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This is a blog entry originally written for AZN Television's Outspoken blog on the topic of "Asian American Awards Shows."
Asian American awards shows…. Well, there's only one: AZN TV's Asian Excellence Awards. AXA is the only televised awards show to recognize “outstanding achievements in film, television, music, and the performing arts” by Asians and Asian Americans.
There are two, sometimes conflicting, purposes of putting on AXA. The first is to copy the glitz of high-profile Hollywood award shows like the Oscars, complete with red carpet and flashbulbs. AXA is somewhat successful is replicating the glamour, because the show will be aired on E! Entertainment Television. The second purpose is to celebrate the progress of Asians in the entertainment industry. This is extremely tricky, as some of the names on the nominee list (for instance, Balls of Fury) are reminders of how little change there has been in overturning stereotypical roles. In aspiring to Hollywood prominence, AXA can mistake fame or box-office sales for excellence.
I think that AXA has very good intentions of awarding Asian/American talent as a means of promoting future Asian/American talent. It is a nice gesture to acknowledge Asian actors who play second string to Caucasian stars. Last year's winners Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), Masi Oka (Heroes), Parminder Nagra (ER), and Mindy Kaling (The Office) play such roles as peripheral people of color in multiracial, "colorblind" ensembles. My personal favorite is Rex Lee of Entourage who won last year and is nominated again this year.
But I also look at the 2008 list of Asian Excellence nominees and think, “Huh?” Case in point: the outstanding film actress category. What are Tang Wei (Lust, Caution), Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), and Maggie Q (Balls of Fury) doing in the same category? It is absurd to put Maggie Q's forgettable performance in the racism-fest Balls of Fury on par with Tang Wei and Joan Chen's performances in Lust, Caution. The only thing the actresses have in common is that they are all at least part Asian, and applying race-based reasoning to "outstanding acting" comes across as contrived and problematic.
What exactly is Asian Excellence? According to the Asian Excellence Awards Committee, Asian Excellence = Asian face + mainstream notoriety. Good acting, non-stereotypical roles, and representing Asian American experiences are all not required to get nominated and walk the red carpet. Those who win the awards, to AXA's credit, tend to have done more than just be a recognizable Asian face in American pop culture. For example, last year, Kal Penn's crisis-of-desiness performance in The Namesake beat out Jet Li's predictable action role in Fearless.
I would like to see AXA give more awards to independent film. But I doubt there will be more AXA shows in the future since the AZN network went down this April. There once was an award for outstanding Asian independent film, which last year went to refugee drama Journey From the Fall. If they are going to hand out two different awards to famous-for-fifteen reality TV stars, they could do much better to spotlight Asian American indie films, directors, actors and actresses who are hurting for attention. I was sad to see that the independent film category had disappeared from this year's list of nominees. Justin Lin's Finishing the Game is the only indie representation. It's going up against Lust, Caution, War, and Rush Hour 3 for outstanding film. I can't figure out why this group was chosen.
So many of the AXA awards go to Asian people who have cracked the mainstream. That is an achievement in itself, but I am skeptical of whether that is really is an act of Excellence. AXA is all about almost-famous Asians, and I almost love AXA for it.
Date Posted: 4/18/2008