American films

Ranking John Cho’s 10 best roles, from American Pie to Searching

From MILF Guy #2 in American Pie to the Harold & Kumar films, Korean-American has acted in more than 100 films and TV series over his 20-year career

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2018, 7:38pm

As Hollywood finally addresses its long-standing diversity problem, Korean-born actor John Cho is making history.

This week sees the Hong Kong release of cyber-thriller Searching, in which he plays a desperate father whose search for his missing daughter plays out entirely on computer screens. It is the first thriller released by a major Hollywood studio to have an Asian-American actor playing the lead role.

Crazy Rich Asians and how far Asian actors have come in Hollywood

For Cho, it is something that has been a long time coming. In 2016, he was the focus of the #StarringJohnCho meme that highlighted the industry’s lack of diversity.

With more than 100 screen credits in his 20-year career, the actor appears equally comfortable in gross-out comedies and micro-budget dramas, and defies racial stereotypes on big and small screen alike.

In celebration of Cho cementing his place in Hollywood history, we look back at 10 of his best roles:

10. American Pie (1999)

Cho’s breakthrough performance came as a rowdy partygoer in Paul Weitz’s comedy, in which he was credited as “MILF Guy #2”. His lewd description of Stifler’s Mom (Jennifer Coolidge) introduced the frat-boy acronym “Milf” (or Mom I’d Like to F***) to the mainstream lexicon, and proved memorable enough to ensure Cho’s character returned for all three sequels.

By 2012’s American Reunion, his character had been rechristened “John” and was the instigator of the film’s titular gathering. John was given little character development, but will be forever remembered for his infectious, if somewhat offensive, chant.

9. Off Centre (2001-02)

Following the success of American Pie, Paul and Chris Weitz created this short-lived sitcom for one of their film’s stars, Eddie Kaye Thomas (Finch). Cho was also brought along for the ride as series regular Chau, an eccentric Vietnamese cafe proprietor who befriends Thomas and his co-star Sean Maguire.

While the series was cancelled halfway through its second season, Chau’s hare-brained and unpredictable antics provided many of Off Centre’s funniest moments. The humour wasn’t always well judged – in one episode Chau dates a homeless woman who is persistently made fun of – but Cho’s comedic talents were given a strong airing.

8. How I Met Your Mother (2007)

Cho proved himself a proficient scene-stealer in this single-episode guest appearance opposite his Harold & Kumar co-star Neil Patrick Harris in a third-season episode of the hit comedy series. He plays Jefferson Coatsworth, a sleazy corporate lawyer who attempts to woo Marshall (Jason Segal), one of the show’s protagonists, into joining his firm rather than going to work for an environmentally friendly NGO.

Of course, Coatsworth gets his comeuppance, and Cho relishes the opportunity to play the bad guy. Fans called for his character to make a comeback.

7. Flashforward (2009-2010)

One of a string of high-concept TV series rushed into production following the success of J.J. Abrams’ Lost, Flashforward imagined a scenario in which the world’s population fell unconscious for one minute, during which time each person glimpsed their own life six months hence.

Cho played FBI Agent Demetri Noh, who spearheads an investigation into the phenomenon. But the fact that his own flash forward revealed nothing, suggesting he may be dead six months from now, weighs heavily on his character. The prime time network show was cancelled after just one season, with Noh’s fate left hanging in the balance.

6. Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

A huge milestone for Asian-American representation on the big screen, Better Luck Tomorrow follows a group of frustrated, overachieving adolescents in suburban California who fall into a life of crime. Loosely based on a real-life murder case, the film put Fast & Furious and Star Trek director Justin Lin on the map, as well as providing breakthrough roles for a number of Asian-American actors, most notably Sung Kang.

Cho’s own performance, as the rich kid who invites the central gang to rob his parents’ house, proved that the actor was equally capable of delivering a layered dramatic performance as he is at getting laughs.

5. Selfie (2014)

Cho has been unable to catch a break on the small screen, landing pivotal roles in a number of high-profile shows, only to see them cancelled prematurely. In Selfie, Cho became the first Asian-American to play a romantic lead in a network sitcom when he was cast opposite Karen Gillan ( Guardians of the Galaxy ) in ABC’s update of My Fair Lady.

As Henry Higgs, Cho’s character is a high-profile image consultant who is recruited by a struggling Instaceleb to help her salvage her image and become a better person. Despite a passionate cult following, Selfie struggled to find a sustainable audience.

4. Columbus (2017)

Cho’s impressive range as a dramatic actor is fully unleashed in writer-director Kogonada’s indie darling, which garnered rave reviews for its star. Playing a grieving Korean man, stranded in Columbus, Indiana while his father is on his deathbed, Cho strikes up an emotionally charged relationship with Haley Lu Richardson’s graduate student, set against the town’s startling assortment of architectural attractions.

The age and ethnic differences between the two characters do, for once, play into the proceedings, but the film navigates these obstacles with intelligence, tenderness and humour. Fans of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy will delight in this beautiful oddity.

3. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

Scripted for Cho and co-star Kal Penn by screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, this proved to be that rare breed of stoner comedy that was as smart as it was uproariously funny.

Not only that, the ethnic backgrounds of its two leads was woven deep into the film’s DNA, lending further perspective to the cross-country misadventures of Korean junior banker Harold (Cho) and his Indian med student roommate (Penn). A pair of uneven sequels followed, including a stint for the duo behind bars in Guantanamo Bay, but Harold remains Cho’s defining comedy performance.

2. Star Trek (2009-)

Cho’s biggest role to date is Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek franchise. Inheriting the role from George Takei, whose portrayal of Sulu was a landmark for Asian actors on TV in the 1960s, Cho has appeared in all three films, alongside Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana.

His character sparked controversy in 2016 when the third film, Star Trek Beyond , outed Sulu as gay. Takei, a gay man himself, vocally opposed the decision, but Cho has defended this new interpretation of the role, suggesting that the franchise needed an LGBT character and that he was honoured to play him.

1. Searching (2018)

Cho’s landmark performance is the pinnacle of his career to date. Aneesh Chaganty’s innovative thriller uses computer screens, smartphones and CCTV footage to follow widowed parent David Kim (Cho) in his desperate efforts to track down his missing teenaged daughter.

The role demands that Cho always be performing, whether interacting with other characters or alone, in front of his laptop, without any dialogue to assist him. The very nature of the storytelling gimmick means the screen is filled with distracting visuals vying for the audience’s attention, but Cho remains captivating and wholly authentic throughout.

With this film, the search for Hollywood’s first legitimate Asian-American leading man is over.

Searching opens on October 17

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