Where is the love? The Asian guy in Milk
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.
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.