Having performers of Asian descent play Asian characters in blockbuster films is certainly an improvement over straight-out whitewashing—where Caucasian performers play historically nonwhite parts. (Though instances are still rife in Hollywood, with Tilda Swinton’s casting in November’s Doctor Strange, Emma Stone in Aloha, and Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming remake of the anime Ghost in the Shell.) Meanwhile, not a single lead or co-lead in the top 100 highest-grossing domestic films last year was Asian, according to USC’s 2016 report on representation in Hollywood. In response to criticism of whitewashing, producers, screenwriters, and directors regularly defend their choices as smart business moves meant to give their films global appeal. (This, of course, ignores the massive international box-office numbers of action franchises with diverse casts like the Fast and Furious series and Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.)
Money is, ironically, also a reason why many big-budget films are casting East Asian actors in the first place. With the Chinese box office projected to surpass North America’s by the end of 2017, more tentpole franchises are featuring Asian faces, locales, and storylines. But characters such as Katana obscure the fact that if Hollywood is so eager to expand its box-office appeal in East Asian countries, it could start with writing characters and casting actors of East Asian descent in more leading action roles.
While American studios are indeed interested in replicating the successes of East Asian films, they’re less invested in cultural context or in giving opportunities to actors of Asian descent. Hollywood’s reboot and remake culture can pay off, such as with The Ring, The Magnificent Seven, and the aforementioned The Departed.But re-casting stories with specific cultural ties (Oldboy’s obsession with honor and revenge, Ghost in the Shell’s post-World War II technological anxieties) only to prioritize white leads is not a sure box-office bet, and can even backfire for studios. The original Oldboy made $15 million on a $3 million budget and is considered a classic action film, whereas the new Oldboy, starring Josh Brolin, made $4.9 million on a $30 million budget.
Recognizing that Hollywood regularly passes over Asian American actors in the industry for bigger roles, social-media users have taken it upon themselves to highlight promising, popular candidates. Two hashtags in particular have championed John Cho and the Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu: #StarringJohnCho and #StarringConstanceWu. Centered around Photoshopping both actors into movie posters for films, especially big action franchises like the Hunger Game films and The Avengers, these movements challenge executives’ lack of imagination when it comes to who they cast.