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Friday, May 26, 2023

How ‘Crush the Skull’ Is a Step in the Right Direction for Asian American Representation in Horror

The Asian American experience will be different from person to person. And although many on-screen depictions highlight the more universal and timeless topics, such as generational gaps, cultural estrangement and racism, Viet Nguyen and Chris Dinh’s 2015 horror-comedy Crush the Skull instead focuses on its protagonist’s utmost dilemma; he and three other robbers inadvertently break into a serial killer’s house and then become trapped. Yet beneath the movie’s plot-driven exterior lies an overlooked but important example of Asian representation.

In Hollywood movies from both the past and present, Asians have a tendency to be the supporting character rather than the lead. And if they’re lucky, they may be given an occupation other than a doctor or a scientist of some kind. In more problematic cases, the Asian character is rooted in Orientalism or a product of Yellow Peril. Mister Wing from the original Gremlins, played to the max by Keye Luke, is a prime example of Hollywood’s weird habit of turning Asians into mystical and/or all-knowing beings with more powers than actual character development. They don’t quite fit in with standard American customs, and their Eastern ways, items or culture often bring about danger for (white) Americans. Refreshingly, Crush the Skull is a story without any of American horror’s old hangups about Asians.

Criminal activity and antisocial behavior are hardly uncommon among Asian characters in American media, but at the same time, Ollie isn’t part of a triad or a group of villainous martial artists. On the contrary, Ollie (played by co-writer Dinh) and partner Blair (Katie Savoy) are small-time burglars whose latest job gets bungled, requiring Ollie to then be bailed out and later indebted to a local Asian mobster. There’s no given explanation for Ollie’s turn to crime, mainly one that justifies his actions, but the story also doesn’t require it.

From a historical perspective, Hollywood was more inclined to pair an East Asian woman with a white man than the opposite. There have since been strides to change this practice as well as dispel general stereotypes about Asian men. Once shown as nerdy, awkward and less desirable than his white peers, the Asian man is not who he used to be in Western movies and television. Modern action entertainment is a direct method of undoing these deep-rooted myths; they may present Asian men as imposing and virile, but they also risk perpetuating other stereotypes (e.g., the monosyllabic or silent Asian). 

In Crush the Skull, Ollie isn’t a casanova, but he has charisma to go along with his wiry physical appeal. He can’t tell a simple joke to save his life — the running gag here has Blair effectively restating the jokes that Ollie failed to deliver — and he trips over his own two feet, but none of this is done in a bid to make him unattractive. It, along with his propensity for self-sacrifices, makes him only more likable. The one other prominent Asian male character in the movie, Tim Chiou’s Riley, is unmistakably of the “himbo” persuasion, but even his wonted nonsense can’t totally undermine his sex appeal.

Horror hasn’t altogether come around to the romantic pairing of Asian and white characters, but certainly The Walking Dead’s Glen/Maggie romance was a breakthrough. In Crush the Skull, Ollie and Blair are already coupled up at the start, so there is no need for the usual routine seen in other movies. Ollie and Blair don’t meet by chance in an unfamiliar or foreign place, the relationship isn’t deemed taboo by themselves or others, and there are no cultural differences that they have to work out before getting together. Nguyen and Dinh are also sure to make Ollie and Blair’s relationship feel realistic and complicated; their connection is challenged only because Blair is ready to retire from the robbery game, whereas Ollie isn’t completely convinced to move on just yet.

For too long Asian Americans have had to contend with the model minority myth. Some succumb to and maintain this narrative, whereas others challenge it. And doing something as simple as turning Ollie into a minor criminal, albeit one who still wants to do the right thing when he can, Crush the Skull disrupts a longstanding pattern in Hollywood. Showing Asian Americans as doctors, scientists and whatnot in movies and TV isn’t harmful in itself, and those jobs shouldn’t be seen as something bad either, but when that’s the most prevalent depiction of Asian American life, other experiences are left out and dismissed.

Even knowing his career choice, Ollie is still a step in the right direction for Asian representation in not only American horror, but Asian American filmmaking in general. While Crush the Skull might be seen as a missed opportunity to expressly say something about being Asian in America, especially in the context of horror, the movie is still a great exercise in creating complex Asian American characters. Having writers from the diaspora makes a world of difference when telling Asian experiences — and not just the ones deemed acceptable.

Crush the Skull is now available on SCREAMBOX and other streaming services.

Crush the Skull

The post How ‘Crush the Skull’ Is a Step in the Right Direction for Asian American Representation in Horror appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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