Kumar (Kal Penn) & Harold (John Cho)
No, I am not saying Asian people think Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is the greatest movie of all time. But when it was released in 2004, it was a defining moment in our history: it was the first time a major American movie studio released a film starring two Asian males in theaters. I remember anticipating its release for months and watching it with my friends opening weekend. Before that, I had never even seen a stoner movie before. I saw it for two reasons: 1) it looked funny from the commercials and 2) to support the cause.
Before Harold & Kumar, it was Jackie Chan or Jet Li starring in fish out of water martial arts movies that highlighted how different they were from the Western world. Around the same time, Hollywood decided to shove Lucy Liu down our throats as the Asian American representative in its movies and TV shows. But she usually played the token minority in a cast filled with white people or the white guy’s Asian girlfriend. Her characters were Asian when convenient, wearing dragon lady dresses to seduce white dudes (“Cool, my first Asian!”) or translating Chinese to English to help advance the plot.
Harold & Kumar was not just 90 minutes of two Asian dudes doing Asian things making references to Asian culture. It was about two stoners who went on a crazy adventure who happened to be Asian American. But the movie did not ignore the fact that the main characters were Asian and that issues of race were bound to come up. It was a self-aware comedy that covered race, drugs, and youth culture in an unconventional way that made it smarter than most other movies. Harold and Kumar did not have accents. They had Asian friends and white friends. They drank and smoked. They had to deal with what their respective cultures’ expected of them and with what mainstream America expected them to be. They were like me. It’s almost absurd that me and my peers related more to a stoner movie than 100 years of Hollywood productions that came before it.
Before Harold & Kumar, the last major Asian American-centered movie or TV show was Margaret Cho’s comedy All-American Girl in 1994. It was the first TV show with an all-Asian cast. It was shown on ABC. It was a big deal. I remember my dad gathered the family around the TV to watch the first episode. And I remember seven year old me thinking, “Man, this show sucks.” I didn’t laugh once. I was proud that there was someone who looked like me on TV and wanting to like it, but holy hell it was a piece of shit. It was the same tired Asian jokes I heard my whole life (I may have only been seven, but I had heard my share of jokes, usually the same five repeated a thousand times). Thankfully, it was cancelled after one season, unless you find such premises like “Asian parents are strict” hilarious and groundbreaking.
“Man, this show sucks.” – Me, circa 1994
20 years after All-American Girl, we now know why it didn’t work. When the show premiered, ABC executives (who I assume were middle-aged white people) were concerned that Cho “wasn’t acting Asian enough.” They hired an “Asian Consultant” to teach her how to “be more Asian.” The executives didn’t like her “round face” and wanted her to lose weight. They fired the all-Asian cast that played her family at the beginning of the show and replaced them with her non-Asian friends by the show’s end. By that time, the executives thought Cho was acting “too Asian.”
ABC clearly didn’t know anything about Asian Americans and Asian identity. But the funny thing is, Harold & Kumar was written by two Jewish dudes, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. But what made Hurwitz and Schlossberg different from the ABC executives (or anyone else who tried to do a project with Asians in the modern world) is that Hurwitz and Schlossberg actually had the experience of hanging out with Asian Americans. The character of “Harold Lee” is based on a real Korean-American named Harold Lee who used to smoke pot with Hurwitz and Schlossberg. The “Kumar Patel” character is a combination of all of their Indian friends. But I have to give the writers credit - just because they had Asian American friends did not mean they had to make Harold and Kumar three-dimensional characters. Harold and Kumar could have had accents and played up stereotypes, but they didn’t. If they did, I would have boycotted the movie and called John Cho and Kal Penn a bunch of Uncle Tom race traitors.
If you’re tired of me rambling about race and how I relate to the movie because of my ethnicity, then watch it simply because it’s a good movie. Yes it’s a dumb, gross-out comedy, but it’s also genuinely smart and funny. Years ago, I remember watching Quentin Tarantino being interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Quentin and Jimmy were talking about movies that had come out recently and Jimmy mentioned Harold & Kumar as an example of a bad recent movie. To Jimmy’s surprise, Tarantino replied that he loved Harold & Kumar and thought it was really funny. So there. It has Quentin Tarantino’s stamp of approval. What more do you need?