Willis explains that, when you die on Black and White, you can’t work for forty-five days afterward. This 45-day period is long enough for the audience to “forget you existed.” You can be cast in a new role thereafter.
Willis’s fondest childhood memories of his mother, Dorothy, took place during her several “deaths” because she had free time to spend with him at home; she’d practice her English while he colored or watched TV.
Willis segues into describing Dorothy’s early life. Growing up in Taipei in the 1950s, she aspired to become a film actress like Natalie Wood. She met Ming-Chen Wu while working as a hostess in the Golden Palace. Prior to this, Dorothy left her old life as a nurse’s assistant. She had been living, during this tenure in the hospital, with her sister, Angela, who was jealous and resentful of Dorothy’s ambitions and attractiveness. After Dorothy leaves, Angela sends her a pettily itemized bill for all of Dorothy’s living expenses, including a surcharge for an overlong shower she once took. Willis’s narration cuts abruptly ahead, to when Dorothy returns to Angela’s house to take care of her. Angela is in an undescribed state of debilitation, requiring full hospice care, which Dorothy provides dutifully until Angela’s death a year later.
Next, we receive Ming-Chen’s backstory as a montage called “Historical Newsreel Montage,” in which the genocide of tens of thousands of Taiwanese citizens by the ruling Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek, is drily described in the style of cable news.
Ming-Chen was seven years old when this military violence came to a head during a day later referred to as the 2/28 Incident. Ming-Chen watches his father get killed by soldiers. The soldiers also steal the deed to the Wu family plot, leaving Ming-Chen homeless and alone.
Years later, Ming-Chen unceremoniously flees Taiwan for America, and ends up, after a four-day bus ride, in Mississippi, where he rents a house with five other grad students of various ethnicities: Korean, Japanese, Punjabi Sikh, and Taiwanese. Each of them is callously referred to as “Chinamen” and other derogatory slurs by students and faculty at the university.
Allen Chen, the other Taiwanese student living in the house, is assaulted by a racist, who calls him a “Jap” and says that this violence was committed in retaliation for the Pearl Harbor attack precipitating the United States involvement in World War II. Allen goes on, much later, to have a successful academic and professional career, achieving his doctorate at MIT and filing a patent with a broad range of industrial uses. He also suffers from chronic headaches from the concussion he incurred during his beating. Despite his wealth from the patent and the support of his wife and children, Allen feels ill at ease in the USA. He suffers from depression. At fifty-eight, he commits suicide by ingesting an overdose of sleeping pills.
Dorothy and Ming-Chen move into the SRO’s eighth floor together after failing to rent elsewhere due to racial discrimination. Dorothy plays the sexualized role of Pretty Asian Hostess and is killed often in Chinatown scenes.
Ming-Chen and Dorothy get married and have a rushed wedding celebration in the kitchen of the Golden Palace. Willis is born shortly after, and Ming-Chen gets cast as Sifu. Dissatisfied with the vulgar, cartoonish nature of his performances, Ming-Chen turns to drink, harming his relationships with Dorothy and his children, and isolating himself.
Back in the present, Karen Lee comes to bring Willis out of his death hiatus. Willis and Karen talk about her background, and she says that her paternal grandfather was from Taichung, Taiwan. Her quarter-Taiwanese ethnicity allows her to play “Ethnically Ambiguous Woman Number One” occasionally. Willis remarks about the privilege that this ethnic ambiguity affords Karen, and she says that it mostly allows her to be objectified by more people.
Willis says that he has the “consciousness of a contemporary American” and the “face of a Chinese farmer of five thousand years ago. Asian Man.” He says that no one likes Asian Man, but Karen says that she likes Willis. A scene heading appears called: LOVE STORY.
A romantic montage begins for Willis and Karen, starting with a coffee date. Willis is anxious and excited, and Karen finds him funny. They take a romantic stroll on EXT. BOARDWALK-NIGHT and Willis jokingly compares the generic setting of this date to his role as Generic Asian Man. Willis admires Karen’s self-possession, pragmatism, and responsibility. She takes care of her younger brothers and her mom. Willis starts to imagine a future with her.
Willis introduces Karen to his mom, Dorothy, and the two women speak to each other in Taiwanese; they like each other. Willis’s heart swells with joy, and he comes back to life. Upon his revivification, he climbs the ladder again, moving from Generic Asian Man Number Three upward, culminating in a meeting with the director of Black and White, who tells Willis he is close to being cast as Kung Fu Guy. Overjoyed, Willis shares the good news with Karen, who reveals that she is pregnant. Willis asks Karen to marry him, and she says yes.
Willis and Karen’s daughter, Phoebe, is born. The three of them live in the SRO. Willis plans to leave the SRO when he has enough money for a house.
Karen tells Willis that she has landed a role on her own show, playing a young mother. She says that there is also a supporting role for Willis to play. They will make enough money, acting on Karen’s show, to leave the SRO. Her star, in this moment, eclipses Willis’s. Willis explains that he still wants to become Kung Fu Guy, and Karen expresses disbelief at his selfishness, as she thought he was over it by now.
Willis and Karen separate under the pretext of working on their own careers. After stringing him along for a few months, the director of Black and White casts Willis as Kung Fu Guy. Willis realizes that he is alone and “trapped” with his success.
Desperate to leave Chinatown and return to his family, Willis hotwires Miles Turner's squad car and drives off-set. The police give chase, but Willis drives fast and gets away.
An interesting conflation of identities happens during Ming-Chen’s backstory. The grad students living in Ming-Chen’s house are all Asian, and all receive the same kind of discrimination. They are called Chinamen and Jap, slurs that have nothing to do with their actual lived experiences.
These grad students are generalized into occupying the same social category despite their differences. But because of this generalization, and perhaps also because of the ways in which these students are able to relate to each other outside their victimhood, Ming-Chen recognizes, very clearly after Allen’s beating, the ways in which all five of them are “Asian Man,” a descriptor that serves to ostracize and fence in the lives of Asian people into limited roles in American society. This is the same social force motivating the hierarchy of the Golden Palace and the Chinatown scenes in Black and White. It’s the reason that Willis has to play Generic Asian Man, and can only realistically dream of becoming Kung Fu Guy. The tragedies of Ming-Chen’s backstory, because of this resonance, come up flush with the present, creating an air of hopelessness about the entire predicament of Asian-directed racism, as well as a closeness between Ming-Chen and his son, Willis.
Dorothy’s backstory invokes the age-old experience of sibling rivalry, as well as the loneliness and tragedy inherent to attempting artistry. Dorothy’s dreams inspire jealousy and resentment in her sister, who is implied to be less attractive and charismatic. This bitter experience resonates with Dorothy’s insistence that Willis attempt to be something “better” than Kung Fu Guy, as she knows firsthand the limitations of such aspirations. It’s not that Dorothy was cruel, as her decision to return to her sister and provide undetailed levels of care shows a capacity for love and selflessness; it’s simply, rather, the fact that Dorothy and her sister, Angela, only had fraught time together because of their differences. When Dorothy implores Willis to do better, she’s asking him, in effect, to be part of a family, to do well by his family, and to prioritize love.
This prioritization of love and family cohesion over personal stardom is tested when Karen gets cast in a leading role on her own TV show. Willis, pridefully, refuses to play a supporting role, and holds out for Kung Fu Guy.