Hollywood Wanted Me to Make My Martial-Arts Characters White, but My Ancestors Wouldn’t Have It
Filmmaker Bao Tran writes about the struggle to make his film “The Paper Tigers” and why he stuck to his creative guns.
It was the final days of our Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, when we were still trying to meet our $110,000 goal in order to make our independent movie The Paper Tigers. I received a letter from two of my aunties. They had no idea what the heck a Kickstarter was and probably have never done an online transaction with credit cards, but they knew we needed money fast. Stuffed in the envelope was $300 cash and a handwritten note in Vietnamese: “Bao, we hope this will help you achieve your dream. You represent the generations of Vietnamese who sought refuge and have passed safely through the golden gate of America.”
While their cash gift didn’t officially count toward our Kickstarter goal (which we eventually met and surpassed), my aunties’ words carried a significant weight of its own. “You represent…”
You represent our hopes and our dreams, the reason we escaped oppression and a war-torn home for safety and an opportunity to live. Here I thought I was making a goofy comedy about out-of-shape kung fu fighters who couldn’t touch their toes anymore, and now all of a sudden I have the weight of all my ancestors watching and judging to see if their sacrifice was truly worth it. So hey, no pressure.
We had turned to crowdfunding and private financing out of desperation. Before then, we thought we could make our movie the old-fashioned way. You know the fairy tale. We waltz into a big Hollywood studio executive’s office and wow them with our moxie and our passion. They write a fat check to make our dreams a reality.
We had a rude awakening. There were many noes. I guess they couldn’t understand the appeal of three-dimensional Asian and Black American characters carrying a crowd-pleasing, tragi-comic kung fu flick. And when there was genuine interest, one of the stipulations we actually got was to change the ethnicities of the main characters to white guys to make it more “marketable.” They needed names that you can take to the bank.
There’s a list of usual suspects from the direct-to-video world that all these companies seem to pull from—the logic being that their name recognition automatically guarantees a minimum gross worldwide, regardless of the film’s quality. So, we thought that if we sensibly set the budget low enough, we could likely make our money back even without any big stars attached and still maintain creative control.
We would make this point clear during every pitch, because in our mind, a lower budget minimizes risk, but that’s not how their math works. A production company once told us, “Look, if you bring on Bruce Willis, not only will your movie get sold right away, we can get you a $4 million budget easy. Or hey, how about you write a role for Nicolas Cage?” Now, I love Die Hard and Raising Arizona as much as the next guy, but we’re almost certain none of them actually read our script.
If you’re gluttons for punishment like us, getting these kinds of genius studio notes is delicious enough when we are spilling the tea, but the fact that they’d usually send their mid-level POC executives to be the messengers of whitewashing is a special chef’s kiss. As the saying goes: skinfolk ain’t always kinfolk. It ended up being a lot of hot-air advice from people who had no brown skin in the game. We said thanks, but no thanks.
Mind you, we were on the grind long before the success of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, which have proved the box office potential of films and stories featuring characters of color. In recent years there’s been a whole spate of studio movies and shows with diverse casts. And while it’s great that non-vanilla folk are starting to have a seat at the table, when we first set out to make our movie 10 years ago, we might as well have been treated as the waiter.
Right now, “representation” is a buzzword used to bolster brands. Hollywood studios like to chest-puff their great strides in representation and diversity, but it’s usually in the form of a reboot or adaptation of well-known, pre-existing intellectual property. “Count Chocula? Hmm, sounds vaguely ethnic. How about a gritty, modern re-imagining—only now with 100% more color!”
When “representation” is bandied about by a Hollywood studio, it usually means that we’ve been allowed to have a voice from the powers that be. So, you better be #Grateful for the platform, because they giveth as much as they taketh away. Just remember while you’re standing on this plank, Hollywood’s commitment to “representation” is fleeting and fickle. When that multi-million dollar “Suave Latino Count Chocula meets Taken” reboot flops, they’ll throw up their arms and say, “It was that devil Diversity’s fault! America’s just not ready to see so many colors on their screen.”
Even when we turned to our own Asian American community for support, some would lecture us that we weren’t “representing” our people in the right way. Asian American men have been long portrayed as random ninja henchmen in Hollywood. And as much as Bruce Lee is seen as an iconic hero, there are many of us who have complicated feelings growing up in his shadow—constantly targeted and bullied or mocked with random cries of “waa-taaa!”
Their fear was that yet another kung fu movie would set our progress backwards by reinforcing stereotypes. Even our lead actor Alain Uy shared with me his initial hesitance in taking up a role in a martial arts film, because if the movie was just and only that, he’d be forever typecast and written off—the kiss of death for a working actor.
But with our story, I wanted to shine a light on the martial arts world beyond only vengeance and violence—there was also family, friendships, failures, jobs, and obligations.
It’s easy enough to lump The Paper Tigers together with Mortal Kombat, Shang-Chi, or CW’s Kung Fu because of the martial arts genre (in fact, some folks who saw our trailer have mistakenly called us a Cobra Kai ripoff even though we’ve been working on this many years before). But those are existing franchises that everyone is aware of already. Ever see Warner Brothers or Disney ask you to back their Kickstarter?
As an independent film, we have more in common with original Asian American stories like Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, Searching, The Farewell, or Minari. These films were all made outside the studio system, having taken several years to find the right supporters and partners to make it happen. All our stories have strong themes of family and duty and fighting for safety and security. In fact, Minari and The Paper Tigers were the only Asian American films to screen at South Korea’s renowned Busan International Film Festival this year.
We suddenly find ourselves in a country where my senior aunties are especially vulnerable to hate attacks. But I understand now what they meant when they wrote to me about “representing.” Their meaning went beyond just diversity-as-branding-tool or avoiding negative stereotypes. It means telling our story of survival. They gave me cash-money permission to tell my dreams. That’s not a weight on our shoulders, that’s wind behind our backs. “Don’t play to lose, son! We went into mass exodus and scattered halfway around the world—all for you. Whatever story that you tell from your heart, you tell our story. We made it here and we are not going anywhere.”