Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Hollywood Mirror

Last week as I was de-toxing from my South Carolina sojourn, I took a break from the work schedule I put myself on and immersed myself in narrative. I read two novels in 4 days (The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman--I recommend both, highly, for different reasons. Erdrich continues to weave the genealogy that she began in Love Medicine about American Indians in the Midwest--with haunting and beautiful effect--and Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy is a page turner and much more than a children's fantasy world: it is dark and rather treacherous and raises some philosophical/theological questions that are really more for adults) and more to the point of this entry, I saw 3 films: the latest and final installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the indie film Waitress, and the latest caper flick in the Oceans' series, Oceans 13.

What do these films all have in common?

Nothing, other than the fact that I was entertained by all 3 and that all 3 lacked any real Asian American characters. In Waitress I don't think I recall seeing a single non-white person. It is set in some small, rural town in the midwest or the South (unclear the exact setting). Pirates did feature Chow Yun-Fat as the pirate king Sao Feng. The Angry Asian Man blog already discussed the stereotypes associated with his character--and the People's Republic of China is so incensed with the continuation of "yellow peril" stereotypes that his character perpetuates that they have apparently edited out certain scenes for release in mainland China.

Did the depiction bother me? Yes and no. Yes, because it's racist fantasy and no one likes racist fantasy. No, because I wasn't expecting more from this film series. I mean, if I don't want to be incensed by Hollywood depictions of Asians and Asian Americans, I shouldn't go to movie theaters and watch Hollywood films. It's almost a given, nowadays, that what you see projected on screen is going to be a stereotype or gross caricature. Nothing new has really changed in nearly a century of cinematic portrayals. So yes, it's important to point out all the ways that Sao Feng and the other Asian faces are in line with Hollywood stereotypes--and so are the other "ethnicized" characters--the Turk, the Spaniard, the Frenchman, the African--so I'm just not surprised and unlike with books, in film I can turn down the volume of the critical voice--or at least I was able to this week.

But the surprise film I want to talk about is Oceans 13. Because they have done something in all 3 films with the Chinese character that I think is intriguing and I can't figure out if it is done for pure laughs or could be a potentially subversive thing to do. They never have the Chinese character, Yen (played by real life acrobat, Shaobo Qin) speak English--he speaks Mandarin and the other characters respond in English. But what is important is that they all understand one another--the only need for an "interpreter" is when they are conning other people. It's a small thing--and I think it was originally done for laughs in the first film when Qin speaks Mandarin and Brad Pitt responds in English, signaling that Pitt can understand Mandarin, but continuing this conceit in the third film is interesting and potentially subversive because it creates a world in which a facility for language is assumed--where accents are not used for comic effect and where there is something natural about everyone understanding Mandarin and simply responding back in English. And there are never subtitles or explanations--if you don't speak Mandarin then you have to figure out through the context of the speech act what is being conveyed. So what is mirrored back is a reality in which you can speak Mandarin and look like a Chinese guy (and be a Chinese guy) and you don't get mocked or ridiculed--you are understood and accepted.

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