Monday, October 8, 2007

Little Buddha or Why Keanu Reeves should not be in this film

I finally got around to seeing the Bernardo Bertolucci film Little Buddha. Bertolucci's big American claim to fame was The Last Emperor, which won an academy award for best film in the late 1980s. Continuing his fascination with all things Asian, Bertolucci made an early 1990s film about an American couple in Seattle who are visited by a group of exiled Tibetan monks who believe that their son, Jesse, is the reincarnation of Lama Dogen, who is also the reincarnation of Sidhartha aka: Buddha.

The film features Bridget Fonda as the troubled white Mom. Rocker-singer Chris Isak as the troubled white Dad. Some Asian (perhaps American) actors as the beatific and wise Buddhist monks. And most inexplicably, Keanu Reeves, who plays Sidhartha through his pre-enlightenment days through his moment when he understands that he is "one" with the universe (ahhh...and how was Keanu to know that he really would be chosen to play "The One" one day).

I watched the film almost solely for the scenes with Keanu, which were all flashback scenes to Sidhartha's life in ancient Nepal. All other actors in these flashback scenes appear to be either South Asian or at the very least Southeast or even East Asian. Except for Keanu, whose skin is darkened and who speaks in this strange Indian accented English--sort've like a softened version of "Apu" on The Simpsons--but I mention Apu because it's almost that stereotypically bad an accent--as in, it's painfully bad.

So I suppose the question is this: Is Keanu in yellowface? Or maybe more accurately, brownface? When he was cast as the Buddha, and was interviewed about the appropriateness of a white man playing the enlightened one, Keanu busted out his Asian credentials and claimed a hapa identity for himself as half Hawaiian-Chinese and therefore uniquely qualified to play an Asian. And yet...watching him, there's something really wrong with his portrayal, and I'm not just talking about the bad acting.

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