ICYMI: John Cho on Race, Representation, and the Most ‘Meaningful’ Role of His Career

Interesting interview:

Columbus is one of the year’s very best films—and, in all likelihood, one you haven’t yet seen. Premiering in August to critical acclaim (and earning just over $1 million at the limited-release box-office), writer/director Kogonada’s indie debut is a work of meticulous formal beauty and subtle emotional power, so assured and graceful that it immediately marks its creator as a legitimate auteur in the making. It’s a small, heartfelt, aesthetically remarkable gem that announces itself with little fanfare but strikes a lasting chord, digging deeply into a thicket of personal issues that are at once timely and universal. Now available on VOD, Kogonada’s drama is primed for discovery, especially as it gets set to appear on various critics’ top 10 lists.

Among its many virtues, Columbus boasts the most accomplished big-screen performance yet by John Cho, known to most as Harold in the Harold and Kumar movies and Sulu in the J.J. Abrams-rebooted Star Trek franchise. In the role of a Korean-American book translator named Jin who is compelled to visit Columbus, Indiana, after his esteemed architect father falls ill—a trip that leads to an unlikely friendship, and long chats at some of the city’s striking buildings, with local architecture-loving Casey (Haley Lu Richardson)—Cho is a marvel of understatement. As a man grappling with tumultuous feelings about his dad, his Korean-American heritage, and the tension between individual desire and familial/cultural obligation, Cho delivers a turn that’s as unaffected as it is multilayered, and which accomplishes what few others do: It treats race as a natural—if far from defining—aspect of a complex identity.

“In America, we’re so obsessed with race, and as it relates to the way characters are written, generally characters of color fall into two categories,” Cho says shortly after Columbus’ digital bow. “One is a character who’s very expressly whatever—black, or Asian, or Latino—and they’re The Latino Character, or The Black Character. And the other way is to completely ignore race, and have a character who’s essentially white, but then cast with a person of color. Neither of those feels particularly true to life.

“This character [Jin], who’s Korean-American—obviously his culture affects who he is. However, it’s maybe not one of the top five adjectives that describe him. I think that’s how I feel. I know I’m Asian, and Korean, and I know that these things are an important part of me. And yet I don’t go around feeling it. It’s just a fact about me. If anything, I would say I’m a father first. I’m a husband second. I’m a man, third. Maybe I’m an actor, fourth. All these things kind of rank above race, and yet our national hang-ups about race always vault race to the top. That’s always felt false to me.”

Still, Cho—who recently joined the second season of Fox’s TV series The Exorcist—acknowledges that, when choosing roles, he does carefully consider issues of representation. “I’m very sensitive to that. I think I’ll give more consideration to a part that has a full character history than a character that doesn’t have a specific character history. That is to say, most of my career has been parts that are not written for Asian-Americans, and then I was cast. So I have made an effort to be open to parts that were written specifically Korean. That is a tough thing to find, so when this came along, it was that much more special.”

According to Cho, it was clear from the get-go that Columbus was a project he had to do. “I knew it as soon as I read it. And it was confirmed by some very brief research into the director. I was like, this guy is a person of intelligence and feeling, and someone I want to know, and someone I want to work with. Then, when I met him, I was doubly convinced I had to do the movie. And even more than that, I think the greatest compliment I can pay to a filmmaker is, not only do I want to work with them but, beyond that, I just want to see them do their film, with or without me. This was one of those scripts, I was like, if he wants me, great. And if not, hats off and best wishes, and I’m going to see it when it comes out.”

via John Cho on Race, Representation, and the Most ‘Meaningful’ Role of His Career

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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