Universal appeal: How Bao and Crazy Rich Asians are telling authentic Asian stories in Hollywood
'We have an obligation to try to push the boundaries and try to change things' — Bumblebee screenwriter
Once Pixar green-lit Domee Shi's short film Bao, the Chinese-Canadian animator knew she had to put her team in the kitchen with her mom.
She wanted everyone to get their hands into some sticky dough and learn the ins and outs of how her mom creates her perfectly pleated steamed buns.
"We really wanted those authentic details to ground the story and the film and to make it feel like this real Chinese mom's experience," Shi explained during a visit home to Toronto.
Bao and the upcoming Crazy Rich Asians are two new high-profile Hollywood vehicles, driven by creators of Asian heritage and showcasing culturally detailed, but universally appealing stories. They reflect the growing tide of diversity washing over Hollywood today and, if successful, could help pave the way for more movies made by and starring people of Asian descent.
First up is Bao, hitting theatres this weekend as Pixar's traditional animated short playing before The Incredibles 2. It's an eight-minute movie morsel about an empty-nester granted a second chance when one of her dumplings springs to life.
Along with her passion for food, Shi's status as her mother's own "precious dumpling" inspired the homage to aging parents, Chinese culture and her multicultural hometown Toronto.
"I really wanted to just see my culture, these types of foods that I grew up with and these people that I was surrounded by, on the big screen."
Raised on Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli animated films, Shi — the first-ever female director of a Pixar short — sought out collaborators of Asian heritage to get Bao's details just right.
It's "how you kind of bake in those details — those culturally specific details — authentically" versus simply sprinkling some colour in at the end, noted the Sheridan College graduate, whose work can also be seen in Inside Out, The Incredibles 2 and the upcoming Toy Story 4.
Asian representation onscreen and behind-the-scenes has also been key for Crazy Rich Asians, the anticipated romantic comedy adaptation of Kevin Kwan's 2013 bestseller introducing an unimaginably wealthy and positively outrageous Asian jet set.
Hollywood came calling early on, but Kwan waited. Indicative of the disappointing string of whitewashed casting choices in recent years, one interested producer pitched making the book's American-born Chinese heroine Rachel Chu Caucasian — thereby eliminating a core element of her character, story and struggle.
The Singapore-born, New York-based writer has shared this tale on book tours, with readers and reporters alike aghast at the suggestion.
Lack of representation was part of why Kwan started writing his Crazy Rich trilogy in the first place.
"I felt that contemporary, modern Asia was so underrepresented in fiction, so it was always my dream to really kind of enlighten people," he said in 2017 while promoting the trilogy's finale, Rich People Problems, in Toronto.
Thankfully, Kwan met Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, the producers who turned Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games novels into a smash hit movie series. They were "committed to being true to the story, true to the characters and really purposeful in their casting."
Crazy Rich Asians stars a galaxy of young Asian stars from around the globe and has also enlisted Asian talent for key creative roles, including director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Adele Lim. The film "has become almost a symbol of hope for a whole new generation of creative people," Kwan said.
"Everyone wants to get this right. They want to make this amazing movie that will make everyone proud."
From #OscarsSoWhite to the mythbusting, $1.3 billion US success of Black Panther earlier this year, Hollywood is grappling with increasing diversity and inclusion within its ranks. It's an uphill battle.
For instance, after examining the top 100 Hollywood movies of 2017, the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found just six were helmed by black directors and just five by Asians.
This hot topic permeating the industry has trickled down to individuals questioning their own biases and how they work.
"When I was writing [earlier films], I imagined white characters and white stories … I was creating what I was consuming, without even thinking about it," Filipino-Canadian filmmaker Martin Edralin admits.
Edralin, a writer-director who has sensitively explored unconventional topics in short films like Hole and Emma, doesn't believe filmmakers should restrict themselves to only reflecting their own culture or gender. But having storytellers from different backgrounds can offer "a richness that someone from another perspective couldn't provide," he said in Toronto this week.
Freshly inspired, Edralin is currently developing two projects based on stories more closely linked to his heritage: one feature film centres on a Filipino immigrant caring for elderly parents. Another involves a mystery that endangers a nanny's long-awaited attempt to unite her family in Canada.
"All of this discussion around diversity and representation was a real wake-up call to reflect on my own experience and who I am," he said.
'An obligation to push the boundaries'
Being proactive about boosting representation in every project is one way filmmakers can make a difference, according to screenwriter Christina Hodson, whose upcoming Transformers spin-off Bumblebee will be the first of the blockbuster series to be led by a female character.
"I grew up watching all of the big popcorn movies and they were always [starring] 40-something, handsome white men. I always wanted to see women. I always wanted to see mixed-race people," Hodson, who is of Taiwanese-British heritage, said in a recent interview from her Los Angeles office.
If you don't specify ethnicity... people will read that role and assume you're talking about Chris Pratt.- Christina Hodson, Bumblebee screenwriter
"As screenwriters, we not only have the opportunity, but we have an obligation to try to push the boundaries and try to change things."
To start, Hodson wants to see more writers from underrepresented communities hired and joining the writers guild. Furthermore, she wants to see writers get more specific about diversity in their scripts (versus writing unspecified characters) as a way to open the minds of their colleagues.
"There is a problem with the default white read," she explained. "If you don't specify ethnicity, if you don't even specify open ethnicity, people will read that role and assume you're talking about Chris Pratt."
Alternately, another idea the Batgirl and Birds of Prey writer has been pondering is creating "an addendum to scripts, listing opportunities for inclusion."
Identifying all the characters in a script that could be cast by actors of any ethnicity could help a wider range of people get hired — something needed across all movie genres, she said.
"We haven't seen Asian male leads in a lot of Hollywood movies; often they're typecast into these stereotyped comedy or villain roles," Hodson said.
"Let's see John Cho being handsome and saving the day. He's pretty handsome, and I believe he could save the day."
With files from Tashauna Reid, Alice Hopton and Eli Glasner