By Jeff Yang
Ken Jeong in “The Hangover Part III.”
This long weekend, Memorial Day, marks the first official box-office battle royale of the summer, with bulletproof “Iron Man 3,” the Luhrmannized “Gatsby” and the second chapter in J.J. Abrams’s “Star Trek” reboot going up against a slate of fresh challengers — animated kidbook adaptation “Epic,” “Fastestest and Furiouserer,” and most notably, “The Hangover Part III,” which claims to be the finale of Todd Phillips’s blockbuster blackout trilogy. (Yeah, we’ll see.)
If the Hang is in fact truly over, I for one won’t mourn its passing.
2009’s “The Hangover” was a bracingly fresh, no-holds-barred farce, an over the top look at Vegas’s underbelly. It soared to a nearly half-billion global take, and until surpassed by Seth McFarlane’s trash-talking-bear flick “Ted,” deservedly held the record as America’s highest-grossing R-rated film of all time.
On the other hand, its sequel, 2011’s “The Hangover Part II,” was a grim and unpleasant waste of time. It was both figuratively and literally uglier than the first movie, set in a cartoonishly exploitative version of the Thai capital of Bangkok and shot in dirty, faded shades. And while it made money — more of it, on a global basis, than the first, in fact — it also received universal contempt from critics, who called it “uninspired and unoriginal,” “unclean and mostly unfunny,” and “rancid and predictable.”
But what irritated me most about “Part II” wasn’t its its cliche stereotypes, its photocopied plot, or its lack of the first movie’s delirious pizzazz — it was the bait-and-switch it played with Leslie Chow, the surreally debauched antagonist played by comedian Ken Jeong.
Chow, a drug-snorting, profanity-spewing fast-talking clusterbomb of unrestrained chaos, makes his on-screen entrance in “The Hangover” by bursting out of the trunk of a car, naked as the day he was born. Though he clearly was conceived as a one-note joke character — a comic foil and human macguffin who complicates the film’s loony plot — Jeong’s all-in performance and devastating delivery ended up making Chow one of the film’s most popular and quotable characters.
With Chow emerging as a fan favorite, it wasn’t entirely a surprise when rumor had it that he wouldn’t just return for the sequel — in “Part II,” he’d be a full member of the “Wolfpack.” And the early scenes of the second film seemed to support those whispers…that is, until Chow disappeared a third of the way through, not to be seen until the movie’s closing moments. Sans Chow’s surreally debauched lunacy, the rest of the sequel was virtually unwatchable. And yet somehow, the film succeeded more than enough to demand a threequel.
Now that it’s here, it’s fair to say that in “Part III,” the producers have delivered the Chow: The character propels the movie’s plot, and his antics lead to its funniest and most ludicrous moments, not to mention some death-defying stunts: In one early scene, for example, he’s shot out of a pipe in a roaring torrent of sewage and free-falls 30 feet into the water below.
“It’s definitely the most satisfying stunt I’ve ever done,” laughs Jeong. “Jack Gill, the stunt coordinator, said that only three people had done something like that before: Tom Cruise, Jason Statham and Queen Latifah, which I would say is pretty good company.”
It is indeed. And it’s part of the reason why Jeong is so defiantly proud of the film and his part in it, his biggest big-screen role to date.
“The bottom line is that ‘Hangover 3’ is the best thing I’ve ever done, period,” he says. “It’s the culmination of an epic four year journey — the whole trilogy — and it really has been the most special experience I’ve ever been a part of, actingwise and careerwise. I’m so grateful to the fans who’ve allowed us to keep on doing movies. Heck, the longer I’m in the biz, the more glad I am just to be working! That’s how insecure us actors get. So, to not just be back, but back in such an expanded role…I’m really just so grateful.”
Jeong, who put a successful career in medicine on hold in order to pursue showbiz, says he owes his career to Chow, and to Todd Phillips for encouraging him to “fully commit” to the role. “But it’s not just about doing anything to get that laugh,” he says. “It’s about doing what’s right for the character. What I love about Chow is that he never panders. He has no shame, no fear. If it’s Ken Jeong out there, yeah, jumping out of a trunk naked, that’s quite shameful. But that’s Chow’s whole life.”
And that unapologetic willingness to let it all hang out, to cast aside the masks of dignity, discretion and self-effacement that are the hallmarks of “proper” Asian behavior — to Jeong, that allows Chow to not just transcend stereotype, but to subvert it.
“First of all, I’m a doctor, not an idiot; I know what I’m doing,” he says. “The people who are criticizing Chow are acting like I’m some kind of monkey with an Asian accent. But if this were a straight stereotype, you couldn’t pay me enough money in the world to do it. You couldn’t. They seem to miss the fact that the whole character is a metajoke: It’s making fun of the stereotype, not celebrating it. Because here’s the dirty secret — every Asian actor you’ve ever heard of has gone up for a role like this at one point in their careers. That’s the world we live in, and it sucks. And you know what sucks more? We don’t even always get those parts! That’s what Mr. Chow is — my homage to all of us Asian actors out there auditioning to be Asian Assassin Number Three.”
There’s something to what Jeong says. If you look beyond the flamboyant accent and cheesy wardrobe, Chow is hardly your Asian conventional stereotype. Traditional “Oriental gangster” roles are stoic and inscrutable. But far from being stoic, Chow talks bigger, jacks harder and acts crazier than any other character in the franchise. Is he inscrutable? Yes — in the same way that an out-of-control toddler is inscrutable. He’s an inhibition-free id monster, gloriously ricocheting from bad idea to worse idea. He makes you cringe. But that’s why he’s there. Chow, who Jeong credits for teaching him to “move beyond my comfort zone” as an actor, is intended to take you out of your comfort zone as a viewer. Maybe especially if you’re Asian American.
“Just the fact that people are talking about him at all is amazing,” notes Jeong. “How many Asian roles actually get mentioned in cinema? I’ve done plenty of roles that were originally written for white guys, that didn’t have anything Asian about them, and a lot of them are so freaking boring. When the director doesn’t even know what to do with you, that’s far more offensive to me than a role like Chow. I’m proud of what I do. And I’m very proud of Chow.”
At the end of the day, I have to conclude that Jeong has a point. To me — to anyone who grew up in an environment bound up in rules and repression, who bears the burden of self-consciousness that comes with believing that every move you make reflects on dozens of living relatives and thousands of dead ones — it’s hard not to be envious of Chow, who lives on his skin and always thinks with his gut, if not something a foot or so lower down.
So as much as Chow is my bête noire, he’s also my spirit animal. And while I’m perfectly happy to hail the end of “The Hangover” franchise, I’ll be sad to say “ciao” to Leslie.
If he’s really gone, that is.
Jeong has mused about the possibility of a spinoff, perhaps featuring Chow and Kingsley, “Hangover Part II”’s rival crime boss, played by Paul Giamatti.
Or what about an ensemble action flick, along the lines of “The Expendables” — featuring Chow and, say, Tom Cruise, Jason Statham and Queen Latifah? I’d see it. I can even hear Chow giving his signature lines a whole new meaning: “Toodaloo, motherf—–” sounds very different when you say it while aiming a bazooka.
TAO JONES INDEX — Ken Jeong Edition
Must Click Quick Hits from Across Asian America
Ken Jeong Photobombs GQ’s Kate Upton shoot: Yeah, it was a planned stunt. But still funny.
Ken Jeong on Sesame Street: Let’s just say he doesn’t drop any F-bombs on Elmo. Although I would’ve, if I went through seven years of medical training and an animated fuzzball kept calling me “MISTER Ken.”
Senor Chang: The DJ Steve Porter Remix: Everyone’s favorite “Community” Spanish teacher (now back for a fifth season!), and some of his best students, in a surprisingly catchy auto-tuned techno remix
“I Cannot Die”: And another music video, set to some of Senor Chang’s best moments from seasons one through three
“Fast Don’t Lie”: One more for your playlist: The Gregory Bros. songify Adidas’s brilliant Dwight Howard ads, with Ken Jeong as “Slim Chin”
Why I’m Tired of Being an (Asian) Actor: Ken Jeong wasn’t kidding — on this single-serving blog, an anonymous Filipino American actor shares his experience going up for a comic-relief role as an “island tribal chief,” only to lose out — to a white actor.