Why Harold and Kumar are important, as embarassing as they are

The characters Harold and Kumar, played by APA actors John Cho and Kal Penn, are like embarassing uncles who fart in public and cuss and tell stupid jokes. In fact, in lots of ways, Harold and Kumar are stupid jokes.

But like those uncles, you have to embrace them when you see them, even though you wince every time they walk in the room.

That’s because in their 2004 debut, Cho and Penn’s characters smashed Asian American stereotypes about being the model minority. Cho played Harold, an earnest numbers-cruncher by day who has the hots for a hot neighbor and has the internalized heart of a slacker; Penn’s Kumar is the slacker externalized. He’s a pot-hound and horndog and crude as he can be, always trying to drag Harold into his slackdom. Kumar is supposed to become a doctor, and it turns out he’s quite capable, except he’s pathologically incapable of following his ethnically preordained career path.

The two go on a marijuana binge and seek out a White Castle burger, or more accurately, a whole bunch of ’em, to assuage their munchies. (It helps to understand the plot if you’ve enjoyed the strange pleasures of a tiny White Castle “slider.”)

The movie was juvenile, but not over-the-top stupid. Well, maybe in a couple of places. But its stupidity was offset for me by its fearless casting of two APAs in such unconventional roles, as dope-smoking losers. It would make most Asian parents apoplectic. but it was just plain refreshing to see, because it makes you realize that Asian Americas aren’t all A-students and over-achievers.

That’s why the first H&K movie is worth recommending as an important APA film.

Unfortunately, seeing more of the same in the sequel, “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” — at a lower intellectual level — isn’t as satisfying… or as important. Unless, that is, you’re 15 and your brain is ruled by hormones. Hey, I was a teenaged boy once; I know. It’s cruder, stupider, and well, more teenage-boy-like.

It has some funny moments, and it tackles Asian stereotypes in even more direct ways, but you have to sit through so much childishness it’s hard to justify the good stuff.

So we won’t be putting “Guantanamo Bay” on recommended APA viewing lists, even though we do tell people — even older people — to watch “White Castle.”

Harold and Kumar aren’t exactly great role models, but hey, it’s nice to see ourselves once in a while without that “model minority” albatross weighing us down. They’re our crazy uncles, and we gotta love ’em.

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2 Responses to Why Harold and Kumar are important, as embarassing as they are

  1. I think the writer screwed this one up. if only there was a better plot to give the John and Kal a better stand, I think it would’ve changed the way we feel about them. Their characters are too weak to provoke any kind of attachment to them. But it’s definitely a great start in playing major mainstream roles for AA.

  2. Eric Sung says:

    H&K is an interesting move in the right direction. I still think “Better Luck Tomorrow” is more important for APIAs, but that’s just me. I also prefer Penn over Cho in terms of his roles and he’s willingness to step out politically.
    However, with every step forward, it seems that we are taking a couple steps back..this is a slow crawl..

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