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john cho cover.jpg

Not Your Korean Sidekick: The Frustrating Career of John Cho

By Joe Starr | Think Pieces | March 9, 2016 |

By Joe Starr | Think Pieces | March 9, 2016 |

In 2004, John Cho broke a glass ceiling with Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. He and Kal Penn wanted to make a stoner comedy, and prove that it could be a success starring two people of color instead of the usual infinite number of Seth Rogens. If you ever want a sad look at diversity problems in Hollywood, please remember that in the 21st Century, ‘maybe non-whites can be fun stoners too?’ is a thing.

Luckily, Cho and Penn were right: H&K was a smash hit, and Cho made a huge impression as the tightly wound straight man playing off of Penn’s ridiculousness. Cho had stepped up and seized an opportunity to prove he was a leading man.

But Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, hastily rebuilt multiple replacement glass ceilings and threw a baby tantrum. Koreans are sidekicks and occasionally Psy- not leading men. In fact, the career that benefited most from H&K was that of Neil Patrick Harris, who was able to reinvent himself with a cameo in the film.

And thus begins the frustrating journey of John Cho: Leading Man.

After H&K, Cho would land a short guest star run on the series Kitchen Confidential. This makes sense. It’s a lot like how executives decided that Michael Cera could go from supporting fun thing to movie star after Arrested Development and had a rocket strapped to his back. Cho was also given a rocket, but its trajectory was ‘almost a fucking movie star’ to ‘guest star on Fox show.’ These two rockets would even cross paths: after four more years of one off roles, Cho makes an appearance in Michael Cera’s Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist as an unnamed character.

So, just to pause and check in…

This baby turtle is a movie star.
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This man is not.
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Cho then picks up the role of Sulu in the reboot of Star Trek. Great movie, fun role, but he’s still a sidekick. Glass ceiling in play. However, he’s fantastic in the movie. He handles action, comedy, drama, and continues to be a total package. Chris Pine gets the rocket and flies straight to blandtown, dropping the ball as Jack Ryan and as a guy who has to slow down a train that is unable to slow down.

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Cho’s next two non H&K roles are a bit part in Total Recall and ‘MILF Guy #2’ in American Reunion.

In 2014, ten years after Cho proved himself as a sure thing and grabbed that brass ring, he was cast as Henry Higgs in Selfie. Finally, Cho is the leading man in a fantastic romantic comedy that you should hate yourself for if you didn’t watch. You missed out. It has a weird title, and no one knows how to market a handsome, intelligent lead character because Korean? They have no difficulty marketing things starring Kevin James.

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Now, this is a tough industry, and Cho has had a good career, but it should be a great one. To quote a favorite ‘rassler, John Cho has grabbed so many of Hollywood’s imaginary brass rings that they’re clearly just that: imaginary.

Racist glass ceilings in Hollywood don’t just hurt people of color. They hurt the industry, and the sooner people start understanding that, the better off we’ll all be. This business constantly pins its hopes on random white dudes who fail time and time again, while ignoring incredible talents that could carry great money-making films.

Cho can be seen killing it as Sulu in the next Star Trek, and as a supporting character in Get A Job starring Miles Teller, who much like Cho is a good looking, intellectual leading man, but there’s just something different about them that I can’t quite place…

Based on the confusion and obvious hurt in the comments, the author of this piece would like explain that Miles Teller is marketed as a handsome intellectual actor, despite looking like someone threw a microwave at his face really hard. Sincere apologies for any feelings of anger and or betrayal I might have caused.

Joe Starr is a writer and comedian with an album called Heroic Effort on Bandcamp and a funny book about pro wrestling called Leg Drop at Devastator. Follow him on Twitter.