In an age obsessed with representation, this unassuming mid-aughts comedy dared to portray Asian Americans as "people who exist."
t wasn’t necessarily better back then. Climate change, war in the Middle East, the odds of a persisting global pandemic, the troublesome relevance of the George W. Bush administration—all of it on my mind in 2023, as it was in 2004. When I talk about the two years, I’m really talking about the difference between being 15 years old and being 34 years old, a passage of time that inspires novels, pop songs, and dead-eyed alcoholic binges. In particular, I’m thinking about the shift from simply “living” to “living with purpose”—the accretion of long-term responsibilities and anxieties that accompany the ascent into adulthood, and undergird one’s approach to the future. The stuff that just doesn’t exist for most teenagers, when every day feels like an individually wrapped treat during which anything—good, bad, or stunningly neutral—might happen.
I am aware this is a goofy way to start talking about Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. But I’m trying to describe what it felt like, in the summer of 2004, for this movie to just show up. There was no viral movie trailer, no extensive press circuit where John Cho emphasized the importance of feeling seen in mainstream comedy. I was only aware of the film’s existence because the comic book store where I worked part-time received a cardboard cutout of the poster; it was promptly deposited into the bathroom that doubled as a junk drawer. One day it was just in theaters, and my friends and I saw it because early 21st century teenagers were known to congregate in physical spaces and participate in shared activities like “going to the movies,” and I am not overlaying juvenile memories with false profundity when I say it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life, save for the time my buddy Todd stood on the table at Taco Bell and began shrieking at my buddy Ben for reasons I cannot possibly explain.
A quick word on representation. I don’t quibble with the psychic advantages conferred onto young children who, seeking aspirational role models in pop culture, are overcome with glee upon discovering a kick-ass superhero who resembles their mom or dad. It’s legitimately great that we’ve attempted to culturally venerate stories that fall outside the purview of what I’ll simplistically call “rich and college-educated white people’s business.” (A recent example being that New Yorker profile of the University of Chicago professor who left her husband for her grad student. Jeez!) What makes me clench is when any slice of pop culture is treated as some game-changing landmark in how society perceives any particular minority group, when the more accurate reality is that it’s just a movie or album or novel. Crazy Rich Asians came out and stuff did not materially change for 99% of Asian-Americans in the country, except for the ones represented by CAA, WME, and UTA. I wish the current media landscape didn’t privilege the histrionic cheerleading that leads the professionally naive to declare a piece of art as everything when it’s just Crazy Rich Asians. (I did not like Crazy Rich Asians.) The way that ostensibly grown adults blather about the need for exclusively “positive” narratives makes it seem like the collective Asian-America is a Make-a-Wish Kid who just needs to see one story about resolved trauma before they die.
I say this because Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was an example of Asian-American representation in mainstream culture that absolutely nobody really cared about in 2004, that bears scant resemblance to how representation is now discussed. This is not a sophisticated movie. It’s about two stoners who lust after unfamiliar women and occasionally make lighthearted gay panic jokes. There’s a scene where Malin Akerman takes off her shirt and Kal Penn makes cartoon bazoinga! eyes. It’s sometimes “a little problematic,” as they say. But it felt refreshing and necessary to see guys like these on the big screen—guys who seemed smart and clever, but were already professionally jaded by the realities of adulthood and now coped by fucking around. I grew up in Chicago, where I knew all sorts of Asians: way-too-Christian types who turned demonic after drinking one beer; overly talented hoopers; the stereotypical anime nerd; rich kids who went to rehab for pot; party girls; stoner girls; unappealing losers; gamers who were also really into hip-hop; bratty biracials; goody two shoes who really had internalized their immigrant parents’ hopes and dreams for a better life; total assholes who didn’t give a shit about any of that. This is just a cross-section of “people who exist” who I now reduce to caricature in order to make you smile, but at the time the only Asian movie stars were serene martial artists. (And they didn’t even let Jackie Chan kiss anyone!) So watching this movie, set in a universe that acknowledged the existence of multiple Asians and their myriad, conflicting desires for life without making a big deal about it, was, and still is, completely novel. It was like discovering shoegaze or 3D video games. “You can do this? This is something that exists and can be done?”
I don’t want to wave off the cruder jokes as “it was a different time.” People were listening to Animal Collective; it wasn’t so long ago. The spectrum of permissible language in pop culture was wider than it is now not because everyone was less sensitive, but because a plurality of voters didn’t think gay people deserved human rights. I’ll let you make your peace with that, if you watch it now. It’s complicated a bit, at least, by the much-later revelation that Kal Penn was gay, recasting Kumar’s aggressive homosociality in a different light. For me, some of the better gags are: the mustached cop saying “Koo-mar,” the anti-weed PSA, the anthropomorphic bag of pot who Penn makes love to in a dream sequence, Christopher Meloni’s oozing pustules, Anthony Anderson as a psychotic service worker, the bad cheetah CGI, Fred Willard being Fred Willard, Neil Patrick Harris before “Neil Patrick Harris” was a thing.
A small thing that genuinely touches me: the way that John Cho’s accent changes when he’s upset. When his suave “White Collar Worker Leading the Meeting” voice loses its flexible charm, he’s suddenly enunciating his phonemes like someone reading off a language worksheet. (“Did Doo-gie How-ser just steal my fucking car?”) My Chinese best friend sometimes did the same thing when he was worked up, and the implied dynamics of this particular tic are something I always catch upon re-watch. Cho was born in South Korea and emigrated to the United States as a child; I don’t want to overstate the specificity of his acting choices, but it feels like something you do when there isn’t much oversight. The director wasn’t standing there and barking, “Hey, Cho! Less Korean zhuzh on that line reading.” Again, I cannot underestimate how minimal the expectations were for this movie. Twenty-three comedies—not just other movies, but comedies—outgrossed it at the box office in 2004, and one of those was a re-release of The Life of Brian (1979). Do you remember the Seth Green vehicle Without a Paddle? You don’t, but it grossed three times as much as Harold and Kumar at the box office.
A couple of years ago I interviewed John Cho, and before we finished things I decided to forgo all journalistic objectivity by telling him how important Harold and Kumar was to me, how it was my Crazy Rich Asians. I know he is a handsome, charismatic actor who lies for a living, but when he smiled that big John Cho smile, I chose to believe he wasn’t lying, that a tiny percentage of him was moved to hear this. “ It’s not traditionally seen as an Asian-American movie, but it is to me,” he said. “I like it being seen as an Asian-American movie, you know?” Me too, dude.
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is available to stream for free on Tubi. It's also available to rent or purchase from Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and Redbox.
Jeremy Gordon is a writer from Chicago who contributes to The New York Times, The Nation, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn.