made up the roster of bad guys.

The Hangover Part II-Mason Lee
Mason Lee

I braced myself when the film introduced actor Mason Lee (son of acclaimed film director Ang Lee) as Teddy, the brother of the bride-to-be. Was his smart, Stanford-educated, cello playing, and med school bound backstory ripe with innuendo and responsible for smearing our collective community? I’ll take that stereotype any day of the week.

The Hangover Part 2 Jamie Chung
Jamie Chung

Could we do with less of the overbearing, perfectionist “Tiger Mom”-like parents? Sure, that wouldn’t hurt. The only thing that upset me about @aamodelminority’s tweets were his “sell-out” barbs at Jamie Chung, an Asian American actress with potential star appeal and lucky enough to land the role of the Thai American bride-to-be. Does it perpetuate a stereotype to cast a beautiful Asian American actress in the role? Is this another case of yellow fever, the white man stealing our Asian sisters? Is Jamie Chung a sell out for signing up with the film and using it as a springboard for her career? Gimme a break.

Now let’s get to Ken Jeong. His performance in the first film was as shocking as it was entertaining. He was audaciously in your face. I couldn’t believe that he did the whole frontal nudity thing and embraced the stereotype that Asian men are not well endowed. But it was all done in the name of comedy and I for one, laughed and cried along with millions of others. In truth, his portrayal actually made me stand more erect in comparison.

But seriously, rather than look at him as a bad Asian stereotype, I see this real life doctor as a trailblazer, someone who has emerged as a bona fide star. He has the world laughing with one of us instead of laughing at us. This certainly breaks a longstanding stereotype that Asians are not funny. I want to go on record and state the obvious. Dr. Ken Jeong is no “She Bangs”-singing William Hung. He is a gifted performer who has paid his dues, practiced his craft and carved out a very successful career.

The glass is half full…

Having actors like Ken Jeong, Jamie Chung and Mason Lee appearing in a film that will earn enough money to break into the top 100 box office hits of all-time is certainly noteworthy. There’s no way that I would have wanted Warner Bros. to make the film in Brazil or Amsterdam and avoid any potential stereotype making situations. The benefits of having the film take place in Thailand far outweigh any of the emotional costs to our community. I know there are instances in the film that prompted negative reactions from Asian Americans. But taken as a whole, I would rather see the glass as half full and not half empty.

The first hurdle Asian Americans face in Hollywood is getting the opportunity to work in mainstream media. One of the biggest issues we face as a community is seeing our image reflected on the screen in film and television. It might not be the image you’d like to see, but being an integral part of a big hit comedy is a worthy step in the right direction. If I sound like a cheerleader, it’s because I want to support the Asian American artists in Hollywood who are pursuing their dream, who try to bring integrity to each and every job, role and project.

The Hangover Part 2 Ken Jeong
Ken Jeong

You may mistake my lack of outrage as selling out or supporting the Hollywood status quo. Having been in the business for over 25 years, I’ve seen what amounts to an evolution, not a revolution.

Warner Bros. certainly doesn’t deserve accolades for making this film. Whenever Asians are featured front and center in a film, it is both a time to celebrate and time for concern. Surely, we are grateful for the opportunity, but it comes with enormous risk. It’s funny that my friend Ted Kim was suffering from a hangover in Vegas when he read my tweet about watching HANGOVER 2 and prophetically replied “no prejudice, no lens”.

But I think Jeff Yang, my friend Brian and even tweeter @aamodelminority make valid points. I can see things through their lens. But I am also a realist who thinks it’s best to pick your fights wisely. My problem is, I don’t have any answers. What are we supposed to do? What was Warner Bros. supposed to do? They certainly weren’t going to forego hundreds of millions of dollars in profits and we as a community aren’t going to boycott their films and expect changes as a result.

So I ask people like Jeff Yang to keep doing what he’s doing – bringing the spotlight to these issues and holding companies like Warner Bros. accountable. And I ask people like @aamodelminority to show some tolerance for the artists who happen to be on the front lines everyday representing. Trust me when I say they feel the heat and the enormous responsibility that comes with being Asian American in Hollywood. I’d love to hear suggestions from everyone about how to propel the evolution forward more quickly. In the meantime, I leave you with another tweet from my friend Ted Kim, a tip he swears helps all those suffering from any type of hangover… “a spicy bloody Mary solves that”.

Bloody Mary

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