Where is the love? The Asian guy in Milk

January 14, 2009 at 1:18 am 7 comments

Kelvin Yu as Michael Wong is not in this picture, Milk, 2008

Kelvin Yu as Michael Wong is not in this picture, Milk, 2008

Don’t get me wrong—I really liked Milk, the new Sean Penn biopic about San Francisco’s own gay martyr and political icon. As someone who was (just barely) old enough to remember the actual events portrayed as they happened (or do I just remember watching The Times of Harvey Milk?), I thought the movie did a great job depicting the sexy, exhilarating place that was the 1970s Castro district as well as the political intrigue of San Francisco’s City Hall. Gus Van Sant’s not afraid of lots of gratuitous boy-kissing and as far as I’m concerned there can never be enough shots of James Franco’s bare ass. As a Bay Area native, the real-life San Francisco locations resonated for me and the final scene of the candlelight procession brought this heartless beyotch to tears.

But a little fly in the ointment, as usual, was the depiction of the film’s Asian American character, Michael Wong, who was one of Harvey’s inner circle. Apparently the real-life Wong’s extensive diaries from the time were an invaluable resource for the filmmakers, but those expecting a breakthrough Asian American male role in this film will be disappointed. Kelvin Yu as Wong is little more than a flower vase, pretty much relegated to window dressing despite the fact that he’s supposed to be one of Harvey Milk’s closest advisors. Throughout the film Milk affectionately calls Wong “Lotus Blossom,” which is cute but a little too close to the usual emasculated Asian male epithets for my liking. Kelvin Yu claims that the character is “biting, caustic, acidically comedic and intelligent,” but too few of those characteristics come through in the final cut. Instead we see Wong on the sidelines supporting Milk, with precious few actual interactions between the two. There are also makeout scenes galore for most of the characters major and minor, but Wong doesn’t seem to rate a kiss from anyone, male or female.

Some of this may stem from lingering issues resulting from the infamous casting call for the character, which described Wong as “asexual” and “the ultimate dork. Very, very nerdy.” Kelvin Yu states that Gus Van Sant eventually decided against portraying Wong as sexless and dorky, and apparently the real-life Wong has given the depiction his stamp of approval, but in the finished product Wong is still bland and mostly invisible.

Dork or not? Kelvin Yu

Dork or not? Kelvin Yu

It doesn’t help that the good-looking Yu was made homely, with Ugly Betty glasses and an unflattering haircut (although this is apparently is true to the real Wong’s actual appearance at the time).

I’m trying to overcome the tendency to nit-pick any Asian American portrayals I see in Hollywood movies but it’s a hard habit to break, especially when those images are still few and far between. Here’s hoping John Cho fares better in Star Trek—

UPDATE: For a longer take on the film in general, see Sunny Vergara’ s nice little dissection.

Entry filed under: movies, politics, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cauleen  |  January 14, 2009 at 5:20 am

    Thank you for this.

  • 2. Wei Ming Dariotis  |  January 14, 2009 at 5:48 am

    Hey Val–an insightful analysis of this depiction/lack of depiction of a real Asian American historical figure in a biopic–reminded me of the TOTAL ABSENCE of Yuri Kochiyama in the film, Malcolm X. Kochiyama in real life cradled Malcolm’s head as he was dying when he was assassinated. So dramatic and film worthy, but instead they cut her out entirely.

  • 3. valeriesoe  |  January 14, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    Y’know, I kinda expected more from directors like Gus Van Sant and Spike Lee, since you’d think they’d be aware of media-based discrimination and all that, but alas, they too have relegated Asian Americans to the invisibility heap. All the more reason AAs need to keep on making their own movies & not wait for other people to get our stories right, I suppose.

  • 4. B. Vergara  |  January 15, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks for the link, Valerie, and thanks for the great writeup. (I didn’t know about that casting call — even if Michael Wong really was “dorky”, but still…)

    I don’t know about “sexy and exhilarating” though; one of *my* nitpicks was that it didn’t look like anyone was having any fun in the Castro in the movie!

    (I know how difficult it is to break that habit about “nit-picking Asian American portrayals” in Hollywood films, but your analysis was way deeper than other folks out there who simply post about what Asian is missing from which movie.)

  • 5. valeriesoe  |  January 16, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Gotta say that I thought Emil Hirsch/Cleve Jones was having a pretty good time in the darkroom at that one party ; )

  • 6. Fan  |  February 12, 2009 at 11:49 am

    “all the more reason AAs need to keep on making their own movies & not wait for other people to get our stories right”

    you mean why ang lee was still ghetto in his “father knows best” trilogy-period ;P

  • […] was also keenly interested in seeing how John Cho fared as Lt. Sulu, since as previously noted in earlier posts, good roles for Asian American males are few and far between in Hollywoodland. Cho as Sulu […]


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