If you’re looking for a fun and sexy summer movie, I’ve got the perfect thing for you. Front Cover has it all: two fine-ass main characters, steamy will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry, and some poignant commentary about what happens when Chinese and American culture gets wrapped up in the gay Asian experience.
The film, which opens Friday in New York, tells the story of Ryan (Jake Choi) a gay Chinese-American stylist for a fashion magazine who has spent his whole life suppressing his Chinese heritage. Just when he’s about to land a coveted cover shoot, his boss gives him another assignment: styling an up-and-coming Chinese actor Ning (James Chen).
Ryan is bothered by Ning's unadulterated Chinese pride. Meanwhile, Ning becomes uncomfortable with how "abnormally" open Ryan is with his sexual orientation. But the more the two get to know each other, the more they realize that they might have more in common than initially suspected.
In a media landscape that hardly presents Asian men as three-dimensional characters, let alone love interests, Front Cover gives us two fully fledged and very attractive Asian characters.
“I hope one of the things I can achieve is other people watching will think, ‘Oh these two leading guys are hot,’” Raymond Yeung told me over the phone. Check. “Look at Sex and the City. For what, six seasons all four women—none of them have dated an Asian guy,” he explained, incredulously. “What’s going on there? They have sex every single week, and none of them with an Asian guy. I mean, hello? Come on, it’s just unrealistic.”
Our hunky movie stars are all mostly white men, and a handful of black men, but that’s about it. We never see Asian men in leading roles, as the James Bonds or the Indiana Joneses, the Batmans, hell the Jack Ryans, or whatever. As the character Ryan quite literally says in the movie, "Asian men aren’t really seen as sex symbols in this country." Not only is that unfair, but it can be damaging.
Yeung said that Asians are always bombarded by Western images. "Especially if you are gay, the ideal images of a sexy man is a white image, tall, blond, big and strong, blue eyes and all that," he said. "So a lot of Asians can’t have that kind of look. You grow up admiring another image which you do not belong to, so a lot of times you distance yourself or alienate yourself from your own culture.” For Ryan, hiding his Chinese heritage is the easiest way to fit in. Ning, meanwhile, wears his Chinese heritage on his sleeve, white American coolness be damned.
The film also tells a subtle story through the clothing both characters wear. At the beginning, Ning and Ryan dress very differently—while the American boy Ryan wears clean cut, printed collared shirts, Ning dresses a bit more flamboyantly by wearing loud patterned clothing. But as time goes on, both of them begin to dress more subtly and more simply. “It’s basically reflecting that they no longer feel that there’s any need to dress up so much almost like an armor, to face the world,” Yeung said. “We can see a truer, purer side of themselves.”
Making Front Cover wasn’t the smoothest journey—or at least when it came to casting. “It was not easy,” Yeung admits. “We had to see a lot of actors because a lot of Asian actors don’t really have a lot of track records to show because there’s such a lack of diversity in the media.” Even James Chen, an actor who came out of Yale, didn’t have a very large resume when it came to three-dimensional characters.
Sure, it’s been a banner year for acknowledging the huge dearth in Asian roles and Asian actors in Hollywood. Still, sometimes when there are Asian roles, white actors get chosen to fill in the spot instead. (ICYMI, Scarlett Johansson is portraying Major Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyborg woman, in the film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, and Tilda Swinton is portraying The Ancient One, a Tibetan character in Marvel’s adaptation of Doctor Strange.)
“I feel that this conversation should have taken place 20 years ago,” Yeung said. “It’s been really slow and it’s just lacking behind. We don’t really want to see a TV show on primetime with all Asian cast. We just want to represent the world that we live in. But on TV it’s not. On TV it’s like we’re living in Sweden or something.” We couldn’t help but chuckle—how else do you deal with the absurdity, the insistence that the world is white?
For a Chinese actor like Ning's character to actually come out as gay would be career suicide, Yeung said. The gay movement in China is making some progress, but it’s almost entirely underground, a view that is embodied in Ning’s initial reaction to Ryan and his entire struggle with his own sexuality. “In a very Chinese way it’s like if you do it quietly it’s okay, but if you try to come together and make a noise and try to change things politically, then that’s a problem,” Cheung explains.
But for him, whether it’s Chinese acceptance of homosexuality or Hollywood’s begrudging acceptance of Asian actors, the world is not improving fast enough. “I talked to some Asian actors who say, ‘Yeah it’s changing,’” he told me. “I said, ‘Yeah, well it’s changing very slowly. Come on, let’s step up! Let’s make a noise! Let’s get angry!’”