John Cho is a pioneer. His filmography is dominated by groundbreaking roles: first Asian American romantic lead in US television; first openly gay character in a sci-fi blockbuster; first person to use the term MILF in mainstream culture – you name it, he’s smashed that glass ceiling. Cho has used his career to pave new ground on both the small and big screens. With two fantastic films in 2018 – Searching and Columbus – it seems as good a time as any for ORWAV to take a look back at his filmography, and the pioneering roles he has Cho-sen over the years.
While also being a moronic ride of munchie quests, animal attacks and Neil Patrick Harris, the Harold & Kumar series is surprisingly multifaceted, as the greatest pair of second-generation stoners fight against stereotypes. As Harold, this overworked investment banker just wants to get high and meet girls – like every other guy in a US comedy flick. While at the time this wasn’t such a problem in the UK (Bend it Like Beckham had already solved racism here), across the pond Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) received critical acclaim for subverting cliches of “nerdy” Asians.
This wasn’t Cho’s first time choosing a role to subvert expectations – nor the last. A longtime collaborator with future Fast & Furious aficionado Justin Lin, both found acclaim with Lin’s solo directorial debut, Better Luck Tomorrow (2002). Loosely based on the ‘Honour Roll Murder’, this indie drama follows a group of dissatisfied Asian American students who find themselves wrapped up in escalating crimes. At the same time, Cho was fighting back against stereotyping in mainstream cinema, refusing to do an accent in the little-remembered Big Fat Liar.
FUN FILM HISTORY FACT: While initially a small-budget indie release, Better Luck Tomorrow made the headlines after Roger Ebert came to the filmmakers’ defence during a festival Q&A. Following its premiere at Sundance, an audience member asked Lin “How could you make a movie that was so denigrating to your race?” In response, the legendary critic jumped up on a chair and took the question to task, shouting “Nobody would say [that] to a bunch of white filmmakers,” and that Asian Americans don’t have to “represent” their people. This outburst sparked a media frenzy that got the attention of MTV, who bought distribution rights. Better Luck Tomorrow ended up making $4 million, almost 20 times its original budget.
Unfortunately despite some acclaimed performances and the modest success of the Harold & Kumar series, John Cho has never really risen beyond “MILF Guy” – his small but memorable role in American Pie which landed the phrase in the cultural canon. This type of work, while the mainstay of the comedic performer in their early career, has unfortunately continued to dominate Cho’s Wikipedia page. His biggest breakthrough has been slow in the making – inheriting the role of Hikaru Sulu in the Star Trek franchise.
With a crew as star-studded as the USS Enterprise, it’s impressive Cho has had the screentime he’s had, even taking the conn briefly in Into Darkness. In Beyond, Sulu was briefly seen with his husband and family, making him the first openly gay character in a sci-fi blockbuster. While groundbreaking in and of itself, Cho pushed to have his on-screen partner be Asian American, a request granted by director (and longtime friend) Justin Lin. This change (there was talk of Sulu’s husband being alien) was a personal campaign for Cho, to combat the shame issues he’d seen his Asian gay friends struggle with growing up:
Ultimately, even if Kirk doesn’t show up for Star Trek 4, Sulu isn’t taking over anytime soon. That’s okay – what is more disappointing is the success found by his co-stars during their time with the franchise. Simon Pegg, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto – all have hit the big leagues while Cho has remained firmly in the “supporting player” category.
On the small screen, Cho has similarly bounced between smaller roles – or found the rug pulled from under him whenever he’s given a starring turn. In 2014, the Pygmalion reimagining Selfie picked up a cult following, and as leading man Henry Higgins, Cho garnered critical acclaim and became the first Asian romantic lead in US television. None of this prevented ABC from unceremoniously cancelling the show before the end of the first season. Following this, costar Karen Gillan bounced back with the little-known Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Cho found himself yet again on the guest actor circuit.
John Cho hasn’t exactly been struggling, but he’s certainly not “made it”. Why not? Twitter found itself asking this question in 2016, when Cho became the face of their campaign against Hollywood whitewashing. #starringjohncho went viral, as fans photoshopped his face onto every poster in sight, united in their shared belief in his acting prowess and star power potential. Now, two years later, Cho has finally found himself the leading man in Searching, the first Asian-American lead in a blockbuster thriller. But why has it taken so long?
Cho has been very outspoken about his struggles with racism and stereotyping in Hollywood:
“Unfortunately I’ve always been very aware of how what I do relates to the perception of Asian-Americans. Even when I was young, I just didn’t take stereotypical roles. I tried not to, even when it was financially irresponsible to do so. Because it didn’t seem worth it to add onto that, because I was an Asian boy who grew up in America and felt those plights.”
And so Cho has waited for the right roles. And waited. And waited. And we’ve waited with him – and the fact that it’s taken this long for John Cho to finally get the roles he is due is all the proof you need that Hollywood’s problems with race run deep. It’s going to take a lot more than a Netflix film and one blockbuster rom-com to counteract years of whitewashing and stereotyping.
That being said – while I’m personally bummed that John Cho hasn’t been declared King of Acting by now, and bestowed with three action movie franchises and a Hollywood star – he doesn’t seem to care.
“If the stereotype is that Asian men are weak and not masculine, I don’t want to do an action movie as a response. I want to do stories that ignore the stereotyping all together.”
You stay classy, John Cho.