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, November 16, 2010

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

I burned a lot of calories laughing at this one.
Warning: This post not safe for 12 and under.

Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are roommates, best buddies, and stoners. Harold works in an office, where the white guys push off all the work on Harold because they think that "those Asian guys love crunching numbers." Kumar's father wants him to go to med school, but all Kumar wants to do is smoke pot and have fun. Kumar screws up his interview to get into med school by talking to Harold over the phone in front of the dean and goes home. Harold is upset because now he has lots more work to do, his parking spot got stolen by some white "extreme sports punks" who yell at him "Better Ruck Tomorrow!!!" and Harold cannot work up the courage to talk to the pretty-indeterminate-race-girl-next-door and his crush, Maria. So Harold and Kumar get high and get the munchies. They see an ad for White Castle and... cravings. They hop in Harold's car (despite the amount of work Harold has) and make the journey to White Castle. And shenanigans ensue. Unfortunately, the old White Castle in New Brunswick was replaced with a crappier burger joint (ha ha, joint), but there's another White Castle open 24 hours a day in Cherry Hill. Along the way, Kumar starts to come down and decides to stop by Princeton to get some more pot. While Harold gets taken to an "Asia Club" meeting by some chick he doesn't like, Kumar finds a pot supplier and buys some from him, and is then approached by two British Preppy McPrepsteresses. They give Kumar their room number, and this makes Kumar happy. Then he takes his pot and he and Harold get high in the stairwell and are almost caught by a campus policeman. They make a run for it and hide in the girl's bathroom. The two Preppy McPrepsteresses come into the bathroom as Harold and Kumar are hiding in a stall. The two Preppy McPrepsteresses take care of some business (taco sh*ts) and, needless to say but I'll say it anyway - Harold and Kumar run away, leave their pot and the pot supplier guy gets arrested. Our dynamic duo get back in their car and resume their quest for White Castle burgers. Kumar pulls over to urinate, but he leaves the door open and a raccoon gets in and bites Harold. Harold gets paranoid and insists on stopping by a hospital to check and see if he has rabies. At the hospital, Harold doesn't have rabies but Kumar runs into his doctor dad, who is very disappointed that Kumar didn't get into med school. Kumar apologizes and then steals his father's medical marijuana card. However, someone mistakes Kumar for his doctor brother and Kumar has to operate on a gunshot victim. Kumar saves the man's life, and in return, the man tells him how to get to White Castle from the hospital. Our dynamic duo hops in the car and drives on. They pass by a movie theatre and see Harold's crush (Maria, played by Paula Garc├ęs) outside. Kumar yells to get her attention, and Harold panics and hits the gas pedal to get Kumar to drive away. They drive off the road and land in a ditch. A boil-covered, Jesus-loving tow-truck man named Freakshow (Christopher Meloni) helps them out and takes them back to his tiny, Jesus-bedecked, pink house with his whorey wife. She is about to give Harold oral sex (told you this post wasn't safe for 12 and unders) when Freakshow comes in a gets mad, even though he gave them permission to do that sort of thing. Then he offers to have a foursome and our dynamic duo run away with their car, frightened to death. They drive off, and a little ways later Kumar spots a hitchhiker and stops for him. It turns out to be Neil Patrick Harris playing Neil Patrick Harris. He is high on ecstasy and wants to go to a strip club but Harold and Kumar are adamant in their quest for White Castle burgers. However, they don't know where they are, so they decide to stop at a gas station to get directions. While they're there, the Extreme Sports Punks are there too, and they harass the (just so happens to be) Indian gas station store owner, much to the anger of Kumar. Then Neil Patrick Harris steals Harold's car. Harold and Kumar decide to leave the gas station and find a pay phone. They are about to jaywalk across the street (at 2:00 in the morning, no less) when a white cop gives Harold a ticket for jaywalking. Kumar antagonizes Harold and Harold punches the white cop, who throws Harold in jail. In jail, Harold sees the pot supplier kid from Princeton get taken away by his mother, leaving his bag of pot on the table and he meets a black professor who was arrested by the same white cop for being black. Kumar fakes a 911 call so he can break out Harold and they can go to White Castle. Kumar then spots the bag of pot and steals it, and also helps Harold break out. They escape with the bag of pot into the woods, where they run into an escaped cheetah and smoke pot with it. Then they try and ride the cheetah to White Castle until Harold gets hit by a branch and falls off the cheetah. Kumar jumps off too and the cheetah runs away, and unfortunately, the computer that Harold has been working on all night is broken. They then wander out of the forest and see a hot dog joint (derp derp) and decide that they really want White Castle. They have another encounter with the Extreme Sports Punks and steal their car. Then they have a sing along to song bad 80's pop, when an officer spots their car and chases after them, until Harold and Kumar are trapped at the edge of a cliff looking down on their destination: White Castle!! They take a hang glider from the truck and fly/crash down to the White Castle and walk inside to get their 30 burgers, 5 servings of fries and 4 large drinks each (It's now about 7:00 in the morning). Only Kumar blew all their cash on the pot he bought at Princeton. Who should turn up but Neil Patrick Harris? He gives Harold $40 for their meal and $200 for the damage to Harold's car. Then Harold and Kumar chow down. Kumar realizes he does want to be a doctor, but he's afraid of conforming to the stereotype that Indians become doctors. Harold sees his coworkers that pushed all the work off on the "quiet Asian guy" and gives them hell for it. They get sheepish and cowardly and this pushes Harold to go pursue Maria (neighbor-crush-girl). They talk in the elevator of their apartment building and they kiss (YAY!). Then Maria reveals that she's heading for Amsterdam, and Kumar immediately wants to go too, because pot is legal there.

Did you just hear that cracking noise? I heard it too. It was the sound of John Cho and Kal Penn taking their hammers and chisels and making tiny cracks in the granite ceiling that is the model minority. Harold and Kumar are not really law-abiding citizens. True, Harold works as an investment banker, and Kumar could be a great doctor. But Harold seems to hate his job and Kumar is reluctant (until the end of the movie) to go to med school. Even Bobby Lee's character (the stuffy, very Asian kid at Princeton who gets excited about kimchee chicken and investment banking) gets loose and dances on a table shirtless throwing pot in the air and asking two girls to flash him. Harold and Kumar even confront racism head on - when they encounter the Extreme Sports Punks, when they deal with the racist white cop... Even better - young, intelligent Asian kids are doing things that we don't perceive as "Asian" things. They are breaking rules, being outrageous and silly and fun. We watch them have fun being crazy and not part of the model minority stereotype. Cracks in the model minority ceiling? No, I see some serious fissures! Asian people can get high, get chicks, wind up in jail, break out of jail, sing along to bad 80's pop, run away from creepers, and go on crazy, Dude, Where's My Car?-esque adventures just like white people!

The American Dream. Our people did come to America for a better life. "Escaping persecution, poverty, and hunger... they wanted to live in a land that treated them as equals." Unfortunately, this speech does not inspire... anything. It's very contrived and silly. I didn't feel any more connected to my people. I didn't get teary-eyed. I laughed (and I'm pretty sure taht was the point of it). But it made me think again of this "model minority" stereotype.
Both Harold and Kumar are achievers of the American Dream (yeah, let's put aside the pot stuff for a quick bit). They are intelligent kids who have (or, in Kumar's case, going to have) high-paying, successful jobs. Of course, that's going to beg the question "What is success?" but I am not going there. At all. They made it in America. They're well-off - so much so that they can take an entire night off just to get high and go to White Castle. However, they rebel against their "model minority" selves. And that is what makes this movie special. SPECIAL!

Twice in this film Harold mentions Sixteen Candles as one of his favorite movies. But not once does he or any other character mention Long Duk Dong. Part of me thinks that would have been too obvious if they had a reference to how stereotypical that character was in the script. All Harold says about it is that it's a classic and it's one of his favorites. That's it. No "OOooooh, sexy girlfriend!" No "What's a-happenin', hotstuff?" None of that at all. Just mentions the movie as a whole in passing. It's amazing. You'd think the screenwriters would have a field day with that. But they didn't! Did someone finally realize that we'd like to sweep that particular performance under the rug and not bring it up in a mainstream movie again (ahem, Kickin' It Old Skool)? Either way, Long duk Dong has no cameo in this here movie, no sir. And for that, it's awesome. 
Asian man isn't so quiet and subservient now, huh??
Think about it. A movie with non-emasculated, cool Asian characters. A film with attractive Asian actors. Harold gets the girl! A girl of indeterminate race, but still! They make out several times in an elevator! When was the last time you saw something like that? When was the last time you saw a male Asian character get a girl like that? Hmm? Lemme know when you think of one. A mainstream, goofy stoner movie with cool Asian characters and even cooler Asian actors.

Oh my goodness. I could not control myself during this scene. I fell out of my chair laughing. Just so funny. And it's not funny because it's race-based. It's funny because it's goofy and it's bad 80's pop music. And you can't help but smile when you watch it. And that's what I want to do when I see an Asian/American actor onscreen.
You know what's nice about this movie? It is not a movie about Asian stoners. It is not a film about being Asian (although, yes, it does make some references to that). It breaks down stereotypes about Asians in a way that does not end up hurting or perpetuating another stereotype. This is a (really really funny) movie about two stoners who just happen to be Asian. It's a beginning. When Asian actors can just act, and they needn't worry about being typecast as the geek, or the gangster, or anything else that has specific connotations and connections with their race. This is the beginning. And that, my dear readers, is some REAL representation. 

NPR interview with John Cho, Kal Penn, and Tavis Smiley on "Busting Stereotypes in Film" 

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