Amazon has recently announced that acclaimed and famed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai (Ashes of Time) is going to direct one of their newest series, an hour long drama Tong Wars. For those who know anything of Kar-wai, this is a baffling decision. If only for his notorious reputation for never starting a film with a finished script. He’s infamous for taking forever and ignoring scheduled due dates for completion. Often, Kar-wai takes what was planned for one year and turns it into three years. Television is an odd fit for the Hong Kong auteur.
This is probably why Kar-wai is only being tasked with the directorial duties. Tong Wars is being executive produced and written by Paul Attanasio; the creator for CBS’s Bull. Still, an hour long drama set in 19th century San Francisco about the clash of Chinese American crime families and immigrants in Chinatown sounds amazing.
It’s also about time. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola are two Italian American’s who have produced reams of celluloid exploring Italian crime movies as well as their effect on Italian immigrants. Organized crime, like the Old West, is part of the American mythos and psyche.
Wong Kar-wai isn’t alone either. Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond) is developing a show for Cinemax about the Tong wars called Warrior. Warrior is based off a Bruce Lee idea about a martial artist who works for one of the Tong families. Bruce Lee himself came up with the idea for Kung Fu. A classic television show from the 70’s, it’s about a father and son duo who travel the old west using Kung Fu to help those in need.
Unfortunately for Lee, his vision was white washed. While still a hit, it was largely white people exoticisng Asian culture for white audiences. Kar-wai and Lin have the unique opportunity to tell stories about Asian Americans with Asian Americans by Asian Americans. This is no small victory.
Genre fiction is fun but it’s also an important social marker. These stories exist on the fringes of ‘serious storytelling’. They get a lot of crap but the most daring stories, the stories that smuggle in the most transgressive ideas, tend to be genre stories.
I mentioned westerns earlier. Westerns are a uniquely American genre. Western movies are also one of the more problematic genres in film. Other genres are problematic as well, but I’d argue westerns are the most problematic. No other genre requires an entire race and culture to be viewed as the enemy strictly by the act of existing. No other genre seems to celebrate the genocidal erasure of said peoples.
But this is largely because only white people have been allowed to tell these stories. Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven was a jolt to the system simply because an old myth was being woven by a new voice; a black voice. The heroes, wouldn’t you know, weren’t white people.
The same goes for gangster movies. The most respected and talked about gangster movies are by two of most famed Italian American directors. Two men who have made their Italian heritage integral to who they are. Much in the same way Martin Scorsese is obsessed with New York City, Wong Kar-wai explores the myriad of beauteous tragedies and comedies that happen in his beloved city of Hong Kong.
Justin Lin cut his teeth directing the fantastic and under seen Better Luck Tomorrow about a group of high school students being drawn into a life of drugs and crime. Much like Kar-wai he jumps from genre to genre. Unlike Kar-wai though, Lin works in the American system. The Asian faces in his movies are usually from long hard fought battles for representation.
It’s important to note that Wong Kar-wai is from Hong Kong while Justin Lin is a Taiwanese American. This distinction is important. The two men may be making shows set in the same time period but the results will be vastly different both artistically and culturally. There is a gulf of divide between Asian cultures. Yet, the gulf is nowhere near the chasm of difference between Asian cultures and white american cultures.
Now these are just the director and creator respectfully. We’ll have to wait and see how the writing staff looks. But no matter what happens it’s a step in the right direction. Representation matters because stories matter. Everybody wants and deserves to be seen as the hero in their own story.