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Toronto director Andrew Chung says the Canadian entertainment industry has failed Asian Canadians like himself for decades by mostly erasing their representation on domestic TV sets.
But the industry-realigning success and controversy around Kim’s Convenience on Netflix has led Canadian TV programmers to finally greenlight more stories by and about Asian Canadians. That’s unlike Hollywood where the box office success of Crazy Rich Asians already had Asian Americans breaking through the U.S. industry’s bamboo ceiling far earlier.
“The difference is in the U.S. it’s very in your face, the issues being confronted, while in Canada we’re always trying to brush it under the rug and pretend that everything is great,” says Chung, a Chinese Canadian born of parents who themselves were born and raised in Calcutta, India before they emigrated to Canada.
Chung points to the irony of being defined by his ethnicity as a minority in the Canadian TV industry, when he grew up in a predominantly Black and Brown neighborhood in Toronto, and Asian Canadians make up around a fifth of the overall Canadian population. “We make up almost 20 percent of the Canadian population, yet we rarely see ourselves on TV in Canada. There’s just a huge void,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Chung’s White Elephant thematically addresses the impact of Canadian TV’s lack of diverse voices and faces. His coming-of-age tale, set in Scarborough, a predominantly Black and Brown neighborhood in east Toronto, follows Pooja, a 16-year-old South Asian teenage girl played by Zaarin Bushra, as she grapples with her cultural identity and racial tensions.
“What she (Pooja) is seeing on TV and in films isn’t lining up with the reality of her neighborhood. The film’s themes are what that does to a young person’s identity as it makes your adolescence very confusing and your own experiences in real life not feel valid or important,” Chung argues.
In White Elephant, Pooja yearns for forbidden love across racial lines as she innocently falls for Trevor, a local white boy just like the teen heartthrobs she sees in Hollywood movies and TV shows everywhere. But as she and Trevor spend time together, Pooja’s brown and Black friends and immigrant father confront her for mixing with a member of the opposing tribe.
Eventually, in Chung’s partial retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Pooja’s relentless pursuit of romance takes a violent turn and her quest for love as part of a Hollywood fantasy crumbles and becomes a discovery of self-love. Pooja’s journey in White Elephant also parallels that of Asian Canadians in their country’s TV industry, of being the model minority for never daring to rock the boat or the perpetual outsider onscreen.
That is, until Simu Liu, the titular star of Marvel’s first Asian superhero offering, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, took the writers room of Kim’s Convenience to task after the abrupt cancellation of the cult Canadian comedy that originated on the CBC in Canada and in which he starred.
Chung says Kim’s Convenience helped Asian Canadian actors and creatives break through their seeming invisibility on domestic TV sets. The cult comedy, which portrays the Korean Canadian Kim family running a convenience store in downtown Toronto, showcased the challenges faced by first-generation immigrants and their Canadian-born children as they make their way in a new and often strange land.
But as the homegrown success story grew in seasons and international reach on Netflix, creative control increasingly left the hands of diverse talent as white writers, instead, created characters outside their own race or ethnicity. Kim’s Convenience co-creators Ins Choi and Kevin White faced a media spotlight following the show’s cancellation and subsequent comments from Liu and other castmembers regarding issues of inclusion and representation behind the scenes.
“The issues the cast brought up were specifically that there was nobody on the creative side that could speak to the Korean Canadian cultural nuances,” Chung argues. He adds the controversy surrounding the Kim’s Convenience writers room could have been avoided had more diverse voices jumped on board as the series grew in success.
“As Kim’s got bigger and bigger, the opportunity to bring in Asian Canadian writers, specifically East Asian Canadian writers or Korean Canadian writers, was there and it was just a huge missed opportunity,” Chung insists. He argues the Canadian TV industry is making up for a lost time by investing more in Asian Canadian-themed TV series and creative development.
But it’s the success of Kim’s Convenience on Netflix and in the U.S. market that first exposed the Canadian industry fault lines. “If Kim’s wasn’t successful in the U.S., I don’t know if we’d be even talking about this right now,” Chung says.
And Liu’s comments only followed the Canadian actor exchanging local celebrity status for global stardom with Shang-Chi, a luxury not afforded to other Asian Canadian actors and creatives. “We’re all gagged because there’s so little work out there. If any of us say anything, we risk not getting work ever again. So that’s what’s gagged us for so long,” Chung argues.
“I feel like maybe Kim’s Convenience was the result of our inability to speak up, our inability to express these grievances in a civil and professional way,” he adds. That’s changing as the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster, recently unveiled Run The Burbs, a comedy created by and starring Andrew Phung as it depicts a young Canadian family living life to the fullest in the suburbs, and Filipino Canadian comedian Gordie Lucius set as the mastermind behind the young adult comedy Frick, I Love Nature.
Chung is also a co-founder of the Asian Canadian Film Alliance, an advocacy group looking to elevate, develop and ensure accurate representation for Asian Canadian characters and creative talent in the domestic film and TV industry. And the White Elephant director says he also wants room for Asian Canadian creatives to just get the chance to tell zombie stories and create other non-ethnic content.
“It has very little to do with the ethnic origins of the characters, but it does inform the characters’ personalities and their environment. That’s where the diversity of voices comes in,” Chung argues.
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