Home Foreign News Paul Sun-Hyung Lee talks Asian representation in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ –...

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee talks Asian representation in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ – National

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Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender have been waiting for this day for a long time: the release of a live-action adaptation that finally captures the spirit and magic of the original beloved cartoon.

The cult classic cartoon aired for three seasons on Nickelodeon starting in 2005 and hasn’t left the zeitgeist since, even after a disappointing live-action movie came out in 2010 directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

It’s an easy claim to make that Netflix’s Last Airbender blows the 2010 movie out of the water — but it does so much more than that. It brings to life a world rich in beauty and history while staying true to the whimsy that made the original series so special. It’s at once expansive in its scope and grounded in its characters, everything you’d expect for a show about a group of, well, just kids saving the world.

Avatar: The Last Airbender tells the story of the Avatar, a “chosen one” character who is the only person on Earth who can master all four elements: earth, wind, air and fire. In The Last Airbender, our young protagonist Aang is just that, the last of his kind after a genocide wipes out his people. In his quest to take on the conquering Fire Nation, Aang picks up friends along the way and audiences get taken on a journey that showcases the unique nations associated with each element, based on Inuit, East Asian and South Asian cultures.

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Indigenous and Asian representation is abound in Netflix’s eight-episode series, something that was sorely missing in the 2010 movie. Global News sat down with South Korean-Canadian actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, best known for his role as Appa on Kim’s Convenience, to chat about taking on the iconic character of Uncle Iroh and how Asian representation in media has changed since he first became an actor.

“When I started off, it felt like a desolate wasteland, where you kind of felt doomed to forever play a gang member or convenience store owner, or a doctor or lawyer or whatever,” Lee said. “Characters that were just window dressing and not really characters, but more decorations, human decorations that were sprinkled in the background to show diversity but were never the ones that were the centre of attention or the ones that drove the narrative.”

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Coming off a major boom in Asian cinema and diverse casting, Lee says “we are living in a golden age, and I love it because it’s a movement and not a trend.”

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Lee says it’s an inspiration to see “a story like this on this scale, the epicness of it and the sweeping adventures, and not only that, seeing Asian characters at the forefront who are driving the narrative.”

“When you see your culture, your people, people who look like you as heroes instead of villains, it makes a world of difference,” Lee said. “I think a show like Avatar will put another stamp in that history book and say, ‘Hey, let’s open up more chapters and keep building on this.’”

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Iroh in season 1 of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender.’.

Robert Falconer/Netflix

Lee revealed that he watched The Last Airbender for the first time in 2017, on the recommendation of one of his Kim’s Convenience co-stars.

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“She said, ‘You’ve got to watch this show. It’s probably some of the best television I’ve ever watched.’ So I sat and watched all three books. I thought, this is fantastic. And then very shortly after that, it was announced that it was being developed by Netflix into a live action remake. And I got fan-casted by thousands of people, which was like, really, really great.”

When Lee got into his Iroh costume with full hair and makeup for the first time, he cried.

“The first time I saw the full look, I cried because, there he was. And he’s me. Like, I’m him. It was crazy how transformative it is,” Lee said.

“And then you see everybody else show up and everybody’s in costume … and it’s like they plucked them from the cartoon and put them right in front of you. And as a fan, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Lee added. “It’s so magical.”

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Lee also talked about some of the darker themes of The Last Airbender, and how they strike such a chord with younger audiences.

“It’s almost like a gateway to to explore the events that are happening around them currently. It helps them to understand the dynamic of the real world and what’s going on. It gives them parallels. And it’s a great conversation starter, too, like, ‘Oh, this is very similar to the Fire Nation wanting to take over and, you know, colonizing all these different kingdoms.’”

But The Last Airbender is not all doom and gloom, Lee notes; it is as much about self-discovery and finding out who you truly are.

“You’ve got to figure out who you really are and what you want, because that’s your life. And, you know, your parents or other people might want you to do certain things, but at the end of the day, it is your life. And so what are you going to do with that? And I think this message is great because it can be inspiring. It can be contagious,” Lee said. “I think a lot more people in life would be happier if they were able to ask themselves that question and honestly come to those answers and pursue that happiness.”

Threading that line between The Last Airbender’s themes of war and environmental destruction with its focus on the transformative power of love and friendship is something the Netflix adaptation does seamlessly.

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Fear and loss push these characters to do terrible things, but at the end of the day, history is altered by a group of kids who won’t let go of their hope.

The four nations are rendered in spectacular fashion, the bending and fight scenes are stunningly fluid and the on-screen chemistry of the main cast is so natural for a group of kids and teens forced to grow up a bit too early.

The challenge of condensing the original 24-episode first season of The Last Airbender into an eight-episode arc are on display in some of the cracks of this series. The plot moves at a breakneck pace without much time for Aang, or the audience, to sit with the lessons learned along the way. The show also makes changes to the intentions behind Aang’s character that take away from his development and initial fear of assuming his role as the Avatar.

The show makes up for some of these changes by ensuring audiences get tons of fan service. There are numerous nods to some of The Last Airbender’s most iconic scenes and inside jokes.

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In all, fans of the show are sure to be impressed with the visual majesty on-screen, even if Netflix’s adaption doesn’t quite reach the same peaks of the original series.

‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is available to stream Thursday, Feb. 22, on Netflix.

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