Cheryn Hong: half of it review
On May 1, Netflix released a bildungsroman film entitled “Half of It,” written and directed by Alice Wu, who is known for her previous film, “Saving Face,” which is also known for its Asian-American and LGBTQ+ representation. The narrative of the film follows the “Cyrano de Bergerac” storyline, as Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a senior in high school in the small rural town of Squahamish, who runs an essay writing business. She is approached by Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a kind-hearted football player, who doesn’t have a way with words and requests her help writing a love letter to popular sweetheart, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire).
To be frank, Netflix has produced very poor romantic films when carrying the goal of representation, such as having a catfished romance story with a plus-sized protagonist, “Sierra Burgess is a Loser,” but I gave the company a pass when “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” was released as it featured the half-Asian character to be the one fought for in a love story.
However, after watching Wu’s masterpiece, I have come to realize my affinity for “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is shallow, as it is an ideallic, heterosexual, white-washed fantasy in which I could relate to in no manner, besides the small axes of similarity between half of the protagonist’s ethnicity and mine.
Asians are rarely seen on the movie screen and when they are, they are portrayed with stereotypically Asian attributes, which tend to make up their identity, who they are and what role they play in the film. All of which is why I tricked myself into loving movies who threw me a bone in regards to Asian-American representation—there is no range of selection for me to choose from—and so I settle with what I can get, to the point where I allowed tokenism to make me believe Hollywood was finally changing. And it was Wu who shattered my low expectations.
I was tired of constantly seeing the dorky, quiet or overly-achieving Asian because that is all viewers see them as, no depth or deeper understanding. But this movie and Ellie Chu were a breath of fresh air, because even though Ellie is indeed quiet and reserved, this stems from her character and storyline rather than her racial profile. More than that, Ellie is an intelligent and beautiful writer, who is stuck in Squahamish with her father who is still ridden with grief from the passing of his late wife. Another aspect of her growth is this relationship between her unemployed-immigrant father and the adversity he experiences due to language barriers.
But the crucial and integral observation I made is that Ellie being Asian doesn’t have any impact whatsoever on the movie’s plot. It shapes dialogue and how characters interact with each other, but her ethnic background doesn’t play a role in her relationships or the ups and downs of her character. That being said, the movie also doesn’t shy away from who Ellie is. There are subtle notes of how her identity impacts her character from other white protagonists, as there are school bullies who make fun of her last name, cooking scenes of Chinese cuisine, conversations with her father who doesn’t speak fluent English, or even when Paul’s mother calls her his “Asian friend.”
This balance is what allowed me to, for once, stop focusing on accurate representation and revel in the enticing back and forth between Aster, Paul, and Ellie, and see their platonic or romantic interactions with each other blossom. Having a character who looks like me and shares a similar background as me without it being the defining aspect of who they are makes me finally feel seen in the American film industry. The irrelevance of Ellie’s race is what gives me hope in future movies of accurate Asian-American representation.
Regardless of my personal existential awakening of the profound characters, this movie speaks to anyone who has struggled with the definition of love. And not the singular, one-dimensional love, but rather the film grapples with and challenges how love is mandated to be romantic, or clear, and often is portrayed with a happy ending. The movie incorporates so many axes of how love is discussed in society through religious and LGBTQ+ communities, as well as provokes thought of what proper marriage is or when to know how you’re in love. Ultimately, the capacity of how love is portrayed in film parallels the reality of the kinds of actions the emotion emulates in humans. All of which is done through poetic quotes, insightful literary references and breathtaking stills, which gives it a note of artistic charm — and also makes the writer in me all giddy with excitement.
The film is traditional enough where you’ll feel all warm and happy by the end, but realistic enough where your desire for a happily ever after won’t be satiated. It is directors like Wu who set a precedent of how we should properly incorporate diversity on the big screen and having people of color represented is a milestone for viewers who have previously lacked characters who share their skin color. Like I said before, the pool of Asian-American movies remains small and the range remains limited, but it has gained a tremendous advantage with “The Half of It,” and even if Asian-American viewers remain unsatisfied and aren’t able to relate to Ellie, I’m positive Wu has paved the way for a brighter and much more colorful future.
Cheryn Hong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org