By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Passive? Submissive? Ha! Jeff Yang talks to two hard-hitting Asian American femmes: pro boxer Dee Hamaguchi and actor (and black belt) Brenda Song, star of the new Disney Channel Original Movie, "Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior."
Brenda Song -- who plays comically spoiled rich girl "London Tipton" on the popular Disney Channel TV series "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody" -- had spent the past four months on a frenetic schedule, flying back and forth between L.A. and New Zealand, juggling the shooting demands of "Suite Life" and round-the-clock preparation and production for the project that many saw as her first real showcase opportunity, the Disney Channel Original Movie "Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior."
The movie features Song as the bright and sassy leader of her high school's cool-kids set, pitted against dual nemeses -- her blond competition for homecoming queen, and the ancient demon known as Yan Lo, whose eternal evil can be stopped only by descendants of a line of female martial arts heroes, the Yin Warriors. Informed by a hunky young Shaolin monk ("The Last Samurai"'s Shin Koyamada) that she's the latest and last of the Yin Warriors, Wendy Wu is forced to choose between her dreams of teen-queen glory and saving mankind from the ultimate apocalypse. (It's not as easy a decision as you might think.)
The role was a novel experience for Sacramento-native Song, but not for the reason you'd guess. "That whole 'popular crowd' thing, I never was a part of that when I was in school," laughs Song, a self-proclaimed "total dork." "I got the role, and I was like, 'OK, homecoming queens -- so how do they act?'"
The martial arts aspect of the film, on the other hand, was almost second nature: Song is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, having trained in the fighting discipline since the age of 8. "I actually originally wanted to take ballet, but my brother was doing Tae Kwon Do, and things were just so crazy back then that my dad was just like, 'I don't want to be driving you guys to two places -- just go along with your brother.' And I ended up loving it. My brother quit, but I did it six days a week for the next 10 years."
Of course, the kung fu-inspired action seen in "Wendy Wu" is tremendously different in feel and form from Tae Kwon Do. But Song's training wasn't just about learning how to punch and kick -- it was about getting used to grueling physical and mental training, and developing the discipline to accomplish difficult goals. Song remembers how, in her test for black belt, she had to sit meditating with a cup of cold water on her head for hours.
"That's something I really connected with in the character of Wendy, this idea that if you have a goal you want, you need to hold onto it tightly," she says. "Whether that goal is getting a black belt, being homecoming queen or saving the world, you have to put in that effort, and never quit."
That powerful drive, that sense of motivation is a character trait that Song has shown since she was in kindergarten. "When I was 5 years old, my mom and grandmom and I were walking in a mall in Sacramento, and this modeling school was doing a search," she remembers. "The school's owner saw me and said, 'Hey, do you want to come up here?' My mom had no idea what he was talking about and didn't want me to do it. But I wanted to go. And because I'd been sick that week -- I dislike medicine with a passion: You have to get three people holding me down for me to take it, and I'll still spit it out -- I told my mom and grandmom that if they let me go to the school, I'd take my medicine. And when we got home, I did. So what could they do? They promised! That was the deal!"
At the time, Song's family was struggling financially. The cost of the school was $500 a week, much more than they could easily afford. But Song's parents knew how much their young daughter loved to perform -- "Our family is Hmong, and so I'd always dress up in our ceremonial costumes and make my grandpa videotape me -- I just loved entertaining people" -- and so with parents, grandparents, great-aunts and other relatives digging into their savings, they came up with the funds to give Brenda her chance at breaking into the world of showbiz.
Her talent and personality soon won her regular commercial work for brands like Little Caesar's Pizza. ("That was my first TV shoot, up in San Francisco! I remember they had me doing the 'Running Man' on camera.") Then came the opportunity to try out for her first real acting gig. The only sticking point was that the job would require her to move down to Los Angeles. She got the part, and she and her mother moved to L.A., with her father and two younger brothers commuting from Sacramento every weekend to see them. Two years later, Song's growing success led the family to move to L.A. for good.
"That was really difficult, because the Hmong community is so small, and a lot of people we knew just didn't understand why my parents were letting me do this," she says. "They would say, 'Oh, it's so far-fetched, everyone wants to be a movie star, you should just grow up, get married, be a housewife.' But you know, I just said, 'I want to work and help out my family -- it's a job, I'm earning money.' And my grandparents and parents believed in me. They stood by me."
While her whole family has rallied around her dreams, Song readily says that the single strongest pillar in her life has been her mother. "She's always been the cornerstone of my life, that person I can laugh with and cry with, the person who's gotten me through all the hard times and told me I should follow my dreams," she says.
"And we've had a really rough year. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and has been undergoing chemotherapy. She actually had her last treatment the day before we went to New Zealand for 'Wendy Wu,' and she didn't let anyone know for one second that she was sick."
It's her mom's example that inspired Song to bear down and smile through the punishing regimen required to make "Wendy Wu." "Shin [Koyamada] and I did kung fu training for three months before the shoot," says Song. "We were doing most of our own fight scenes, so it was 12-hour days, hanging from harnesses so we could do these flying, spinning kicks in the air. Shin and I had bruises all over just from the harnesses -- it's excruciating when you're hooked up for long periods of time: You're being crushed by your own weight, you can't breathe, you're in all this pain and you still have to stay calm and focused and deliver your lines."
What made it worse was that in one of her early wirework practice sessions Song tore a ligament in the back of one knee, putting her in a wheelchair until two weeks before the movie went into production. "Let's just say that it all makes me really respect action stars like Jackie Chan," she says. "When [action director] Koichi [Sakamoto] told us the kinds of things that he wanted us to do, I was like, 'Are you kidding? Only martial arts experts can do that!' And he just smiled and said, 'Well, you guys are martial arts experts.'"
The proof of Song and Koyamada's hard work is in the results: Given the film's made-for-cable budget, rapid-fire creation -- major production lasted just 24 days -- and youth-oriented ambitions, the stunts and special effects are remarkably convincing. So much so that the movie begins with a rare thing for a Disney Channel movie: a parental-guidance warning that the film contains fight sequences that might freak out young kids.
Despite its PG rating, "Wendy Wu" reeled in hearty numbers: 5.7 million viewers for its premiere broadcast on June 16, crushing its basic-cable competition and making it the day's most-watched program among kids aged 6 to 9 and Disney Channel's core tween audience, aged 9 to 14. While it fell short of the eye-popping numbers for Disney's juggernaut-like song-and-angst fest, "High School Musical" (seen by an estimated 28.3 million unique viewers since its premiere in January), it still ranks among the most popular Disney originals in history.
In fact, once it completes its multiple encore airings and enters afterlife on home video, it may well end up being one of the most-watched movies of any kind featuring a largely Asian American cast. It's not perfect -- the dialogue gets especially clumsy when the film tries to make its points about celebrating Asian heritage and culture. But it does demonstrate that an English-speaking, contemporary Asian American family can work in a sitcom context, complete with goofy dad, long-suffering mom, wise and sassy grandma and annoying kid brother. And it also features some interesting chemistry between Koyamada's Shaolin monk and Song's reformed homecoming queen wannabe -- leaving open the issue by movie's end of whether he just might be questioning his monastic vows, now that he's met the butt-kicking Asian American babe of his reincarnated dreams.
And for those who might dismiss the movie as a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" clone for the tween-beat set, it's also worth remembering that Sarah Michelle Gellar has ended up graduating to boffo box-office success in films like "The Grudge," while tween queens like Song's one-time co-star Lindsay Lohan and Disney veterans Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera now dominate our popular culture. It seems likely that Song's path will take her to similar stratospheric heights -- with the difference that her head is on straight, her heart is in the right place and her family's got her back, preventing her from straying into tabloid folly.
"My brothers Timmy and Nathan are the two most protective guys ever," laughs Song. "When boys come up to me, it doesn't matter if they're asking for autographs or my number -- they act the same way, 'Step back from my sister.'"
I get where they're coming from. Asian American women like Song and Hamaguchi may have no trouble taking care of themselves, but guys still have their instincts and pride, you know? It's nice to know we males still have a role in a world of dynamic divas and tough-girl goddesses. Even if it's just crowd control.