Now's the time to get on the John Cho train

A string of ace film roles, including the upcoming Searching (playing at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival), suggests it might finally be the time for John Cho's ascent to formidable leading man status. Here's our primer on the year of Cho

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 18 Jun 2018

It’s unusual enough that a decent portion of the American Pie cast of ‘teenagers’ can still be found in high-profile fare nearly 20 years on from the film’s release – Natasha Lyonne and Jason Biggs have had career renaissances via Orange Is the New Black, while Seann William Scott has, at the time of writing, just been cast as the new co-lead of the Lethal Weapon TV series. But what’s been most interesting in the last few years, now that Scott’s big screen leading man days are largely over, is how John Cho has become the biggest name from the cast, and he wasn’t even part of the main group of horny fuckwits. Billed 24th back in the 1999 film's credits as ‘MILF Guy #2’, his subsequent success with the Harold & Kumar series and JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot saw him get bumped up to ninth-billed for his appearance in 2012’s American Pie: Reunion. He was still credited as ‘MILF Guy #2’, though, and that may be the lone funny gag in that belated sequel.

Anyway, let’s talk about John Cho, kids, for while he has certainly had a good career in both film and television, a string of major movie roles look set to push him towards the great one he has deserved for quite some time. Less underserved supporting players in ensemble blockbusters – sorry, Sulu – and more lead parts that present more shades of his star power.

First up, there’s Searching, a thriller led by Cho in which he plays a desperate father breaking into his teenage daughter’s laptop to look for clues to find her after she goes missing. A mild sensation at this year’s Sundance, the film is innovatively told predominantly through on-screen, uh, screens, from laptops to mobile phones to whatever gadgets fall in between the two.

Secondly, there’s Columbus, a festival darling from last year’s Sundance that’s finally set for a UK theatrical release this autumn. The deeply humanist feature debut from video essayist Kogonada, it sees Cho play Jin, a man visiting Columbus, Indiana when his architecture scholar father falls ill there and ends up in a coma. Disillusioned and distant from his father, he forms a bond with a young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) who shares Jin’s dad’s passion for the city of the title, the modernist architecture capital of America.

Kogonada, in a 2017 interview for the film’s US release, discusses Cho’s appeal as follows: “There’s a reason he’s been working in this industry, which is difficult for any Asian-American. He’s had a long career because he is such a professional, he’s a really hard worker, he’s really thoughtful. I think people want to work with him again. But also he’s someone who really loves the medium of acting. However one judges his career, he’s given the most — of all the opportunities, he really is there and present. Also, he has this large range. He came from theatre, Berkeley, he wanted to act. But, you know, the roles are really limited, so you don’t get to see him exercise that.”

Finally, at least in terms of 2018 releases we’ve had a peek at, there’s Gemini. Cho’s role here is not a lead one, but he is one of the most crucial cogs in Aaron Katz’s contemporary LA noir. He is the detective suspicious of one personal assistant (Lola Kirke) and her possible involvement in a crime concerning her Hollywood starlet boss (Zoë Kravitz). Having seen the film on the festival circuit, we can confirm Cho makes an excellent foil for the tenacious Kirke.

Even with increasing talk of gestures made towards more diverse casting in major American films, the route to success for actors of colour remains cruel, and actors of Asian descent make up a tiny 1% of lead roles in Hollywood productions. We’re dubbing 2018 the year of Cho, at least when it comes to UK release dates, but hopefully, this isn’t just a blip and more a definitive sign of things to come. 

Searching screens at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 21&22 Jun – tickets here – and is released 31 Aug by Sony

Columbus is released 5 Oct by Network Releasing

Gemini is reportedly receiving UK distribution from Park Circus

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