Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (small spoiler)

I saw this last night at Prince Kuhio Plaza, and may go again tonight.

Here’s why: It’s crude, rude, and some of the girls are n**e, but it’s something else. It’s a comedy featuring a second-generation Korean American and a second-generation Indian American, and neither of these characters is (a) a two-dimensional stereotype or (b) a flat-out rejection of the actual TRUTH behind some of the stereotypes.

That’s right. Harold and Kumar is clever, witty, funny, smart, and a great comment on the Asian-American experience for post-grads. It’s not complete by a long-shot, so Reid may find it unsatisfying, but there’s something real about the way these guys are portrayed–I honestly think most of us who grew up in Hawaii know a ton of Harolds and most of us who went to college know a bunch of Kumars.

The main characters are a 2nd-gen Korean-American investment analyst and a
2nd-gen Indian-American med-school applicant. Both are recently out of
college–Harold, the investment guy, probably has an MBA from Princeton
and Kumar, who scored perfect on the MCAT, probably has an advanced degree
as well (these guys seem like the kind of guys who loved college so much
they tried to stay there as long as possible without flunking).

Harold is put-upon by his co-workers to do their work for them. He does
it, complaining to himself all the time. In one scene, as soon as the
co-workers leave him in his cubicle to do their work over a weekend while
they go party, Harold says the f-word to himself. The audience REALLY
laughed at this, and I think it’s because Koreans in movies don’t swear,
unless it’s one of those movies with young Koreans about BEING a young
Korean.

Harold is frequently receiving phone message from Cindy Kim, a girl in the
dorms at Princeton–a smart, stereo-typically cute (meaning, I guess, that
if you find the generic, smart, Korean girls with glasses cute, you’d find
this one cute)–who wants him to go to Asian-American club meetings and
socials with her. She’s involved in a ton of these organizations and
thinks Harold should get involved.

I’m telling you all this because here’s what I love about Harold (and the
writer of this movie): Harold is definitely a Korean-American post-college
guy. We (in Hawaii) all know tons of guys like this, but in the movies,
guys like this are two-dimensional–they’re Korean for a REASON. They’re
Korean in order to establish, cheaply, a stereotypical character. But
where Harold is Korean-American through and through, his character doesn’t
try to deny that the stereotypes exist for a reason (there’s a lot of
truth to them). His Korean-American-ness isn’t a reason for anything. It
just is, and it’s real, and he neither runs from the sterotype nor
exploits it. Does this make sense? He’s a business major because that
what Korean-American boys become, but he’s comes across as an actual
real-life Korean-American business major–someone you’d know in real life.

Then there’s Kumar. His father (from India), of course, is a physician in
a big hospital, and his older brother is a physician in the same hospital,
and Kumar is expected to become a physician, too. In the beginning of the
movie, Kumar is basically HANDED admission to a top med-school, but he
intentionally blows the interview. He’s only applying to med-schools so
his father will continue to fund his lifestyle (Harold and Kumar share a
two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey). He doesn’t actually want to BE a
doctor. He’s obviously brilliant, but he takes his brilliance for
granted, like all smart people. He doesn’t think he’s a big deal and he
feels no need to prove anything to anyone.

Okay, I don’t know very many Indian-Americans, but the ones I do know
weren’t too far from this guy (except most of the ones I knew didn’t come
from families of privilege). Again, it’s a stereotype, but it’s a RIGHT
stereotype, and no attention is really drawn by anyone in this movie
EXCEPT IDIOTS to the fact that he’s Indian.

There’s this group of “extreme-sports” punks driving an SUV with a
hang-glider strapped to the luggage rack. They look like guys in a
Mountain Dew commercial. They constantly hassle Harold and Kumar about
their ethnicity, making all sorts of really lame, really nasty, really
stupid jokes. In each confrontation, Harold and Kumar walk away, even
though they get taunted by the Extreme guys for being fags or girlies or
whatever.

I’m going to spoil this part of the movie for you, because I don’t think
you should see it: Harold and Kumar, of course, outsmart the guys at the
end, taking their SUV almost the rest of the way to the White Castle (this
is a road-trip movie, sorta) and discover that the extreme-sports guys are
just poseurs. Their car stereo has Amy Grant and Wilson Phillips tapes in
it and the hang-glider looks like it’s never been used. THESE guys DON’T
exist, except in movies and commercials, the film seems to say; but Harold
and Kumar, they’re real.

Anyway. Maybe if there’s ever an edited-for-tv version, you should see
it. I really think I need to see it again and take notes. I mean, is
there significance that the guys spend the WHOLE MOVIE trying to get to
the promised land of White Castle? And when they go back to Princeton
because Harold accidentally throws away the guys’ last joint, they go
because it’s really the only place they know where they can get weed. And
Harold has a paralyzing crush on a Hispanic-American woman who lives in
his apartment building, but he mentions in a GREAT moment in the car that
he knows he’s going to “wind up with Cindy Kim anyway,” so what the heck.

I may go again tonight.

13 Responses to “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (small spoiler)”


  1. Reid

    I’m interested in the film because of the main characters, but the type of humor has been a big deterrent. Plus, there’s some other stuff I prefer seeing right now.

  2. Reid

    His Korean-American-ness isn’t a reason for anything. It just is, and it’s real, and he neither runs from the sterotype nor
    exploits it. Does this make sense?j

    It sounds like you’re trying to say that Harold is more than just a stereotype. The character has a little more dimension to him. If that’s what you’re saying, I know what you mean, and a part of me likes that. I felt the same way when I saw A Better Luck Tomorrow.

    However, I don’t think this treatment makes the characters less stereotypical. Sure these guys exist, but I would bet of all the Korean guys you know very few of them are super-high academic achievers like Harold (especially if that Korean guy is Peter). Even if this wasn’t the case, I still feel a little uncomfortable by the characterization because it’s so limited, and there aren’t many Asian characters in film with different qualities.

    What if the next three films you see with Asian characters are similar to Harold–i.e. high academic achiever, slightly nerdy, etc.? You could say that those people exist, but the narrowness of the filmmakers would be a little annoying. It would seem as if the filmmakers can’t see Asians beyond the stereotype.

  3. Reid

    His Korean-American-ness isn’t a reason for anything. It just is, and it’s real, and he neither runs from the sterotype nor
    exploits it. Does this make sense?j

    It sounds like you’re trying to say that Harold is more than just a stereotype. The character has a little more dimension to him. In other words, Asian characters are treated as individuals, and not stereotypes. If that’s what you’re saying, I know what you mean, and I find that refreshing. I felt the same way when I saw A Better Luck Tomorrow.

    However, I don’t think this treatment makes the characters less stereotypical. Sure these guys exist, but I would bet of all the Korean guys you know very few of them are super-high academic achievers like Harold (especially if that Korean guy is Peter). Even if this wasn’t the case, I still feel a little uncomfortable by the characterization because it would suggest that the filmmakers cannot see Asians beyond the stereotype.

    What if the next three films you see with Asian characters have characters that are similar to Harold–i.e. high academic achiever, slightly nerdy, etc.? That would concern me, not because there is no truth to the stereotype, but that leaving out other types of Asians is dehumanizing and suggests a narrow (even racist) perception of Asian-Americans.

  4. Chris

    I’m really curious about this movie. It certainly has received good reviews. Reid’s objections to the stereotyping of Harold as the academic acheiver make me wonder how to get out of a related problem of stereotypes: if a writer or director does TOO much to counteract the stereotypes, it can seem contrived. It is a little like the movie *Get on the Bus*, where there had to be a gay black repbublican there, and a rich Lexus dealer, in order to mess w/ stereotypes. It can be very stimulating to do this, but can seem perfunctory too. I guess this just shows up the power of stereotyping cultures/ethnicities.

    Reid, are you planning on seeing the movie?

    Mitchell, did you go again?

    Chris

  5. Reid

    Chris,

    I may eventually see the movie, but it’s not at the top of my priority list.

    Reid’s objections to the stereotyping of Harold as the academic acheiver make me wonder how to get out of a related problem of stereotypes: if a writer or director does TOO much to counteract the stereotypes, it can seem contrived.

    I know what you mean. My recommendation to filmmakers (storytellers) would be to focus on the characters as individuals and write a compelling story for them. Make ethnicity a secondary aspect of the characters. If the audience cares for the characters, if the story and characters resonate with them, then I think you can avoid the problem you bring up.

    The problem, I think, is a self-conscious (“over-conscious”) treatment of ethnicity and race. Many of Spike Lee’s films have this quality. Let’s tell some good stories with interesting characters that happen to be Asian, and then the problem won’t be there, I think.

    There is a film that just about achieves this, btw. It’s called Charlotte Sometimes, and it’s a good film (particuarly for a debut film). The characters are not stereotypes, nor do they really exhibit any blatant stereotypical behavior or characteristics. Except for one scene, the film ethnicity is really in the background. I would recommend this film to you, Chris.

    (Spoiler Alert)

    The main character is a Japanese American. He seems well-read, which is not a stereotypically blatant characteristic of Asians. But he’s also a mechanic and owner(?) of an autoshop. There’s also a slacker quality to him. (He sits around reading and watching videos at his home a lot.) That’s really against the stereotype of Asians. Yet, there isn’t that feeling contrived feeling you mention above.

    Race just seems to be one of the many aspects that influence who the characters are as individuals, and that’s the way to do it, imo (unless you want to make a film explicitly about ethnicity).

    The contrived feeling is present in Better Luck Tomorrow. The filmmaker seems to be consciously manipulating the Asian stereotypes in that film, and that manipulation seems to be near the forefront of the film.

  6. Mitchell

    I didn’t see it again, but I was tempted, and probably will in the near future. I saw I, Robot instead.

    The thing is, the Asian-American characters, if they’re written well, must be aware of their ethnicity, especially when everyone around them seems to be, too. Harold knows that a certain kind of woman (smart, geeky Asian-American Princeton studeents) are more likely to pay him notice than certain other kinds of women. Even if he only imagines this to be true when it’s really not, his perception is valid–he was probably actively recruited by the Asian Students organizations when he was in school, but he probably wasn’t actively recruited by many others. When he shows up at Cindy Kim’s dorm to ask about scoring some weed, the Asian students there are fascinated by Harold. They are EAGER to know what it’s like to be an investment counselor, because that’s the kind of thing they aspire to.

    And just having a name like Kumar is going to force people to remind you EVERY DAY that you’re Indian. You have to be aware of it.

    That’s what I think this movie handles well. Look, you might not like that the Asians are overachievers in this movie, but I know hundreds of Asians around my age, and a lot of them are like these guys. There is absolutely nothing wrong with portraying characters in films like this–these people exist, and one of the primary purposes of art is to represent truth. These guys are like people I know, and THAT’s refreshing. In fact, it borders on revolutionary in a stoner-flick like this.

  7. Reid

    The thing is, the Asian-American characters, if they’re written well, must be aware of their ethnicity, especially when everyone around them seems to be, too.

    I disagree. The characters in Charlotte Sometimes are not aware of their ethnicity, and they’re very real characters. Do you live your life constantly aware of your ethnicity? I don’t think you do, and neither do I. That doesn’t mean that we don’t think about our ethnicity, but it doesn’t te our lives, and most of time, we’re not aware of the things that make us “ethnic.”

    Btw, there are many films with minority characters, such as African and Hispanic Americans that do not display this self-consciousness towards ethnicity.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with portraying characters in films like this–these people exist, and one of the primary purposes of art is to represent truth.

    This is not about truth. This is about (at least what I’m concerened about) an inability on the filmmaker’s and the audience’s part to see Asians (and other minorities) beyond stereotypes.

    To underscore my point, consider a situation where African-American characters are only portrayed as ignorant people that like to eat fried chicken, eat watermelons, laugh all the time and constantly smile and say, “Yes sir. No sir” to any white person they meet.

    Wouldn’t it be offensive if this were the only portrayal of African Americans–even though these type of people do exist? A racist could make the argument you’re making: “Hey, these people exist in real life. I know these type of people. Art is about telling the truth.” But he or she would be missing the point.

  8. Mitchell

    Clearly, we shall never agree on this topic.
    So yeah, don’t go see the movie.

    You’re right, though. Characters don’t need to be aware of their ethnicities ALL the time–that’s would be preposterous. But they are AWARE of them. I am reminded of this when I eat at a Japanese restaurant and all the waitresses remind me of my mom, or when I go to an Italian restaurant and stuff on the menu reminds me of stuff my Grandma used to say. In fact, when I look at my driver’s license (which I do a lot lately; I’m on a trip) and see a Japanese looking guy with an Irish surname, I am reminded of my ethnicity.

    No, I don’t have a MOMENT about it. I don’t ponder what it means to have roots in almost all the major enemies in WWII (my other ethnicity is German, in case you don’t know). I don’t come home and journal about why my penis is so small (although I do often wish this were not so). But I am AWARE. My ethnicity is not an ISSUE, but it’s part of who I am, every day.

    These guys in the movie (which stoops REALLY low to get some pretty funny laughs) don’t dwell on their Asian-ness, nor their American-ness. But you can see that there’s a difference between being Asian-American and Euro-American in a movie like this, and you can even see (and this I love) that there are differences between being Indian-American and Korean-American. That’s refreshing beyond words for me–to see guys say and do things the way they’d really say and do them, raccoon-attacks notwithstanding, is pretty cool.

    I am being careful not to spoil a few things, but Kumar TWICE solves problems in this film with solutions that are directly the result of his upbringing. One of these solutions is non-ethnicity-related, but the other is DEFINITELY ethnicity-related, and both main characters respond (in their different ways) to this problem-solving EXACTLY the same way! Maybe that’s not such a big deal, but it shows me that the director and writers really knew these characters.

    Anyway, I already have my ticket for tonight’s 7:55 showing and it’s 7:45 now, so gotta run.

  9. Reid

    I heard an interview with the writers of the film (white guys, btw) who said they wanted to write a film with Asian characters that were more realistic or at least more like the ones they knew.

    After re-reading the posts, I think our feelings are more similar than it appears. You seem to like Harold and Kumar because they’re characterized in ways that go beyond the stereotypes. I would like that, too (and that’s one of the things that I liked about Better Luck Tomorrow and Charlotte Sometimes).

    I think my biggest disagreement stems from your using “art should represent truth” to justify portraying characters in a stereotypical way. I just don’t think it relates to my concerns.

    Let me be clear. I do not object to minority characters that possess qualities we associate with ethnic stereotypes. But I do have a problem when virtually all minority characters fall within, or close to, the stereotype; and when the characters do not exhibit behaviors, desires, opinions that are independent of the stereotype. This seems to indicate that artists and the audience are either unable or unwilling to see a minority character beyond (or without) the stereotype–to see them as individual human beings.

    Even people you know in real life that fall closely within an ethnic stereotype possess qualities that take them beyond that stereotype. When artists do not allow these other qualities, the character begins to lose the complexity, richness and humanity that give him life–the very things that make a character interesting, compelling and, yes, real. (Btw, these type of characters would not meet the criteria of “art representing truth.”)

    These are the things that concern me–not whether minority characters display stereotypical attributes. The characters in Charlotte Sometimes possess qualites we associate with Asian stereotypes, but these are invisible because characters are complex and real. The emphasis on the film is not on being Asian, either.

    Perhaps my biggest hang-up might be my dissatisfaction and longing–and impatience (maybe that’s a big source of our disagreement)–to see Asian characters that are interesting, compelling and real. In addition, I long to see Asians characters that are wrestling with more universal issues, instead of stictly cultural ones.

    I wonder if we’re closer in our positions than we seem.

  10. Chris

    Abra and I saw *Charlotte Sometimes*, and we both really liked it. It was a great experience — very unusual, counter-stereotypical, unpredictable plot-wise.

    I think one way the race considerations were more subtle in this film was that it was not against a foil of caucasian actors (either as leads or supporting characters). It did remind me of my circumspective japanese mechanic across the street from my old house on Beacon Hill, but that has to do more w/ my tendency to try and *find* a stereotype where I am expecting one because the guy is not white.

    I’ll probably see the movie when Abra gets back back from her visit to Seattle.

    I did see *Shaolin Soccer*, which was playing nearby, and it rocked.

    Chris

  11. Mitchell

    Chris:
    I don’t know anything about Abra, but just be warned that there are some REALLY sexually crude moments. It’s really only in one scene, but still. I was a little embarrassed, and that’s not an easy trick.

  12. Reid

    OK, I finally saw this film.

    I know what Mitchell meant about Asian-American characters that are, on one hand, not “two-dimensional” and, on the other, not a “flat-out rejection of stereotypes” on the other. In our discussion above, the self-conciousness of race and ethnicity is something I have problems with. I think this film does a good job of not being so self-concious. The film is not about what it means to be Asian-American; you don’t feel like it’s an ethnographic lesson. The elements that make these characters Asian-Americans–including stereotypes–exist, but the filmmakers don’t draw attention to them so much. They are part of the characters, but not necessarily the main parts. Another way of saying this is that the characters are individuals first, and part of an ethnic group, second. I think this is what Mitchell means by the characters are more than two dimesional.

    Actually, I don’t think the characters are very multi-faceted or rich, but they are the protagonists in a comedy. They’re telling the jokes, not being the butt of them–well, the jokes that the audience is meant to enjoy. They are teased and harassed by other characters, as Mitchell mentioned, but the filmmakers don’t use these situations to make us laugh at the main characters. Kal Penn is actually quite funny, and both actors have pretty good chemistry. With a better script, the movie could have been a lot better and a lot funnier. In other words, the actors could have carried this movie.

    The filmmakers also portray the characters as normal people. People who swear, get angry, tell jokes that make the audience laugh, lust after beautiful women, etc. And again, the filmmakers portray this in a way to make the audience sympathize with the characters, not ridicule them. I think one of the telling reactions to the film Mitchell mentioned is the audience’s reaction to the Korean character swearing. I have to admit this sort of stood out for me, although I didn’t laugh. It seemed odd–as if it’s strange to see Asian-American characters swearing like this. Yet, that’s how a lot of normal people speak–including Asians-Americans. I think those scenes showed the narrow limits of Asian-American characters on the screen.

    Finally, what makes the two main characters refereshing is that they are the leads, as opposed to “props.” There’s a scene where we see this contrast, and it happens when Harold is hanging out with other Asian-Americans. The other Asian-Americans are behaving in the stereotypical and typical way we see in Hollywood comedies. Harold is like them, but he’s also different from them, partly because we see Harold more like a real person–with hopes, fears, anger, etc. The filmmakers seemed to want to make this point, and, perhaps, it was one of the few self-conscious moments in the film. (Another moments occurs when we see the dorky Asian guy who asked Harold questions earlier, partying. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying, “See, white people, they’re not always what they look like.”) Again, I’m not talking about a great literary character here, but he and Kumar aren’t mere props in the film. Think of Weird Science, except replacing the leads with two Asian-Americans and you get the idea.

    That film brings up another point. The film also makes nerds more human, likeable and real. We not only see the main characters as normal, funny and likeable, but we see their friends (the two Jewish characters)–who are nerdy–in a similar way. Again, this is done in a way that doesn’t outright reject the stereotypes of nerds either. (As an aside, I’ve never seen Revenge of the Nerds. Can anyone compare the way both films handled the nerd characters?)

    In conclusion, I agree with Mitchell that these characters were appealing, and it was refreshing to see Asian-Americans in this role.

    Having said that, I don’t think the film quite works. It’s not because it is crass or juvenile. That’s part of it, but the Farrelly brothers’ films have those elements, and they have made some pretty good comedies. The film is like a Farrelly brothers film with Asian-American leads, except the humor, story and characters aren’t as good.

    “Harold and Kumar” doesn’t take itself seriously, and it’s aware that the film is silly and wacky–and goes all the way (sort of like Austin Powers or Ace Ventura). That’s a good thing. But the story and scenes aren’t good enough and funny enough to make this really satisfying in the end. Reaching White Castle, and the eventual realization of that goal is not interesting or entertaining enough. The side adventures were also not funny or interesting enough, although there were some kinda funny moments.

    Btw, I saw the “extreme unrated” version, and I didn’t find it very extreme.

    5/5

  13. Reid

    For more on stereotyping read, “Asians in American Films” here at V-I.

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