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Actress Jean Yoon has reopened the post-cancellation controversy surrounding Asian-Canadian representational issues on- and off-screen on the CBC and Netflix comedy Kim’s Convenience.
Addressing structural barriers to Asian Canadians advancing in their country’s entertainment industry, Yoon argued change would only follow awareness by White Canadian gatekeepers. “As Asians in the film community, we know our industry doesn’t believe it’s racist, the Canadian film and TV industry really doesn’t believe it because they mean well,” she told a virtual panel hosted by the Asian Canadian Film Alliance.
Yoon said local broadcasters and TV producers assume Asian-Canadian creators lack experience when pitched on projects. “The industry doesn’t recognize the way they treat Asians is fundamentally racist, so you have closed doors, you have assumptions about how much we bring to the table. That is unbelievably frustrating,” she added.
Yoon recounted the homegrown comedy about the Kims, a Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store in downtown Toronto, kicking off with Ins Choi and Kevin White designated as co-creators. She added Choi was not long after sidelined, as the original Kim’s Convenience playwright stopped doing publicity for the TV adaptation after its rookie season.
“He (Choi) just disappears because Ins was never the showrunner,” Yoon insisted, as White became the de facto leader of the writers room. “It took us four seasons to figure that out. Two season earlier, I thought so, but I wasn’t sure,” she recounted.
Kim’s Convenience co-creators Choi and White have come under a media spotlight following the cancellation and subsequent comments from Simu Liu, Yoon and other castmembers regarding issues of inclusion and representation behind the scenes.
But the issue of why Kim’s Convenience scripts were being drafted by White, a showrunnmer with no Asian roots or cultural context, and without Choi’s key input, didn’t come to a head until the run-up to the fifth and final season. “Our company came together and we were able to see all the scripts that were planned for season five, and prior to that we as performers were never included, even though we begged for that. We had asked or treatments, for outlines, so we could respond in advance and be productive for the writers room,” Yoon recalled.
And the fifth season writers room had too few Asian Canadian and especially Asian women scribes. “The balance of power always saw more men than women and there was always more white people than people of color,” Yoon told the virtual panel. The result of storylines without a specific Korean-Canadian context was, for example, one series character, Janet, the college student, leaving home when a Korean family would want them to only do so when they married.
Yoon also condemned comedy and jokes largely unmoored from Asian culture and communities. “For me, as a performer, to be performing things that were inauthentic, to be funny was often comedy of humiliation,” Yoon said. She cited an episode where her character, Mrs. Umma Kim, is headed to a Zumba class wearing skin-tight shorts that have a pale skin color.
“They make her look naked from the waist down and the joke is she looks naked, and Pastor Nina is too embarrassed to say anything,” Yoon said. The Kim’s Convenience star argued no Korean woman would want to appear naked in public.
“What’s funny is you have an older Asian woman, prancing about, sticking her butt out and looking naked — that’s funny to men and probably to white men, whereas Asian people ask what’s going on with her: what’s going on?” Yoon added.
The theme of a lack of on-screen representation and creative authority for Asian Canadians in their entertainment industry was also echoed by others on the Asian Canadian Film Alliance panel.
“We as [Asian] filmmakers and storytellers have experienced rejections for reasons like not good enough, audience size not big enough, not commercially viable and not sure there’s an audience for it. I think we’ve all heard something like this,” Adeel Suhrwardy, producer and director of Mangoes, told the panel.
As speakers offered constructive strategies for Asian Canadian creators to achieve racial parity in their local industry, Vancouver-based director Jason Karman stressed the importance of mentors. “We have a responsibility to be good stewards and to help emerging filmmakers find their voices, show them what is possible, show them they can be a director and not just be a PA, a location manager, that they can aim high and it’s possible,” he told the panel.
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