by Jason Suzuki
Lately, with increasing frequency, viewers should start noticing or at least recognizing the logo for production company Huayi Brothers, or H. Brothers as it reads amongst the golden dragons and other indicators of its far-East origins. China's biggest privately owned film company, they have been trying to find a way to break big into the US market alongside their steady domestic presence. Chinese films like Mr. Six saw US success playing both festivals and a handful of AMC theatres (also Chinese owned) but H. Brothers have had their eyes set on production of English language films since 2014 when an initial deal with a US company fell through. This year however saw the release of their first wave of English language titles, the output of a deal with STX Entertainment which foresees at least eighteen pictures to made between the two companies. Titles released thus far have ranged from horror film The Boy, another entry in the creepy doll sub-genre, to spectacles like Warcraft. Prestige pictures like Free States of Jones and comedies like Bad Moms also included.
Adding to the eclectic mix was their R-rated high-school comedy The Edge of Seventeen. Written and directed by a first time female director Kelly Fremon Craig and produced by James L. Brooks, the film is a smart teen-life crisis picture and the general consensus besides that the film is great is that two supporting actors make a big impression: Woody Harrelson as the brutally honest history teacher and Hayden Szeto as Hailee Steinfeld's lead's third-act romantic interest. With everyone's attention on comic book and anime adaptations white-washing its Asian characters, it seems like what The Edge of Seventeen does with its Asian character could get swept under the Doctor Strange/Ghost in the Shell rug. What's helpful is that it's picked up steam thanks to its reception. "If we're going to make a good film, why not also have an interesting Asian love interest while at it?" could have been a guiding thought for the film or one of the reasons why H. Brothers took it on.
Maybe not the most recent example off the top of my head but silent film legend Sessue Hayakawa comes to mind as the last time an Asian guy was seen as a romantic lead for women of non-Asian descent in film. A big star in his time, without the use of martial arts or steel weaponry, or even mathematics, Hayakawa's characters could win the girl just by being himself. The Edge of Seventeen however makes brief mentions of the fact that character Erwin Kim is Asian. It's not as romantic as how we see Hayakawa's heyday, but in a way it's important to make mention as the character arc for Nadine is not only her coming to terms with how she is not the only one with problems her immediate vicinity but another arc is how she goes from seeing Erwin as "a wise old man in a wheelchair" - despite being the same age and identifying herself as an old soul on a separate occasion - to someone she could be with romantically. In other words her perception of him as un-romantic yet cute shifts to taking him seriously as a person and a suitor. On a Ferris wheel ride she guesses what his home life is like with Asian stereotypes of mothers obsessed with grades and stern fathers who are caring despite never showing it. Szeto is charming without abandoning the truly awkward way he plays him when talking to Nadine. Her time with him and this particular arc is the most interesting without ever forcing it. For a movie that largely steers clear of tropes, having your main character realize that the person they weren't initially pursuing was the right choice all along seems typical. It's different thanks to the current landscape of mainstream film and Szeto really makes it seemed earned. And while I don't see Szeto gracing too many inner locker doors, some Tumblr pages are quite feasible.
This is just one of a handful of examples of Asian male leads being taken seriously as love interests. On TV there was the short lived social media reimagining of Pygmalion starring John Cho and Karen Gilan "Selfie" (just one season), and there is also the CW musical "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" (Emmy winning, currently in its second season) where Rachel Bloom's lead character is in a love-triangle, one of the men involved played by Filipino-American actor Vincent Rodriguez III.
Full Disclosure: I have not seen any of the other English-language productions of H. Brothers but look forward to finding unconventional depictions of Asian-Americans in Free State of Jones specifically.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.