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John Cho on sex, drugs and cinematic post-racism

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Courtesy of Darren Michaels

The “Harold and Kumar” franchise is known for its ability to push the limits of what is socially acceptable, eagerly casting aside conventions and nonchalantly touching upon the most controversial of topics.

The most obvious (and perhaps least controversial in this particular setting) is its premise as a stoner movie; by creating a charismatic duo whose friendship is built around the happy herb, the franchise inherently approves the use of technically still-illegal drugs.

“Weed’s fine,” John Cho (Harold) said vaguely.

Of his audience, he is less cagey.

“I love being affectionate with stoners, they’re the most affectionate people on the planet,” he said. “They’re huggers.”

Of course, the series doesn’t stop with illicit drugs. The latest movie, “A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas,” features a whole slew of “edgy” concepts, including but not limited to sexual assault, murder and a series of scenes involving a toddler getting hooked on a whole slew of exciting substances, among them pot, cocaine and ecstasy.

“To be fair, the child is a degenerate,” Cho joked.

Frequently, the franchise will take things beyond what even the rudest and raunchiest of moviegoers might consider normal. Hearken back to the moment in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” when the dynamic duo is trapped in a bathroom stall between two attractive young ladies who are quite deafeningly voiding their bowels. Who could forget that extraordinarily long, shockingly realistic sex scene between Kumar and a large, anthropomorphic bag of weed? And if it’s nudity you want, the latest movie goes all out, shocking viewers with an up-close-and-personal view of poor Harold’s flaccid penis, frozen to a telephone booth and shrunken by fear and pain, not to mention the cold.

Courtesy of Darren Michaels

Cho was very frank about the little lifelike appendage (a prosthetic), declaring that he “obviously would’ve preferred a boa constrictor” and explaining that, no, it was not actually modeled after the real thing.

Does he have any misgivings about the scene?

“Uh…yes,” he said. “That was the part I was most worried about my mother seeing.” But it’s not enough to slow his stride.

The franchise deals with some of its more controversial material with a surprisingly respectable philosophy. Racial humor is a trademark of the series. The writers hold a sort of post-racial attitude, seeing race as a factor that can be acknowledged or mocked like any other physical attribute, rather than the hot-button topic that many make it out to be.

“The writers assume and the movies assume that you’re not a racist, and that we all think it’s silly,” he said. “Race is a part of life, and it comes in and out of focus, and it comes to prominence and recedes, and that’s how we treat race in these movies.” Cho’s opinions seem to hold true in regard to the series’ treatment of race–after all, the films are populated by well-balanced characters that acknowledge race without being defined by it.

The films stand on less steady ground on the feminist front. Not a single one of the movies features a fleshed-out female character, instead displaying male-envisioned fantasies of wildly attractive, violently sexual and infinitely one-dimensional women. These cardboard cutouts are placed in all kinds of delightful situations: the latest movie even features a graphic scene of sexual assault, in which Neil Patrick Harris pretends to be gay in order to get a girl naked, straddles her and jerks off on her under the premise of “giving a massage.”

When confronted about the movie’s unabashed misogyny, though, Cho balks.

“I’m not aware [of any feminist backlash]…I feel like there’s a lot of female fans out there,” he said. The movie’s misogynistic transgressions are not as forgivable as its lesser offenses, mostly because the misogyny is a good deal more consistent.

At the end of the day, though, the movies avoid being totally perverse by maintaining tangibly good intentions.

“The key to doing Harold and Kumar movies,” Cho explained, “is you make it earnest. Primarily what we do is make Harold and Kumar’s relationship and friendship believable, and we don’t actually work on being that funny.”

Of the latest film, he explains that it’s “a perversion of Christmas movies, but it’s also very traditional, and it affirms family values, and it’s about love between the two guys, and it’s about love between their significant others, and at its heart…the movie has a rather childlike innocence about it.”

Cho makes a good point. The movies are funny, but their over-the-top gags and occasionally offensive stereotyping would grow abrasive if it weren’t grounded by the entirely believable platonic love story running in the background. For the most part, Harold and Kumar’s harmless good intentions manage to erase the damage done by the rest of the script. All they need are a few convincingly human female characters, and the franchise will have found the perfect recipe for non-offensive shock humor. Until they do, though, all of John Cho’s and the writers’ lovely good intentions won’t be enough to wash away their somewhat appalling treatment of women.

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