Jo Koy’s ‘Easter Sunday’ puts Filipinos front and center

By TERRY TANG
The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — For a comedy, Jo Koy’s new film “Easter Sunday” had plenty of water.

The film was no ordinary job for the comedian and the rest of the cast. The magnitude of being on a mostly Filipino set led to happy crying parties, Koy said. Emotions really hit when co-star Tia Carrere pointed out that it was the first time she had played a Filipino character in her 40-year career.

“Being there in a scene with five other Filipino actors and just doing a scene about a family… She had never seen that before,” Koy, 51, told The Associated Press. “We all kinda cried and celebrated together because it’s like, ‘OK, this is going to be one of many moments here. “”

Koy, who is half-Filipino and half-white, makes his film debut in a film largely inspired by material from his Netflix stand-up specials. DreamWorks/Universal is touting “Easter Sunday,” which opens in theaters Friday, as the first major studio movie with an all-Filipino ensemble. Koy plays Joe Valencia, an aspiring comedic actor who returns home to the San Francisco Bay Area for the titular vacation. He attempts to bond with his teenage son while dealing with well-meaning but overbearing parents. The production comes at a time when Filipino American food, history and advocacy are increasingly emerging into the mainstream.

“Finally our stories, our faces are at the center of the big screen,” said Carrere, 55, and known for films like ‘Wayne’s World’, ‘True Lies’ and ‘Lilo & Stitch’. “I have to pinch myself that I’m still here, still in the business and invited to the party.”

Jimmy O. Yang (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Love Hard”), who appeared on “Easter Sunday,” also served as a producer. This meant watching many, many audition tapes of actors of Filipino or Asian descent. Yang was blown away by the talent. This made casting 10 roles much more difficult. He thinks Hollywood claims it’s hard to find competent Asian actors, these are just lazy excuses.

“As an actor, I’m like all these guys are so good. How did I get a job?” Yang said. “Some of them, I wanted to call them up and say, ‘Hey, man! Please continue, okay? We just couldn’t hire you for this job, but please continue.

“Easter Sunday,” directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, is set in the heavily Filipino suburb of Daly City, where screenwriter Ken Cheng immigrated as a child. He dreamed up a mix of Ice Cube’s “Friday” and the holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Also a producer, Cheng wrote it in 2020 during confinement. He then turned to Steven Spielberg, of which Amblin Partners is co-producer. Within hours, the legendary director read it and gave his approval, according to Cheng.

“From that day to the first day we started shooting, it took about five and a half months. And it’s incredibly fast,” Cheng said. to the idea of ​​building a film around Jo.”

Hollywood is populated with notable half-Filipino actors like Vanessa Hudgens and Darren Criss. But Koy is one who draws on his heritage in his work. For example, he wanted a scene in “Easter Sunday” showing the family packing customary balikbayan boxes. Filipinos, usually first-generation immigrants, usually send boxes containing American products to relatives in the Philippines. Sending balikbayan boxes is practically its own industry.

“There’s this responsibility that they put on their shoulders when they come to this country,” Koy said. “I see this with a lot of Filipino families and I wanted to show the world how important this is to us.”

Today, Filipinos make up more than 4 million of the country’s more than 23 million Asian population, according to the US Census. Only the Chinese and Indians are more numerous. Filipino culture and history have gained prominence in recent years, largely due to decades-long activism by Filipinos.

This year, a 30-foot (9-meter) tall walkway arch was unveiled in Los Angeles’ historic Philippinotown and a street in New York’s Queens was co-named Little Manila Avenue. A newly built park in the Bay Area is named after striking Filipino American farmworkers. For years, Filipino cuisine has been hailed from time to time as the next culinary trend. It seems to be having a moment again in the world of gastronomy. Chicago’s Kasama has become the country’s only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant.

“Easter Sunday” comes during “this truly incredible moment in Asian American history and Filipino American history, where political, social and economic capital came together,” said Eric Pido, professor of studies. Asian Americans at San Francisco State University with a background in Filipino/American Studies. He predicts that younger generations will raise the profile of Filipinos in the coming years.

“I think Filipino Americans are no longer shy about taking a representative role in American politics, which will bring up all kinds of interesting things about Filipino American culture that a lot of people just don’t think about,” Pido said.

Last month, Koy and Cheng attended a screening of “Easter Sunday” in Daly City. Among the people was Pixar’s “Turning Red” director Domee Shi. “Turning Red,” about a Chinese-Canadian teenager and her family, was a hit after its March release on Disney+. But a white film critic called the animated feature exhausting and relatable only for Shi’s Chinese family and friends. The review was later fired on accusations of racism.

The idea that stories that focus on Asian ethnicities and cultures are too specific to be appealing is simply outdated, Koy said.

“The relationship between a mother and her son is the same regardless of ethnicity,” Koy said. “I hate ignoramuses who don’t move on…There are a lot of people living in this country who need to be heard and it’s time to hear it.”

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Terry Tang is a member of the Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP