Yoshi Sudarso is no stranger to being shirtless on camera, but performing body rolls while half-naked and drenched in baby oil is new territory for the “Power Rangers” star.
“I’m definitely not used to it,” Sudarso told NBC Asian America, laughing from the set of “It’s Asian Men!,” a self-described “Magic Mike” parody featuring Asian-American men. “The dancing, the sexuality, and just being the romantic lead isn’t really what I’m used to.”
“I’m used to taking the hit, being the guy who gets beat up. So, it’s nice to do these kinds of projects to push for further diversity and for pushing the agenda to prove that Asian men aren’t just martial artists or nerds.”
Written, directed, and produced by NaRhee Ahn, the short film follows a young Asian-American married couple who try spice up their night in by watching “Magic Mike” only to find the mood ruined by the movie’s lack of hot Asian men. Dissatisfied, the couple go to bed early, and in her dreams, the wife (Junko Goda) fantasizes about her husband (Sudarso) wooing her with his dirty dance moves while being backed by his crew of Asian-American male adult entertainers (Bo Haan, Cedric Jonathan, and Randel Cuevas).
Ahn and her fellow producers, Goda and Dorothy Xiao, were inspired to make the short after seeing the 2016 “Haikus with Hotties” calendar, which featured a dozen Asian men and their original haiku poetry. Goda said that they were eager to produce a project starring an all-Asian cast in response to this year’s surge of Hollywood’s whitewashing controversies, including the casting of Matt Damon in “The Great Wall” and Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange.”
When the trio learned that Ada Tseng, the creator of “Haikus with Hotties,” was creating a 2017 calendar, they asked to partner with her and launched a crowdfunding campaign for “It’s Asian Men” last month with one more planned for post production.
“Instead of just complaining, we decided to add another perspective to the mix,” Ahn told NBC News in an email. “It's time we proudly declare how sexy and desirable our Asian American brothers are.”
“The dancing, the sexuality, and just being the romantic lead isn’t really what I’m used to.”
According to a 2016 study by University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Asians represented only 3.9 percent of speaking roles across film, television, and digital series in 2015 while nearly half of those projects featured no Asians at all. With a limited selection of roles available, Asian male actors often struggle to find roles that don’t reinforce negative stereotypes or desexualize them, the cast of “It’s Asian Men!” said. They relished the opportunity to flex their acting — and other — muscles.
“We’re basically in the shadows,” Randel Cuevas, a Filipino American model and dancer, told NBC News. “It makes us feel like they look down on the male Asian community, that [we] can’t be sexy as other guys. So it makes me feel good to be a part of this … To make Asian men feel like we can be a sex symbol too.”
When “The Haumana” star Cedric Jonathan saw the casting call for “It’s Asian Men!,” he was a little intimidated to audition, he told NBC News. He had seen Magic Mike and knew how much confidence and “swag” he would need for the role.
“I mustered up all the courage to submit myself to this project because I felt like it was very important to represent Asian men,” Jonathan said. “To showcase that we are very beautiful, that we can be sexy … and that we have the ability to be leading roles in this industry.”
Sudarso admitted that — in addition to learning seductive choreography — playing the leading man was also outside of his comfort zone.
“I’m used to taking the hit, being the guy who gets beat up,” he said. “So, it’s nice to do these kinds of projects to push for further diversity and for pushing the agenda to prove that Asian men aren’t just martial artists or nerds.”
Ahn took extra efforts to promote representation both on and off camera, filling the majority of her key crew with Asian-American women. Aside from Ahn and her co-producers, “It’s Asian Men” features a female cinematographer, choreographer, assistant camera, second assistant camera, and hair/makeup artist.
“On our first day, we had only one token male crew member. How many times have you heard of that happening?” Ahn said.
While “It’s Asian Men!” strives to promote a positive portrayal of Asian male sexuality, the cast and crew hope that the audience will enjoy the film as first and foremost a romantic comedy and be able to relate to the characters’ experiences without race being the primary factor.
“Being Asian American, I know that we are individuals, full-on multi-dimensional individuals,” Bo Haan, who also composed the film’s featured track “Backup man,” told NBC News. “I just wish that the general audience will have the opportunity to perceive Asians as the real humans that we are.”