This fall, American audiences will get to see something they’ve never seen before. Which, in a world of reboots and franchise sequels, is truly a gift. The September 27th premiere of Abominable, the animated, feature-length co-production between Dreamworks and Pearl Studio, heralds an unprecedented achievement in American moviegoing: every Asian character in the film was voice-cast with an Asian actor. Even background characters. Which may be even more exciting than the fact that Tenzing Norgay Trainor (who plays Jin) is the actual grandson of the first human to reach the summit of Mount Everest. (#mindblown)
Here are seven spoiler-free reasons why the casting of this film blows my mind. (Full disclosure, I’ve written some songs for an un-related project at Pearl Studio, and they were kind enough to allow me into an advance screening of Abominable for this post.)
1. Because feeling like you’re a part of something is crucial for all humans, and representation is crucial to feeling like you’re a part of something.
It’s hard to convey the significance of what it feels like to be seen if for most of your life the TV is saying “Hey there! I see you!” For those of us who had to wait literal decades between seeing an Asian American face in mainstream media, being seen is a feeling that is rarer still than the yeti. Which, by the way, totally exist and will adopt me someday.
2. Because language matters.
There’s literally five words of Chinese in this film, but boy, are they glorious. When was the last time you heard Mandarin spoken in a wide-release American movie by an actual Chinese or Chinese-American? Don’t get me wrong, I see you Mira Sorvino and John Cena. But when it’s featured at all, Chinese language is usually showcased to American audiences by stars who have not studied it. If we’re lucky, they’ve hired a coach and worked on it a few months. But learning a foreign language isn’t like learning how to tune a violin. There isn’t a youtube video for fluency. In the wrong hands, even a Shostokovitch concerto can be poorly represented.
3. Because Albert Tsai should just be in everything.
4. Because sometimes you need to be told something is for you.
Remember when you were a kid and your folks took you to like, every kids’ film because it was for families and that’s what you were, a family? What was that like? Because in my family going to see a kids film was like campaigning for a Christmas present. You needed to drop hints, time your asks, defend how it wasn’t a waste of money, and if it came down to it, you had to offer to do housework. You also had to get used to disappointment because it rarely worked. Movies I had to rent on VHS after I was old enough to drive and get my own money: Labyrinth, The Secret of NIMH, All Dogs Go to Heaven. (I’ve still never seen Pinocchio or An American Tail.)
Sure, Emma Stone got her share of internet backlash for playing Alison Ng in 2015, but keep in mind: Emma Stone was cast as Alison Ng in 2015. Someone said okay to that. In 2015. There is a rich and storied history of Caucasian performers playing Asian characters and well-documented reasons why it isn’t cool today, even though a) it still happens and b) it was never, ever, ever, cool. Appropriate casting shouldn’t be a unicorn but until such time as it’s as common as saying “bless you” after a sneeze, we should celebrate it when it happens.
6. Because you still know Asian-Americans who were asked “so do you know karate” as kids.
Hi. Have we met? I’m Tim. I used to get this ALL the time. Let’s put a pin in the whole “Karate is Japanese and not Chinese” thing for a moment. (BTW karate is Japanese and not a Chinese martial art, though Hollywood might have you convinced otherwise.) The only reason I got asked this at all as a kid is because it was one of two things that American movies told people about Asians. (And the less said about that second thing, the better.) Don’t get me wrong- it’s a cool thing. No one was like “You know karate? I’m gonna kick your ass!!” But it gets old. And over time, lends itself to the idea that you are defined by one thing, and not many. Which is not great, because you are defined by many, many, things. Who do you know is just one thing? Scallion pancakes. Scallion pancakes are one thing. No wait. Even scallion pancakes are two things. People are many things. People are into basketball, posting pics of their shoes, walking dogs.
7. Because they were the right actors for the job.
I’ve already linked you to IMDB. You can check out the pedigree of this cast for yourself. I’m not talking about talent right now. What I’m saying is their being cast at all is evidence of progress. And that’s worth celebrating. Imagine being a great actor. You’ve gone to conservatory, you got your degree, you are gorgeous. You have everything except an agent to get you seen for the top tier projects. So some agent decides to take a meeting with you. You’re stoked. Now imagine the agent doesn’t sign you- not because you aren’t talented, but because he knows he can’t make any money off you. Because there’s no demand for your look. Because people who look like you don’t get asked to sell shampoo. Because people who don’t look like you aren’t used to seeing a face like yours in shampoo commercials. Lather, rinse, repeat. What we’re witnessing is the end of a generations-long cycle of institutional bias in the entertainment industry, and as far as I’m concerned that’s huge.