By Erin Chew
As I sat in the movie theater awaiting to watch the advanced screening of DreamWorks and Pearl Studio’s animated film Abominable, I saw so many Asian American kids and their parents come into the theater, eagerly anticipating the start of the film. At that point I thought to myself, how lucky are these Asian kids to have the opportunity to see themselves reflected on the big screen, and how I wish I had that when I was their age. My memories as a kid revolved around seeing lead female cartoon characters were all White and being told by the school teacher that I was not able to play “Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty” because they all weren’t Asian.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I finally saw someone who looked like me- Mulan, a bad ass, warrior woman who went for her dreams without a care in the world. Since, then, there have been few comparable characters to Mulan. Now we can see changes within the industry, and even though we are not there yet, it is a great start. You can add the characters in Abominable to that list.
Abominable stars Chloe Bennet as the voice of Yi.
“When you don’t or hardly see yourself on screen it subconsciously limits what you can do on screen. Its why White men think they can do anything without any consequences or negative reactions,” she told me. “When you give someone the power to imagine themselves as a fighter or a warrior, you plant the seed of possibility. When there is no representation and visibility on screen, there is a lack of confidence which you develop. When I came to Hollywood as a young woman and told I was not “White enough” or “Asian enough” to be cast in a role, it is really debilitating. I just hope the things I do and the projects I get involved in will add and contribute to this change.”
The movie does much more than just show representation. A joint collaboration between DreamWorks (US) and Pearl Studios (China), Abominable shows that our two worlds are not as far apart as we might think. Asian audiences in Asia have had varying reactions to things coming out of the US where “representation” has meant the world to those of us Asians in the West. But more importantly, the film normalizes Asian, and in this case, Chinese culture as a universal story and not something which needs to be exoticized or seen as different. It also presents life in China and modern day Shangai in an authentic way.
“Authenticity is extremely important and I think the collaboration between DreamWorks and Pearl Studios in Shanghai really allowed Abominable to be authentic, sound authentic and look authentic,” said Abominable’s director, Jill Culton, to AsAmNews. “We really relied on Pearl Studio for authenticity. To get everything right in that city to Yi’s humble apartment, wall paper, food carts on the streets was extremely important to us, and that is where Pearl Studios led by Peilin Chou helped out so much. “
For Chou, authenticity is more about physical appearance. It’s about heart and culture.
“When we talk about authenticity, to me that means in the film, the characters and the settings are as close to the real thing as they can be” Chou said.. “It is important that this is seen in both superficial appearance and who the characters are and how they interact. For example, the relationship between Yi and Nai Nai (Grandma) was important because Chinese grandmas are beloved members of the family and that’s what we aimed for with Yi’s Nai Nai – to make her real and relatable and for people to say that Nai Nai is just like their own grandma.”
Abominable has all the components you look for in animated films – emotions, great character development, cuteness and a strong story line. Its focal themes were on family relationships and defining what that means, as well as bravery, courage and self discovery. The journey that characters Yi ( Benett), Jin ( Tenzing Norgay Trainor ) and Peng (Albert Tsai) took with Yeti, Everest, to get him home showed what bonds of friendship really mean and how perseverance and determination will allow you to achieve your dreams.
Perhaps more important is understanding what moviegoers can takeaway from Abominable asides from it being a story about a cute Yeti. Every story is personal, and as the head line to this article states, our “being Asian” is a “universal story.” Our stories are normalized lives and not something different or unusual or something which falls into perpetuating tired stereotypes.
“I just want people to realize that there can be a movie starring a Chinese girl on and off the big screen, set in China, being friends with other Chinese kids and living a normal life like anyone else, Bennet told me. “These are universal people telling universal stories. This film normalizes life in China and talks about the meaning of home, and how everyone no matter where you are in the world goes through their own version of adversity, deals with it and somehow grows from that.
“I definitely related to my character Yi, because like my character I lived in Shanghai for two years when I was fifteen with my Nai Nai in an apartment which looked eerily similar to Yi’s apartment. Like Yi I was independent and widely curious about life as well as being a little mischievous. Yi had big dreams, and it is odd how this movie opportunity came into my life especially after wrapping up working on Agents of Shield after seven years. This is really my first feature film and how awesome that it is this move which was a nice reminder of how I was at fifteen – a little Chinese girl with big dreams.“
What about the issue of representation and visibility? As I stated earlier in this piece, one thing that was extremely significant was how young Asian/Asian American kids are now able to see themselves in animated films on the big screen and this will instill the feeling of hope for their understanding that they too can achieve careers like being a leading actor and that their race has no bearing on their opportunities. But more importantly, it will encourage our Asian kids to appreciate how important the advocacy and push for representation and visibility on and off the big screen is and how it will soon be their responsibility to keep the momentum going.
The film’s two young co-stars, Tsai and Trainor, see that first hand.
“I think things are changing slowly and this was a great project to be apart of,” said Trainor. “What is most important is seeing a film normalizing the modern day stories of Asians everywhere and normalizing the idea of representation and visibility to the point where we shouldn’t have to talk about it anymore.”
“I definitely feel that diversity in film and television are important and I am so glad to be apart of this movement and be cast as a supporting Asian lead and be part of a crew of being all Asians voicing all the Asian/Chinese characters,” Tsai added. “Also I want to ensure that I am apart of projects which tell authentic stories about Asian/Chinese culture and not perpetuate negative stereotypes.
Abominable opens this Friday on September 27th in the US. The film is not just cute, but as you can see it also touches on so many important issues and really rounds up the idea of family, bravery and perseverance. I pretty much teared up at various points of the film, and when a film does that, and in animation no less, that means that it is done right and it is a film created from the heart.
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