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 23, 2010

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing

Just when we thought there was going to be a lot more movies with some REAL representation, this little film came along and screwed everything up. 
London, 1923. Lord Southmere (Derek Nimmo) is a Queen's messenger and he has just arrived from China with a piece of microfilm concerning the mysteeeeerious "Lotus X." A group of Chinese spies find out and try to capture him, but not before he puts the bit of microfilm on the bone of a dinosaur in the Natural History Museum. Along the way, he enlists the help of his old nanny, Hettie (Helen Hayes) and her fellow nanny Emily, to thwart the Chinese spies. They are then captured by Hnup Wan (the "inscrutable" Peter Ustinov), the head of the London division of Chinese spies, whose old nanny was friends with Hettie. However, the nannies escape and plan to help Lord Southmere escape as well. Meanwhile, Lord Southmere won't tell Hnup Wan and his right hand man, Fan Choy (Bernard Bresslaw) where the microfilm is. All they know is that it was hidden on a dinosaur in the Natural History Museum - so they decide to steal one of the dinosaurs in order to find the microfilm. The Chinese spies load the dinosaur onto a truck in the middle of the night, but before they can run away with it, the nannies steal the truck and the dinosaur, with Hnup Wan and Fan Choy following close behind. There's a long chase scene, which ends in the dinosaur and truck accidentally running onto a flat wagon of a train, and the nannies and the dinosaur are carried away. The nannies continue to look for the microfilm but are forced to conclude that it just isn't on the stolen dinosaur. Then a little boy points out that there are multiple dinosaurs in the museum, and everybody realizes that the Chinese spies and therefore the nannies stole the wrong one! Hnup Wan gets to the dinosaur first and finds the microfilm of "Lotus X," which he prepares to look at properly, until Fan Choy replaces Hnup Wan as the head of the London division of Chinese spies. The nannies have now realized that Lord Southmere is in danger, so they recruit other nannies and they fight the Chinese spies in a Chinese restaurant, and Hnup Wan saves Lord Southmere. Later, everyone gathers in Hnup Wan's office to see what "Lotus X" was. And the piece of microfilm that started this whole mess turns out to be a recipe for wonton soup. And everyone is happy. 

Wonton soup???? Are you serious? All that plot for wonton soup? Not only is that just stupid... it implies that Chinese people only really care about food! It shows us as greedy gluttons who desire only to keep our precious wonton soup recipes to ourselves! Disgusting!
One of the most racist portrayals I have seen so far is from a children's movie. Horrifying.
Remember how I kept saying in previous yellowface portrayals that the accents weren't all that noticeable or prominent? How they were really only slowing down their speech or using an ambiguous accent that wasn't really specifically Asian? This is the first film I have watched that has that stereotypical, over exaggerated accent. One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing is just the most God-awful representation of someone of Chinese descent that I have seen yet. Every "r" gets mixed up with every "l." The speaking characters add the suffix "-ah" to every other word and butcher the English language shamelessly. Ustinov and Bresslaw employ a funky gutteral "nnnnnnnnnnnnn" noise after every sentence. When Ustinov reads "Chinese" out loud it sounds like this: "foy toy mee shee loo mah tung ah..." 
Then there's the yellowface. It consists of some crazy taping of the eyelids, some blue (blue?) eyeshadow, and some Charlie Chan-esque facial hair. It doesn't sound like much, but man oh man... It's terrifying. It's blue, sparkly eyeshadow! What about smearing blue sparkly eyeshadow across an actor's eyelid makes them Chinese? Absolutely nothing! Interestingly, there was no darkening of the actor's skin or prosthetic buck teeth. Not a single Asian person was seen in this movie either. All of the extras were white men as well, unlike Good Earth or Bitter Tea of General Yen, which at least had the good sense to at least include extras... Combine this level of scary yellowface with the heavily exaggerated and ugly ugly accents and you have got some scary Chinamen.
Hnup Wan is a bad Charlie Chan and a friendly Fu Manchu. He is roly-poly and bumbling like Charlie Chan, and is mysterious, manipulative and sly like Fu Manchu. He dresses in Western clothes and sometimes employs stupid aphorisms like Charlie Chan. He has crazy henchmen like Fu Manchu. Hnup Wan has the Charlie Chan facial hair and the Fu Manchu super-slanty eyes. He is asexual like Charlie Chan and employs funky-strange torture methods like Fu Manchu. And this character was in a children's movie (Ironically, he was played by Peter Ustinov, who then portrayed Hercule Poirot, which is most definitely a Charlie Chan parallel). 

The big fight scene between the nannies and Hnup Wan's henchmen is awful as well. It shows little old nannies beating up kung fu masters. Painful! But that's not all! The "masters"aren't even doing kung fu, or any martial art I know of. They're jumping in the air, doing a pirouette, then landing with a high kick and a hair-raising "HOOOAAAAAAAIIIEE!" Cue karate chop hands. Dear me. Two years after Enter the Dragon and you can't even hire proper martial artists? Shameful. 
Even more terrifying is that this was a Disney film. A children's movie. Hnup Wan and Fan Choy (Heavens to Betsy, those names!) are in the movie for comic relief and as the antagonists. On the one hand, this presents the Asian (male? There are no Asian women in this film at all) as a bumbling, slightly stupid and funny person that is really only good for making fun of. On the other hand, it shows the Asian as one who is sly, manipulative, cunning, dastardly clever and mysteeeeeeeeerious. These contrasting (conflicting?) portrayals end up sending only one message: Make fun of Asians because you can and because it's funny. One reviewer on IMDB wrote about how seeing this movie in theatres led him to do Hnup Wan impersonations. Is that a good thing? Absolutely not. That's like asking the Asian kids on the playground to do Long Duk Dong impersonations despite the obviously painful connections. In fact, Hnup Wan, Fan Choy, Mr. Yunioshi, and Long Duk Dong all belong in a new, separate category - Stereotypes That Exist Solely For Comic Relief and Playground Taunts.

Not cute at all. Listen to that soundtrack. It's got a stupid little xylophone. And the stupid little flutes and zithers and CRAP? It's racist! It sounds like the Mr. Yunioshi theme, only... mysterious. Gross. Makes me wanna cry. This stuff makes Flower Drum Song sound good. 
Children's movies relying on caricatures and stereotypes for comic relief? Shameful. 

8 comments:

  1. If you wish to view this atrocity...
    Unfortunately, this movie is not available as a Region 1 (North America) DVD, but is available in the UK.
    Ebay should have some more VHS versions floating around...

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's not racist for fucks sake. It's a children's comedy. The equivalent would be if we took any random chinese children's film in which they depict white people and started getting grumpy about how inconsistent they are, but we don't. Grow up!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is a 40 year old film that pokes fun at everyone in it. The British people in the film appear as ridiculous to me as the Asians do to you, but thats hardly the point of the film is it. Your angry rant at it just makes your serious point look less serious.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Its a childrens film made in 1975! Things were different back then and to be honest, it shows the English as bumbling idiots, the Scots as drunks. I loved it as a child and never thought about it as being racist. Its just meant to be a light hearted farce. You really are making too much out of an old film. Is this really all that offends you in this world?

    ReplyDelete
  5. You didn't watch the film vary carefully. The whole story was about industrial espionage and Lotus X. To make a fun twist at the end - and to keep within a story plot designed for children - it turns out that the secret film and Lotus X was just a recipe for wonton soup. If you didn't understand the film, or don't like plots designed for children, then that's ok, but don't get on your soap box calling it racist. You sound like a person LOOKING for insults when they don't exist. You must be a nightmare to live with!

    ReplyDelete
  6. How pitiful that a lighthearted romp such as this film should be dissected and analysed negatively as some kind of statement about society and race. The story is a comedy, the characters are splendidly ridiculous parodies! Did you actually imagine the film is some kind of historically correct drama making socio-political statements? I can't wait to read what amazing deductions will be drawn when Mary Poppins or Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang come under the same bizarre scrutiny!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Wow, look at all the ANONYMOUS people defending this racist film! So brave.

    ~Sigh~ it IS racist, there's no getting past it. Being a kids film doesn't excuse it, it makes it worse by teaching kids that stereotyping=funny. Hardly harmless stuff. And it's racism for very very lazy comedy returns. Drunk Scots? Lazy racism too. There is the bare bones of a workable story here (industrial espionage with dinosaur hijinks, why not?) but whoever wrote this knocked it out in a week - and it's not just the racism: ignore that and you've still got a slow dull film with nothing to look forward to but the dinosaur theft, which takes forever to get too. I'm amazed this shoddy racist script ever got in front of Disney's cameras.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely racist, like the "yellow peril" works of fiction it's clearly spoofing (Fu Manchu seemingly being an inspiration, and I think a fair amount of the exoticism is in the vein of the Mikado), but arguably distinct from the "red menace" plot of the source book, I gather.

      That being said, I think some of the more specific criticisms of racism listed here might be overly cynical:
      I'd assume (and I stand open to correction on this) that Elstree studios in the mid 70s didn't have access to a particularly wide array of big-name asian actors to play the lead villain in a Disney movie.
      I'm not excusing the practice of white actors portraying other ethnicities, to be clear, just that it's reasonable to assume it was done for sake of convenience rather than to deliberately denigrate a race.

      Having the villains be bumbling is generally an essential part of a light comedy knock-about romp; and it is not like the British protagonists are portrayed as anything other than bumbling stiff-upper-lip stereotypes themselves.

      The criticism that the plot revolves around Wonton Soup is simply dishonest: The chinese antagonists don't know the microfilm is a recipe for soup, and indeed it is preserving *a grandmother's secret family recipe* out of familial duty that is the motivating factor.
      Which might be equally racist, if someone were to argue instead that the tropes it plays up are that oriental cultures are overly concerned with preserving family honour / traditions and respecting their elders.

      I think every single stock comic character teaches children that "stereotyping is funny", if they are put into jokes that actually work. The fact that /racial/ stereotyping is problematic at best and often harmful doesn't necessarily preclude it from being funny either - humour is a function of how well a joke is setup and executed, rather than of a moral consideration.

      Does this film teach kids a dangerous message that being east-asian means you conform to the tropes in this film? Possibly? Although, I think that it being set in the 20s alone puts a clear barrier between the audience (in the 70s as well as modern) and what is happening on screen. The elements of farce(old ladies defeating a group of henchmen) are likewise meant to be read as absurd, rather than "even old ladies can beat up these asians".

      I think it might also be worth considering that in the finale of the film (IIRC), Southermere and Hnup bond over the fact that they both were brought up by the same nanny, and are somewhat alike in that moment; and that their differences (what they've been competing over) is ultimately trivial.

      Delete