Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Hangovers: An Examination of Mr. Chow

Warning: Explicit Content Below.
Like all good (cough) teenagers, I have seen both The Hangover and The Hangover 2. And yeah, they were funny. Funny whenever Ken Jeong wasn't onscreen. 
The Hangover (first one) was a very funny movie. The writers were very clever in taking the three protagonists out of the Wild Night and putting them in the horror of the next day. However, I think that the movie could have worked very well without the character of Mr. Chow or even without the performance by Ken Jeong. 

Yeah. Mr. Chow is the weirdest portrayal of an Asian that I have ever seen. And none of it is funny. He's a kind of Fu Manchu stereotype because he's quite threatening and he does kidnap and is an international crime kingpin - but he isn't a Fu Manchu because he's... well, he's supposed to be comedic. He's also not going to rape all the white women - he'll probably assault some squeaky white males with a crowbar first. Mr. Chow is some sort of Charlie Chan stereotype because he's rotund-ish and effeminate and supposed to be funny... He's also a bit of a Jackie Chan stereotype because he kicks Alan/Stu/Phil's butts in Hangover 2 while being weird and slapstick and obnoxious. So what is he? 

I suppose he's the vulgar version of Slim Chin. Which is just as, if not more painful. Oddly reminiscent of Long Duk Dong as well.
So. What exactly does Mr. Chow do that is so terrible and painful to watch? Well... he frequently mispronounces words with that typical Asian accent. You know, "Engrish." "Lun away." You know. Read the script of both Hangovers and replace every "l" with and "r" when Mr. Chow speaks. Cheap and overused stereotype? You betcha. Hath Ken Jeong no shame?
He makes up strange, "Asian-sounding-Asian-language" verbal commands for his henchmen (Henchmen! What is this, The Mask of Fu Manchu?!)
Also damaging is Mr. Chow's highly vulgar vernacular (alliteration!). While it is great to hear an Asian, normally portrayed as so demure and goody-goody, cursing like a sailor, there is a line that needs to be drawn. Perhaps the swearing streak was merely for over-the-top comedic effect. Who knows? I certainly thought it was too much... his constant streams of curses just pushed it too far.
There's also the issue that Mr. Chow is as effeminate as... the most effeminate thing you can think of. Jeong's portrayal also pokes fun at gay people - wow, managing to offend two minority groups at once! Fantastic! (Sarcasm done) The vulgarity earns big yuks, of course. Constant male genitalia jokes, you know. There's the issue of him running around stark naked all the time. There's the issue of him beating up people with crowbars. It's just... too much. Too much. It goes beyond being mildly humorous to being incredibly offensive and difficult to watch. Not sure that was what the writers and directors were aiming for (who, by the way, are middle-aged Caucasian males)...

The most painful part about the whole Hangover franchise is that I hear more people quoting Mr. Chow's lines than any other funny lines in the whole movie. I hear more people talking about "that hysterical Asian asshole." Mm. Lovely. Of course, both Hangover movies poke fun at all types of people - women, people of color, old people, babies, harmless monks... It's just that the character of Mr. Chow is based on cheap, degrading stereotypes that are horrifying to watch. It's completely based on the stereotypes that have been around since Asians have been appearing in films - in other words, not progressive at all. In addition, the only characters that are not made fun of extensively are upper-middle-class Caucasian males - which isn't really a departure from certain trends in Hollywood... Disappointment abounds.
Ken Jeong's big-screen debut was actually in Knocked Up, where he played a doctor (and oh my LOLs, he's a doctor in real life). 

This scene is actually pretty funny. Wanna know why? I don't have to listen to some fabricated and screeching accent a la Leslie Chow. In fact, this scene proves that Ken Jeong does not have an accent - so why did he adopt one for both Hangovers? I'm currently tearing my hair out in frustration.

Basically, the character of Mr. Chow is the next Charlie Chan stereotype. The Charlie Chan of our generation. He was created only for this movie and already an ad campaign used the exact same formula to sell a product. He'll last forever and people will love him - and a few generations from now, people will be frantically trying to erase and move beyond him.

The one thing that I am very grateful for is that both Hangovers were rated R. Which means, unlike the character of Long Duk Dong, desperate pleas for Mr. Chow imitations will not be heard on elementary school playgrounds at all. Asian-American children will not be asked to yell, "Toodaroo mothafucka!" or something like that. 

Jeong's portrayal of an effeminate and dangerous FOB, exorbitant use of profanity, and horrendous accent crossed the line. It was never a positive portrayal of an Asian to begin with, and it got more and more offensive as the movie went on. Sadly, it looks like Mr. Chow and his henchmen are here to stay, possibly spawning several more rip-offs before the year is through. 

Angry Asian Man's take on the Hangover

Friday, April 22, 2011

Romeo Must Die

I was so excited to watch this movie. You have no idea. I was ready to move on from the horrendous Jackie Chan stuff and onto some real action and some real representation. But alas... it didn't really come true. It fell flat. On its face. 

Disclaimer: This movie does not follow the original Shakespeare play at all. 
It starts with the son of an Oakland Chinese gangster being at a "black" club called Silk's. The son's bodyguards, headed by Kai (Russell Wong) show up and there's a lot of gunshots. The bodyguards, Kai, and the son are asked to leave. Kai berates the son for going into an "enemy" club, but The Son rolls his eyes and drives away. His body is found the next morning... dead. The father, Chu Sing (Henry O), finds out, as does his rival head-of-the-stereotypical-black-gang, Isaak O'Day (Delroy Lindo). It makes the situation between them very sticky. The Son's brother, Han (Jet Li), finds out while he is imprisoned in Hong Kong, so he escapes using his badassedness and somehow gets to Oakland (which is really Vancouver but whatever). Isaak gets worried that the Chinese gang will retaliate and attack his daughter, Trisha (Aaliyah), so he puts a bodyguard on her, comic relief by the name of Maurice (Anthony Anderson). They go to a record store together and Trisha runs away because she doesn't like her bodyguard. She jumps into a cab that Han has just stolen and then they drive away. Han can't drive. That's okay, because it starts a nice conversation. And they flirt and it's reaaaaaaally cute. Meanwhile, Isaak meets with a white businessman named Roth (Edoardo Ballerini) about selling some of his waterfront property to build a NFL stadium and own a football team. Isaak has decided to give up his life of crime to own the stadium and team, so he is willing to do whatever in the deal with Roth. Later, Han drops off Trish at her store (yeah, she owns a store) and she finds her brother Colin (D.B. Woodside) making shady business deals over the phone. Naturally, this upsets her, but he consoles her and they hug. It's cute. Meanwhile, Han breaks into his brother's swanky high-rise apartment and finds out that the last number his brother dialed was that of Trish's store. Trish is then called to a diner to meet with Isaak's second-in-command, Mac (Isaiah Washington), who warns her to be careful. Trish rolls her eyes and goes home... and Han followed her home! He asks her about the phone call but she says she doesn't know what it's about. But then Maurice and some of his cronies show up and immediately suspect Han of something, even though he presents himself as a dim sum delivery kid. No matter. There's a badass fight anyways, and Han wins, because he's a winner. Han then steals Maurice's SUV. Han then goes to his brother's funeral and confront his father, Chu, about his brother's death. Apparently, Han and his brother were very close. Chu refuses to even talk about his son's death, so Han decides to talk to Kai. Kai informs Han that the Chinatown gangs (yeah, you read that correctly) and Isaak's gang are fighting over the waterfront properties, as both gangs want to own the NFL stadium and stuff. Kai and Han have a fight because it's fun, and Han goes back to Trisha's and they hang out and flirt some more and it's really cute. Later that night, Colin and his girlfriend are thrown out of the window of their high-rise apartment by someone mysterious and they both die. The next day, Han returns to his brother's apartment and finds it completely trashed. He then finds his brother's car with a list of addresses of waterfront properties. Going back to the apartment, Han finds Trisha, who tells him about Colin's death. They decide to work together to figure out the mysterious waterfront property list. They arrive at the first waterfront business, which is owned by a Chinese man, but he's been murdered, along with his coworkers. Han and Trish spot the assassins as they are motorcycling away, so they give chase. While fighting, Han discovers that the assassins are Chinese, which makes him worry. Han then informs his father, who dismisses it as a plot by Isaak to "get even" or one-up him on the waterfront properties. Meanwhile, Mac tortures a black waterfront property owner into handing over the property deed to him. So both Kai and Mac are killing and doing bad things to obtain the businesses and land that they want. Isaak freaks out and has Trisha move back into her childhood home to be safe. He also forbids her to see Han ever again and stresses the dangers of the Chinese. Trisha then gets suspicious and asks her dad if he had anything to do with the murder of Han's brother, which Isaak denies. Then they have a heart-to-heart, but Roth calls and tells Isaak he wants to seal the deal now. They agree to meet at the Silk's, the bar where the first fight scene takes place. Han and Trisha decide to go to Silk's too, unaware of the meeting that is happening there. When they show up, everyone stares at Han because he's Chinese - however, this doesn't daunt Trisha, who decides to dance with Han. Scaaaaandal. Silk (DMX), the owner of the bar, sees them and smells trouble, so he scoops them off of the dance floor and takes them up to his office. There's some exposition about Isaak's gang buying up all of the waterfront properties... blah blah blah... until Mac bursts in and shoots Silk and takes the property deed! Han is beaten up and Trisha is taken away. Han gets taken away to a weird warehouse that looks like the set of the final chase scene in The Fugitive. There's another badass fight sequence and Han escapes to find Trisha! Later, Isaak refuses to sell the newly acquired waterfront properties to Roth, claiming that he wants to be a partner. This makes Mac upset, who then reveals that he's been working with Chu to kill off the other property owners and that he was the one who killed Colin. This makes Isaak very angry, and he launches himself at Mac but gets shot. Then Roth's guys start shooting everywhere and most of Isaak's men get killed. Roth steals all of the deeds and tries to make it to a waiting helicopter but drops all of the deeds. Han shows up and interrogates Mac about the death of his brother, who says that it happened "in house," and then is about to shoot Han when - SURPRISE! Trisha shoots Mac! Han and Trisha go back to Isaak to make sure that he gets to a hospital, and Isaak gives his blessing for Han and Trisha - awww. Then Han departs to avenge his brother. He shows up at his father's house and confronts Kai, who confesses that he was the one who killed Han's brother. Then Kai and Han have a ginormous fight and ends with Kai being killed. Han then goes and confronts his dad, who asks that Han kill him. Han decides to step away and leave it to the police, but his dad shoots himself. The film ends with Trisha and Han hugging (not kissing like they are obviously supposed to) and walking away holding hands (what are they, fourth graders?!). 
They're cuuuute. But they aren't fourth graders. So they should do more than just hold hands.
Phew. Long-winded plot, eh? Kinda puts those Jackie Chan films to shame.
Now, about the kiss that got cut and replaced with a hug. A bit of context: The original cut of the film featured Jet Li and Aaliyah kissing and then the movie ending. However, when showed at test screenings, viewers did not like the fact that Jet Li and Aaliyah were kissing. So they replaced the kiss with a hug. Stupid, right? I know. And it was a hug. The hug implies that they're only good friends, which is just utterly false and an understatement - Trisha and Han obviously have chemistry together - so... they just hug? It's an anti-climactic ending, especially with all the bad stuff going down in the rest of the movie. Just a hug? Come on, they had been holding in all their sexual tension the whole movie and they just hug? Liberate yourselves, kiddos! Kiss her!
No kissing!!
But I digress. This film came out in 2000. Anti-miscegenation laws had been nonexistent for 33 years. It was 16 years after the release of Sixteen Candles. Hard to believe that in the year 2000, people still had issues with interracial kissing. But here's my question. Was it the fact that it was a black girl and an Asian guy kissing? Or was it the fact that it was Aaliyah kissing a relatively unknown Asian actor? Aaliyah was a very famous, very talented singer who was just starting her film career - she already had a fan base because of her musical career. Did her fans think she was too - dare I say it? - good for Jet Li? Was it because Jet Li did not have the status as a sex symbol that Aaliyah did? Would it have made a difference if it was a different black female actress? Who knows? I just wonder why it was such a huge issue. I mean, there was some serious in-your-face interracial kissing back in Crimson Kimono - that film was released in 1959. In 2000, audiences couldn't have a badass Asian dude kiss a pretty black girl. What's up with that?!

Despite the lack-of-kiss controversy, Romeo Must Die was a groundbreaking film. Well, sort of. Well, not really. More of a groundbreaking premise than an actually important and impressive film. There's the fact that it stars Jet Li as a calm, cool, funny dude who just happens to be from Hong Kong and he just happens to be a badass. If you cut all of the martial arts scenes from the film, you would get a film about a normal Asian dude who falls in love with a black girl. Normality! His character is almost boring - and you have no idea how refreshing it is. 
The only similarities between the Bruce Lee caricature and the character of Han is that they both excel at martial arts and are quite noble. There are almost no similarities between Han and Jackie Chan - Han is not loud and clumsy, nor is he silly or bumbling. It's great!
But of course, Han remains a badass. And here's proof!

Something also has to be said about who this film is appealing to. Essentially, this is a movie of martial arts and love for the hip-hop generation. It's definitely marketed as an action movie for the 13-25 age range (I'm guessing here). So if a bunch of 13-25 year olds were watching this movie and they see a positive representation of... well, one Asian guy, the impact would have been notable. The normality of Han's characteristics shows that some Asian guys are pretty darn normal. They play football and try to impress girls. They're funny and goofy and they're just like any other kid you'd meet on the street. On the other hand, Han's supercool martial arts skillz make him into a hero. His ability to take out a group of bad guys makes him somebody to look up to. When was the last time people looked up to an Asian guy? 

Han even beasts at American football! Look at that! 
Another merit of this film is that it doesn't rely solely on the fight scenes - there is a (long-winded and slightly convoluted) plot, and it works (ish). 
Remember how Jackie Chan's debut film in America was that awful pile of poop called Rumble in the Bronx? Well, this was Jet Li's American debut film. (I'm ignoring Lethal Weapon 4) No comparison needed, no contest - Jet Li is the winner. He wins on a positive portrayal, a semi-tolerable movie, better fight scenes, and he has a happy smile. And he never gets too subservient or too anything, really. However, Li isn't a winner just because of Romeo Must Die. He has not caricature-ized himself while acting in America at all and has retained a very good public image. Jet Li has consistently chosen roles that are not completely stereotypical portrayals of Asian people - so not only is he a badass, he's also a conscious, smart human being! Is it any wonder that I'm on Team Jet Li and not on Team Jackie Chan?!

There is, of course, the issue of gangs, regardless of racial background. I'm going to focus specifically on the Chinese gangs, however. Eerily reminiscent of the Sherlock episode I wrote about, this idea of warring families and all the Chinese families banding together just rubs me the wrong way. The entire plot of the film definitely rests on the race-based gang premise, so that kinda makes this whole film... uncomfortable. Chu Sing isn't a nice guy - he puts his enemies in refrigerators and his right-hand man killed his own son for the good of the business. He's a kind of frail Fu Manchu, with Kai acting as his mercenary. Not the best portrayal, and it isn't really redeemed with Han's character at all... 
I wish this film had used this topic (so much potential!) to make some sort of social commentary about race relations or organized crime or something - but it never does. Never ever. And there's never any Shakespeare references either! Hmph.

So overall... I think this was a movie that had a lot of creative potential, and had the potential to be really groundbreaking. The concept was interesting and showed a lot of promise, but none of it was actually achieved, which is hugely disappointing. Then of course there's the no kissing thing. And the gangs. I'm taking solace in the fact that I can watch the Russell Wong vs. Jet Li fight scene over and over again... 
Oh well. You can't win them all. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Jackie Chan Atrocity: Rumble in the Bronx

Here's the thing about these kung fu ass-kicking movies: they tend to have no plot at all. Rumble in the Bronx is no exception. 

See? Even the trailer admits it (sort of) - plot is not necessary! At all! This movie is not a story - it's a montage of Jackie Chan kicking biker-gang-butt with a little bit of plot thrown in. And honestly, the plot only moves the story onto the next fight scene. It's kinda like the producer, director, and writer had a montage of fight scenes but couldn't figure out how to turn it into a movie - so they added this very weak and quite unbelievable plot. 

Jackie Chan plays Keung, a recent immigrant from Hong Kong who has come to the Bronx for his uncle's wedding. His uncle (Bill Tung) also owns a small supermarket in the neighborhood, but he is planning on selling it to a girl named either Elaine or Elena (Anita Mui) - the summary, subtitles, and dubbed versions were all different - who thinks Keung is cute. D'aww. Keung's uncle gets lent a nice shiny car for his wedding. He parks it outside of his apartment where Keung is also staying. That night, a super stereotypical biker gang has a race on their street. One of the cyclists is about to run over the nice shiny car when Keung deflects it! Unfortunately, he has now earned the wrath of the very 90's biker gang that coincidentally has been harassing Elaine/Elena at her supermarket. Then Keung shows up and does some ass-kicking and the biker gang leaves the supermarket alone. Keung also made friends with a little Chinese-American boy named Danny (Morgan Lam) who sits in a wheelchair and is being raised by his older sister Nancy (Fran├žoise Yip), an exotic dancer in a sleazy club who also happens to be dating the leader of stereotypically 90's biker gang (Marc Akerstream). They seem to be falling in love, but that plot line isn't important. What's important is that the Number Two Guy in the biker gang, who goes by the name of Angelo (stuntman Garvin Cross) gets mixed up in a diamond theft that's organized by a big-time gangster dude called White Tiger (Kris Lord). Angelo is running away with the diamonds and hides them in Danny's wheelchair cushion. Two of the White Tiger's associates vandalize Elaine/Elena's supermarket and kidnap two of the biker gang dudes to interrogate them about Angelo, who has since gone missing. One of them gets shredded in a tree shredder (gross) to send back to Angelo to threaten him with the return of the diamonds. Keung then goes to biker headquarters and fights the bikers in retaliation for trashing Elena/Elaine's supermarket. Then Keung decides to ally with the bikers to get the diamonds and return them to the White Tiger. God this plot is tedious. "Keung convinces the street gangsters to reform, then brings the big-time criminals to justice after another long-winded street battle. The syndicate and Keung work out the diamonds are in the boy's wheelchair, and the handover is botched after Nancy and Tony are held hostage by the syndicate; the diamonds are lost after the syndicate uses towtrucks to pull the supermarket apart and the diamonds are spilled as Keung is in the building and knocked over. A long battle occurs in the Hudson River after White Tiger's men hijack a hovercraft and are pursued by Keung and the New York Police Department. The hovercraft finally ends up running through the streets, causing much damage to property. Keung ends the chase by stealing a large sword from a museum and clamping it onto a sports car window and driving into the hovercraft, shredding the rubber undercarriage and immobilising the vehicle and capturing the syndicate men. After shooting one of them non-fatally to force them to reveal White Tiger's location, Keung drives the hovercraft, with the rubber implausibly re-patched with tape, across town to a golf course where White Tiger is playing with subordinates. He runs them over and squashes them non-fatally into the ground. The film ends with White Tiger being squashed, his clothes ripped off his back, leaving him naked." (from the Wikipedia article

It's Jackie Chan playing... Jackie Chan! But what's weird is that I only thought it was Jackie Chan playing Jackie Chan because I've seen other Jackie Chan movies that came out after Rumble in the Bronx. Because this was Chan's Hollywood debut, American audiences didn't know that he could be capable (cough) of handling different roles - roles that weren't just bumbling badass buffoons. Because that is exactly what Charlie - excuse me, Jackie Chan's role as Keung is. He's a kid who could definitely kick your ass if you cross him, but he's a smiling, good-natured, clueless FOB at the same time. And I say FOB because he is. Keung's character arrives in America (fine, an airplane - technicalities, yeesh) and begins speaking in Chinese when his uncle tells him that he should speak English because he's in America. Did I mention that this was Chan's debut film in America? Yeah. FOB. A badass FOB, but an FOB just the same. The fact that dear old Jackie hasn't even tried to develop as an actor until the remake of The Karate Kid (which wasn't even much of a departure from all the other crap he's put out) shows that he's very comfortable being the same character all the time. So he just plays Jackie Chan. All. The. Time. 
Buffoon. Yeah.
Now would be a good time to quote my previous "Jackie Chan Atrocity" post on The Spy Next Door:
"While it's great that Asians/-Americans have someone like Jackie Chan as a familiar/extremely famous face in the media, it's awful that he portrays the same characters over and over again, and that he really doesn't do anything other than beat up bad guys. It's all that he is really "good" for, and it's shameful. Has Jackie Chan been typecast as a slapstick-y foreign ass-kicker? Unabashedly, yes. He's made some attempts to get out of that stereotype, but unfortunately, he can't. It's too hard to imagine this "yellow Uncle Tom" as anything other than a slightly dumb, slightly FOB-y martial artist. That's it. All brawn, no brain. Maybe a tiny hint of a brain. But no emotional depth. A perpetual foreigner whose only purpose is to bust out some karate chop hands and take down a group of evildoers. Disappointment abounds."

Jackie Chan often gets compared to Bruce Lee. The only similarity that they have is the ability to kick some serious ass. Jackie Chan is the humble, bumbling, odd FOB who just so happens to be able to take you down without breaking a sweat. Bruce Lee, on the other hand, is the "noble" warrior - he fights alone and in order to avenge his sister's death and take out a traitor of the Shaolin Temple! God, what a guy! Jackie Chan just fights because biker gangs are coming after him for some reason. Which portrayal is better for Asian Americans? I vote Bruce Lee. At least Bruce Lee showed that Asians can be cool and collected and have a mission in life, as opposed to... Jackie Chan. 
Dummy? Yeah.

I watched the New Line Cinema version, which was dubbed and re-edited for international distribution. Dubbed? Yeah, dubbed. The most irritating thing was that the dubbed track was half a second off from the visuals - disorienting, much? I really think that it made the entire film more laughable and annoying - a feeling that wasn't helped by Chan's portrayal of himself and the horrid plot and dialogue. 17 minutes of original footage got cut as well. What does that mean for the story? Was there 17 minutes more of a cohesive plot? Who knows?
Alright, I'll admit it. Jackie Chan is a badass. He jumps from one building to the other. Cool. That still doesn't excuse his poor representation of Chinese/Asian/-Americans! 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Wedding Banquet

The Wedding Banquet, directed by Ang Lee, is a great story about a gay Taiwanese-American man in his mid-twenties named Wei-Tung Gao (Winston Chao) who has been in a happy relationship with his white physical therapist boyfriend Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein). However, Wei-Tung's traditional Taiwanese parents know nothing about their son's sexuality, and are constantly nagging him about getting married and having a son soon. His mother, Mrs. Gao (Ya-lei Kuei) sends Wei-Tung a form that will be sent to a matchmaking firm and will find him a nice wife. Simon an Wei-Tung have a good time filling out the paperwork with outrageous demands (must speak five languages, have two Ph.Ds, be an opera singer) but the matchmaking firm ends up finding a girl who matches... exactly. On their first and very awkward date, the other girl finds out that Wei-Tung is gay and that the girl is actually already dating a white guy - they both agreed to the matchmaking forms/firm/thing to appease their parents. So Wei-Tung's off the hook... for a little bit. However, his parents are not at all pleased. That's when Simon has the brilliant idea of getting Wei-Tung's immigrant mainland-Chinese artist tenant, Wei-Wei (May Chin), to marry Wei-Tung so Wei-Tung's parents leave him alone and so she can get a green card. All three of the twentysomethings agree to the plan, and Wei-Tung tells his parents. Of course, they are overjoyed at the news and announce that they will come to the US for the wedding. Wei-Tung's father (Sihung Lung) also just had a stroke, but that does not deter him from wanting to come and have a big wedding for his son and daughter-in-law-to-be. Wei-Tung's parents arrive at the apartment that Simon and Wei-Tung share - all five people will be sharing the house for two weeks. However, both Wei-Tung and Wei-Wei want to get the marriage of convenience out of the way as quickly as possible, so they plan on having only a courthouse wedding. This doesn't really line up with Wei-Tung's parents' idea of a wedding, and Mrs. Gao breaks down crying because it isn't a Chinese ceremony and there isn't a banquet. The only way to make up for this tragic mistake? Accident? is to hold a huge banquet for everyone to attend. The banquet is large and shiny and Simon looks hurt and left out. After the banquet, Wei-Wei seduces Wei-Tung and he gets her pregnant. Whoops. This makes Simon really angry, and their previously stable and happy relationship starts to crumble. Wei-Tung's father (Mr. Gao?) has another stroke, and in a fit of anger and desperation, Wei-Tung comes out to his mother in the hospital hallway. She is immediately shocked and takes it personally and Wei-Tung begs her not to tell his father. Later, Simon is taking Mr. Gao for a walk and he discovers that Mr. Gao already guessed that Wei-Tung and Simon were in a relationship. Mr. Gao then accepts Simon as his son and gives him a hongbao filled with money but asks that he not tell Wei-Tung that he knows. Wei-Wei decides to keep her baby and asks Simon to be the other father of her child. Then it's time for Mr. and Mrs. Gao to go back to Taiwan, and they do, leaving the unconventional family behind. 

First thing first - some of the acting performances are really contrived and quite cheesy. But don't let that get you down! Watch it with subtitles and turn the sound waaaay down. 
However, the entire purpose/story of this film is quite groundbreaking - it's TWO minorities represented in ONE film. And that representation is a positive one! Nowhere in the film do you see a negative or stereotypical portrayal of a gay person or an Asian person. All of the characters are written as believable, down-to-earth and normal people. Nothing is overblown or contrived (except the performances...). And on top of that, the film got nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award! It doesn't get much better than that, folks.

However, this film is not at all about the Asian-American experience - while the story takes place in the early 90's in Manhattan, most of the dialogue happens in Mandarin, and the Asian characters are all "transplants" (if you will) from Asia in America. There's not really any culture clash or assimilation issues perse in this film, mostly because the entire movie takes place in the context of recent immigrants from China and Taiwan. In that sense, this film doesn't tackle the issue of being Asian in America - it's more about being gay and being Chinese at the same time. Granted, that's an important subject, but there isn't really much here for me to analyze that pertains to my original questions and ideas. 

Okay, fine, there's some culture clash. Like this above scene. But is this really culture clash? I feel like this is language clash, which could be something entirely different... or not. 
This film is like Chan is Missing in the sense that the characters and their relationships are all extremely relatable. However, they are different because while Chan is Missing has a great universal story that doesn't rely completely on "the Chinese-ness," The Wedding Banquet does rely on that to help move the story along. Regardless, both are great representations of Asians and Asian-Americans - and that's quite a cause for celebration. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chan is Missing

Chan is Missing is the story of two cabbies, Jo and Steve, (Wood MoyMarc Hayashi) who were trying to get a cab driving license. They enlisted the help of a man named Chan Hung, giving him $4000 to obtain the license. Before Chan can get the license, he disappears, taking the $4000 too. Jo and Steve, wanting their license and the $4000 dollars, decide to go find where Chan could be. The resulting journey takes them all over San Francisco Chinatown, through middle-class apartments, a Filipino senior center, Chinese restaurants, and ESL schools. They begin by asking Chan's friend, a restaurant cook with a degree in astrophysics and engineering who hates making sweet and sour spareribs, the restaurant's most popular dish. He says that Chan went back to China, but Jo doesn't believe this. Jo says that Chan would only go back to China once he made an impact on America. Later, Jo and Steve find out that Chan was involved in a traffic accident, where he received a ticket. That same day, Jo and Steve hear about the argument between Chan and another elderly Chinese man that resulted in the other man's death. Chan and the other man had recently been in an argument about which flag should have been flown at an annual parade in Chinatown - the People's Republic of China flag versus the Republic of China's flag. Jo and Steve head to a Manilatown senior center, where they find out that Chan enjoyed eating Hi-Hos and listening to the mariachi music performed there. They find Chan's coat there, with newspaper clippings in the pockets of the story of the murdered elderly Chinese man and of the story of the controversy surrounding the flags. Jo and Steve's search for Chan keeps leading them astray and they hear a different story about him every time. Next, they decide to talk to Chan's wife, an Americanized, headstrong lawyer who said that Chan"was too Chinese" to fully assimilate into America. Ties to Communist China keep appearing as well. Eventually ties to an "other woman" surface, and Jo receives a mysterious call telling him to "stop asking questions about Chan." We never actually find out where Chan went, but his daughter brings $4000 to Steve and Jo to make up for the money. The film has a very ambiguous ending with long shots of deserted Chinatown streets with a scratchy recording of Flower Drum Song's "Grant Avenue." 

The great thing about Wayne Wang films is that they are incredibly relatable. You don't even have to be Chinese or Asian-American to enjoy them. Universal messages, people. They work well. Chan is Missing is no exception. However, it does draw attention to the differences in mentality and worldview between Asians from Asia and Asian-Americans. A part of the last 30 minutes of the film act as Jo's monologue about how the reason he couldn't find Chan Hung was because Jo couldn't think like a Chinese-Chinese man. This monologue is said over a montage of iconic yet dismal scenes of San Francisco. Jo was born in America - he found that it was this cultural difference that kept him from finding Chan. And just as Chan can't be found in the city at all, he's also found embedded in the city itself. This is spectacular because it highlights the difference between those who immigrate from Asia and those have Asian heritage and are born in America, something American mainstream media can't even seem to accent now. If you've been keeping up with my blog, you'll realize that this sort of "highlighting" of cultural differences within the Asian-American race is huge. 

Scroll to 4:13 for Chan is Missing
The style and feel of the film also gives a boost to its relatability (just making up words here). Most of the shots are hand-held and take place in people's kitchens. There is a distinctive home-movie quality to the film which makes the film way more familiar to anybody regardless of their race. Also, the film has characters speaking both Cantonese and Mandarin. Hello! Haven't heard any Cantonese since... Oh yeah, Double Happiness. Still. It's not all in Mandarin! And it's funny! Funny without making fun of Asians! This film was a huge step in the integration of proper representations of Asian-Americans in the movie industry, even if it didn't really make a big splash at the time. 

As dear old Ebert said, this is the first film that doesn't rely on all those handy stereotypes that I've been studying. There are no Fu Manchus, no Lotus Blossom girls, no Long Duk Dongs. There's a few Charlie Chan jokes, but they're all making fun of the "venerable" detective. All of the characters (Jo and Steve, in particular) are portrayed as normal human beings who just happen to be Chinese. The normality of the characters and setting is what make this film really stand out (okay, yeah, the cinematography's great too) - this could have been a film about any particular group of people, and the story would not have had to been altered one bit. Not once does the film mock or fetishize Chinatown or Chinese people - and that's probably because it was directed by an Asian-American director. 
I think that when a movie that just so happens to be about Asian-Americans is directed or written by Asian-Americans, the story becomes so much richer and way more relatable. These films end up more authentic because it's not some white director or writer who knows next to nothing about the Asian culture or the experience of Asian-Americans. Those films (Flower Drum Song, anyone?) end up appropriating Asian culture and either making a mockery of it or just representing it in the wrong way (The World of Suzie WongThe Mask of Fu Manchu?) People always talk about Flower Drum Song as the "first" and the "best." However, it was not authentic. And usually, inauthenticity makes people angry. So what's the best way to capture an authentic picture of the Asian-American experience? Get an Asian-American writer, director - or just Wayne Wang behind the camera.

Just like Joy Luck Club before it, Chan is Missing presents a story with a universal message that just so happens to be about Chinese-Americans. Chan is Missing deals with loss, identity, mystery... you name it. But it's not specifically about Chinese-Americans. Sure, that's a common thread, almost the backbone of the story, but it really isn't the only thing going on in the movie. An example of the Asian-American-ness taking over the plot of a film would probably be Double Happiness. Of course, these aren't even in the same category of films - but they both deal with the subject of being an Asian who has heritage/blood ties to Asia but doesn't fit in there. 
Of course, films like this beg the question: Is this a film that just so happens to feature Asian-Americans? Or is this a film made for Asian-Americans?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

One Voice

Recently I've volunteered at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and got to see one (yeah, just one) film, and it was this one. 

"One Voice," directed by Lisette Marie Flanary, is a documentary about an annual choral contest in Kamehameha High School in Oahu, Hawai'i. The school has a very large emphasis in learning and living Hawai'an culture and has a preference towards admitting Hawai'an students. All four grade levels compete to be the best performers of mele, a type of Hawai'ian spiritual in four-part harmony and is about how beautiful Hawai'i is and having pride in being Hawai'ian. The documentary follows the 3rd quarter lives of the student conductors for each grade - after all, they're still students at school in addition to being conductors. There are three conductors per grade - one for girls, one for boys, and one for the coed choir. For Kamehameha, the "Song Contest" is the biggest deal since sliced bread, but the pressure on the student conductors is incredible. All of them want to win and be the representative (of sorts) of their class, so the amount of preparation they put into the songs is insane. One girl's song was about the island of Moloka'i, which also happened to be where her family was from, so she went back to really understand the song. Talk about commitment! The story was quite moving and emotional, especially with the last scene of all of the performances lead by the student conductors who the audience had grown attached to. However, the Song Contest wasn't the only thing that really drove the movie. The other side of the movie consists of a short background of the Kamehameha Schools, the Song Contest, and the history of mele, while educating the audience about what it means to be Hawai'ian. 

This film was great for me to watch because I previously knew next to nothing about Hawaiian culture. I knew that there was immense pride in being Hawaiian, but you get that same pride in almost any other AAPI culture. However, this was one of the film's drawbacks. Not a lot of the movie was devoted to educating the audience about Hawaiian culture - most of it was devoted to the Song Contest (which is great, don't get me wrong). I just wish I had been given a little more background - remember how uneducated I am about Hawaiian, let alone Pacific Islander, cultures in general? 

Seeing this movie pointed out to me that I haven't really been seeing any Pacific-Islander specific films, with the exception of South Pacific. I've been focusing a lot on just the East Asian experience and the more "traditional" Asian-American experience. I don't know much about Hawaiian culture or Pacific Islander culture at all, but I know plenty about East Asian and a little bit of South Asian culture. It's led me to wonder whether the Pacific Islander experience is something that needs it's own independent study or  if I should start incorporating it into my blog/studies now. I mean, that's what I'm doing right now. But is it part of the Asian American experience? I've heard people say, "Yes, it absolutely is!" And it does fit, at least on legal documents and forms and things. But on the other hand, I've heard people say, "No, Pacific Islander culture and East Asian culture are extremely different, even under the umbrella of AAPI." Which is also true. So... where does it go? Should Pacific Islander be put in the same category as East Asian? Does South Asian fit in there too? Do I even have the right to question where the PI of AAPI "belong?" 

I'm not really sure. But if there's one thing that I'm sure about, it's that this movie is great. And it's directed by a female Hawaiian director! Yay! Go see it!
One Voice website

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Double Happiness

Once upon a time, a movie called Joy Luck Club came out. (Most) everyone loved it. Soon afterwards, many other JLC rip-offs debuted and just didn't measure up. This is one of those rip-offs. Except that this one is Canadian.
"Forget that they're a Chinese family, just think of them as any old family. You know, any old white family... I grew up wondering why we couldn't be the Brady Bunch... But then again, Brady Bunch never needed subtitles."
Jade Li (Sandra Oh) is a twenty-two year old aspiring actress who lives with her extremely traditional Chinese family somewhere in Canada. Her parents only want four things in life - to get money from the penny stocks, to put on the "best" public persona to save face, to marry Jade off to a nice Chinese boy, and have prosperity. Jade couldn't care less about getting married or prosperity, causing her parents to be very worried about her. All she wants is to be an actress. She's also attracted to a nice Caucasian grad student named Mark (Callum Keith Rennie), even though she knows her parents would be very upset with her. However, her parents (and extended family) keep on trying to set Jade up with a nice Chinese boy. They introduce her to Andrew (Johnny Mah), and they go on a date together. However, Andrew tells Jade that he's gay, and they decide that they can only be friends. The plot rambles from there, taking Jade to auditions to awkward dates with Mark to awkward-er dates with faceless nice Chinese boys. Finally, Jade gets fed up and moves out of her family home, causing her to be disowned by her strict, one-dimensional Chinese father. Fin. 
Double Happiness is one of those movies with funny bits and pieces but the overall story just rambles and doesn't seem to have a point. It's release seemed to be riding on the coattails of Joy Luck Club too much. It was another one of those bankable "family-culture-clash-Asians-are-people-too" movies that really didn't measure up to the still sub-par JLC. Also, the idea of "double happiness" never even gets mentioned in the movie - or if it does, it's mentioned in passing and I missed it. Either way, that's uncool.
The similarities between Joy Luck Club and Double Happiness are eerie. Both feature Asian families with immigrant parents and Americanized children. Both have "studly" white guys as love interests. Both have strong, independent Asian American women trying to break free from the overbearing Chinese-ness of their families as the main characters/plot devices. Both have these weird, now-you-see-them-now-you-don't messages - almost like an "It's okay to be Asian American!" sort of thing. Both have themes about staying true to your family and being true to yourself as well (take this opportunity to wipe away the tears), while assimilating into Western culture while remaining faithful to your "true" heritage and culture.
However, they both have their own "defining" characteristics. Double Happiness is meant to be a lighthearted comedy - God forbid you even crack a smile during most of the scenes in Joy Luck Club. Double Happiness has no plot - Joy Luck Club has several of them. But it really ends there. Unfortunately, there aren't all that many things in Double Happiness to compare to anything. 

This, however, is one of the funnier moments in the movie. This is a scene where Jade is auditioning for an itty bitty role in some random movie. She has a total of 3 lines in the scene that she is reading, where she is a waitress. After she finishes the reading, the director asks her to do it in an accent. Jade responds with a pretty spot-on French accent... but that's not what the director wants. Then Jade is forced to belittle herself by saying, "A very good Chinese accent I can do for you." Cringe. Poor girl. 
I found this scene hilarious because (I've been told) it's true. Asian actors are usually reduced to auditioning for bit parts in big movies, and at the auditions, they're usually asked if they can do some sort of generic Asian accent. If they can't, they probably won't get the part or won't be considered for other parts. If they can, they will probably land the part of some Perpetual Foreigner with some awful accent. If they're "lucky" (and luck is relative) they'll get famous for their accent and rocket to a fame based solely on a stereotypical portrayal (see Ken Jeong of the Slim Chin and The Hangover). Yuck. That isn't "lucky" in my book. In my opinion, Ken Jeong is my generation's Gedde Watanabe - the similarities are uncanny.
But I digress. Jade's audition scene is probably a common occurrence for aspiring Asian-American actors. Directors seem to buy into this Perpetual Foreigner stereotype a little too much - it's almost like the assumption is "If you're Asian, you can do the accent." Very different from Ye Olde Days of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, when putting on an accent was the very least of the actors and directors' concern. Now, it's the opposite - and you can't be white and do the accent. You have to be Asian and do the accent. Perpetuating stereotypes - yay! Jade seems to realize this after her "Parisian accent" gets a look of confusion from the director and the other chick. And, lo and behold, she later "stars" in a scene where her face doesn't even get shown. She's cast as the headless, semi-mute, foreign Asian waitress, and it's depressing. That's why I found this scene so compelling - it shows the dilemmas that Asian Americans face in the audition rooms, and, subsequently, in the movie industry. 

Now look at this scene. Sandra Oh starts off pretending to be the mute Geisha-girl while Callum Rennie hits on her awkwardly. I don't actually care about Callum Rennie and his being awkward - it's the mute Geisha-girl thing. I have no idea what the purpose of this was. Is she trying to get his attention? It seems like a bad idea - I mean, if you're mute, you're not going to be grabbing anyone's attentions, right? Or is Jade/Oh trying to get him to leave her alone - the whole "I no speak Engrish" thing? I can't tell. Either way, it must work, because they end up sleeping together. My question, however, is why. Why does she adopt this weird foreign girl persona, when she is clearly (judging on looks alone) very very very Canadian/Westernized? What's the purpose? This may have been the most random part of the whole movie - and I still don't get it. 
The one other good thing I can say about this film is that it was written and directed by an Asian woman, Mina Shum. Props to Shum for being a woman in an industry which has always been male-dominated, and props for being an Asian-Canadian at the same time. We need more of her type. More of her type and fewer JLC rip-offs.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Charlie Chan in... LA?

I was in Los Angeles last week on holiday. It was nice... cold. 
I was driving around downtown LA when I passed this...
Charlie Chan Printing. What?!
Did the owner of the business know about the movies and thought that the name would draw buyers? Or was the owner actually named Charlie Chan? 
Funny coincidences. Either way, it made me go: