A word that can mean two very different things in a romantic setting is ‘safe;’ it is either the affirmation of attachment (as in “you make me feel safe”) or the alternate for ‘boring’ (as in “you’re too safe”). In their newest, self-funded 5-part web-series Yappie, YouTube mega-stars Wong Fu Productions (over three million subscribers) elect to go with the latter connotation of ‘safe,’ utilizing it as an on-the-nose critique of a certain type of Asian American identity, and with a self-aware spin, Wong Fu’s own brand identity. Imagine being told by your tinder match, while on a third date, that the lifestyle you’ve chosen doesn’t entice them, and when you ask them what’s wrong with it, they hit you with this: “it’s not wrong, it’s just — safe.” Ouch! This is exactly what happens in Episode 1 — “Pilot,” to our well-meaning, stably employed, eternally cheery and, ‘safe,’ protagonist, the 29-year-old Andrew, played by Wong Fu founder and creator of the series, Philip Wang.
Choosing this awkward breakup as the first dramatic scene in his ambitious creation, Wang intends to make the word ‘safe’ sting, not specifically to Andrew, but more generally to a type of Asian Americans known as ‘Yappies,’ or Young Asian Professionals who act like Yuppies. This is the term that Andrew’s 22-year-old date (Olivia Sui) uses to describe him (“I shouldn’t have swiped right on a Yappie.”) after their unsuccessful date at a slam poetry show, featuring a sharp-tongued and didactic social-justice-advocate poet, Olly (Dante Basco). Part of what makes Andrew ‘safe’ is his detachment from the Asian American social-justice advocacy that’s emphatically articulated by Olly in his spoken-word routine, one that addresses the basic racial frustrations Asian Americans face: “you say ‘model minority,’ I say invisible minority — afterthought minority;” or “Asians get the sampler platter of racism.” Not only is Andrew uninterested, but he also seems unaware of these Asian-Americans-for-dummies notions that any college-educated Asian American should be aware of, as he struggles to chime in a conversation with Olly and his date.
What sticks with Andrew in the rest of episode one, and all the way until episode five, is a palpable sense of shame for being a Yappie. We meet Andrew’s Yappie crew, consisting of his sister, Melody (Julie Zhan), and friends, Jessica (Victoria Park), Brett (Brad Cage), and Tom (Simu Liu), at a dance club, where the issues of ‘safe’ and ‘Yappie’ continue to be explored through dialogue, an especially trite practice in the series. Cut to Andrew at work, where we find out Olly’s cruel assumptions of Yappie stereotypes about him — software engineer job, idolization of Boys II Men, interest in basketball, and love for BMWs — cannot be more on the dot. This is the usual Wong Fu humor that characterizes the series: almost every laugh is unsurprising, plainly fabricated, and ‘safe.’
From this point on, ‘safe’ is like a dark cloud that hangs above Andrew’s shoulders, ready to rain down any minute, including the morning after a one-night-stand with his ex-girlfriend, Lana (Porter Duong). The re-encounter with an ex-girlfriend is a scenario that Wang loves to explore, as exemplified in his 2016 short Untouchable, but never quite offers enough nuance to. Inevitably, the two get into a brief argument about their breakup, which ends with Lana’s discontent, and conclusion, about how Andrew is playing it — what’s the word — safe. Entitled “Bad Asian,” Episode two kicks off an edifying cultural exploration into why exactly being Asian American has made Andrew so safe, which includes the stigma of ‘Bad Asian’ (an Asian who doesn’t like dim sum) and familial expectations to put academics over artistic pursuits (Andrew was discouraged to pursue dancing even as a hobby). Again, these salient points are lectured to us through dialogue, this time with Andrew’s teenage cousin, Richard (Brandon Soo Hoo), who complains that Asians are now not only expected to excel academically, but also in hip-hop dancing (“They want us to do everything!”). Richard’s interest in hip-hop dancing sparks Andrew’s own, and in order to do something a little — unsafe — he decides to take his younger cousin to dance lessons.
Like some of Wong Fu’s stories (their 2012 web-series Away We Happened comes to mind), a wholesome romance comes to rescue our protagonist and help him grow, this time in the form of Richard’s affable dance instructor, Miss Oda (Janine Oda), or Kalina. Unlike Andrew’s usual love interests, Kalina is half-black and half Asian, or ‘Blasian,’ a detail that comes as a pleasant surprise to his Yappie crew. WongFu make it abundantly clear, in episode four, ‘Homeostasis,’ that they are conscious about not fetishizing Kalina’s race, and in a telling moment of vulnerability, have Andrew address his own fear of committing this very crime. In fact, they seize upon this opportunity to launch into an unnecessarily laborious discussion about interracial dating, which covers problems with ‘Yellow Fever’ (non-Asians’ fetishization of Asians), the complications of racial preferences in dating, and the gender imbalance in sexual desirability of Asians.
More lectures from the Asian-American-for-dummies textbook follow, illustrated through Andrew’s struggle in planning an Asian Pacific American Heritage Month party for the office, because their budget is literally divided according to ethnic groups that won’t work together, a comical depiction of the cultural division between various Asian American ethnic groups. It is almost delightful, then, to learn that this episode treats itself with this glorious pun of a title — ‘Affinity War,’ accented by an ‘Asians, Assemble’ scene so campy and parodical that one laughs out of a strange mixture of pity and genuine delight.
Meanwhile, Andrew’s blossoming romance with Kalina begins to earn some “awwwwws” with his partly shy, mostly ‘cute,’ attempt at asking her out in person. It is clear that Andrew considers, tentatively, that his relationship with Kalina is a step outside of the ‘safe’ zone, since he almost never hangs out with non-Asians. Comfortable to venture out even more, Andrew asks to meet Kalina’s friends, which leads us to quite easily the most intense, well-written, and substantial scene in the whole series, where he is confronted by Kalina’s ex-boyfriend, Russ (an excellent Michael Egemba). It is a scene that sets off the first grenade in Andrew’s adventure into the ‘unsafe,’ and he seems so guilt-stricken that we wonder if he’ll soldier on. Nonetheless, Andrew’s guilt, a potent commentary on the awkward space Asian Americans occupy in regards to anti-black racism, is one that sends a chill down the spine.
Although still cluttered with exhausting dialogue and humdrum directing, this last episode, “(re)Model Minority,” at least provides a level of excitement in Andrew’s departure from ‘safe,’ finally advancing the arc that “Pilot” sets up. Where Wong Fu intend to transgress with content, in their loudest voices possible, they clutch onto, for dear life, the monotonous formal strategies that they’ve employed since they first started on YouTube more than a decade ago. Apart from the aforementioned ‘safe’ humor and wholesome romance narrative, there is the preachy dialogue in illustrating themes (their 2017 short Crossing Point is a good example of this), the quick pans and tilt-ups to underscore ‘cute’ and whimsical moments, and most of all, a script and direction that pay little regard to effective visual storytelling.
This is most obvious in the lack of attention paid to location and production design, especially in Episode 4: “Homeostasis”: characters talk to one another at locations that have nothing to do with the scenes themselves. We start at a Korean Barbecue restaurant, where the Yappie crew engages in a discussion about Yellow Fever and the desexualization of Asian men. What does Korean Barbecue have to do with the scene? We then move on to Brett and Jessica’s living room, where Brett expresses his fear of being labeled as having Yellow Fever. The only two real elements in the production design here are a gray couch and a wall placard that says “no regrets,” both of which are inconsequential. Next, we find ourselves, scratching our heads, at an eyewear store, where we learn why this episode is titled “Homeostasis,” supposedly a playful counter-term to Yellow Fever that describes Asians’ preference to date Asians. Zhan’s Melody is given the business of trying out glasses while talking to her brother about his new girlfriend, business that tells us nothing about her character (glasses are never set up in the story nor brought up later) and adds no tension or inSight to the scene.
More of characters sitting and standing around talking takes place, at this point surely a tedious exercise, but one that continues to fuel the Wong Fu ethos (take a look at their 2015 short Accumulated). There is nothing inherently wrong with designing scenes based solely on dialogue, but unless your name is Aaron Sorkin or Quentin Tarantino, “characters sitting or standing around talking” is an exercise that requires much more care and meticulousness with shot design, actor business, production design, sound design, and choice of location.
If you ask Wong Fu about their scene design, I’m sure they will tell you it is based in reality — people have conversations at Korean Barbecue restaurants and eyewear stores — but is “based in reality” the only motto by which one writes and directs scenes? To Wong Fu’s credit, this is a formal strategy that has worked for them for over a decade and will continue to work for them, at least in the YouTube bubble they seem to be stuck in. In fairness, judging a YouTube-dominant group by the criteria in film and TV criticism is probably a futile practice, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. And if, like Wang has said in an interview with NBC Asian America, that WongFu sought, and failed, to bring ‘Yappie’ to the TV screen (“When I was going around pitching this show, I met with a lot of big production companies”), or even to the silver screen (their first feature, Everything Before Us, was released in 2015 on Vimeo), then perhaps a substantial change to their storytelling ought to be considered. Perhaps, like Andrew, all Wong Fu, with their passion and raw sensibilities to tell Asian American stories, have to do is step outside their safe zone and be challenged, for instance, by writing dramatic scenes with no dialogue. Supporters of the group will say: what’s wrong with sticking to a hugely successful brand identity? There’s really nothing wrong with it, but it’s just — what’s the word again?
 Traci G. Lee (2018) ‘After a decade on YouTube, Wong Fu Productions still has a story to tell’, NBC News, June 19, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/after-decade-youtube-wong-fu-productions-still-has-story-tell-n881606. Accessed June 26, 2018.
Yappie is now available at the Wong Fu Productions’ YouTube channel.