Monday, May 12, 2008

From Dragonlady to White Castle: Asian Americans in film

In honor of APA history month, I thought I'd start off with two examples of Asian Americans in American cinema, one from the silent era and the other a contemporary stoner comedy.

Anna May Wong, third-generation Chinese American woman, started in Hollywood films at the age of 17 and made the leap from silent cinema to talking movies during the golden age of Hollywood film production in the first half of the 20th century. She was one of a handful of non-white actors appearing in American movies before WWII, and she was typecast into the role of the treacherous yet seductress "dragonlady" stereotype--starring with such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, and Marlene Dietrich.

[I chose one of the few photos of Wong that doesn't overtly sexualize/stereotype her--although that mask in the upper left hand corner is interesting/odd...]

Anna May Wong was vastly underappreciated for her talents during her time--and is only now being rediscovered through biographies and documentaries about her life.

Although many of the celluloid portraits were gross caricatures and Orientalized and exoticized two-dimensional figures, she did what Asian Americans, indeed what many non-white actors did in the early 20th century (and what many non-white actors continue to do to this day)--she took what roles she could get and did the best she could with them. If you get a chance, watch Shanghai Express, because I really think she makes the film--much more than Marlene Dietrich.

I'll leave you with just a tease from the film (I love the line about respectability and her diss of the boardinghouse lady!)

Now, lets just jump ahead from the early 20th century to the turn of the 21st century with the latest Hollywood stoner-comedy flick, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

Now, a lot of people have already weighed in on the (de)merits of the second installment of the Harold and Kumar series--the first was Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. And I admit that when I saw the first Harold and Kumar movie in 2004, I thought "YES! It's about time!" because you see, Asian Americans are so rarely cast in any films and even more Rarely are they cast as leads and even more RARELY are Asian American men cast as leads and romantic love interests. So the first Harold and Kumar film was resoundingly embraced by the Asian American community and the second installment eagerly awaited with baited breath (OK, maybe that's a bit much, but I DID go see the film in its opening weekend, something I rarely do nowadays).

So what did I think of Part II?

Well, not to cop out, but I largely agreed with both Poplicks and Racialicious [warning: there are spoilers in these links, especially in the comment sections]. I wanted to like it much more than I did. Because at the end of the day, I just can't stomach that much gratuitous female nudity. Yes, it's a stoner flick. Yes, it's target audience are teenage and young adult men (and maybe some women). But the misogyny (and homophobia) outweighed some of the slier humor of poking fun of the U.S. government/homeland security, of mocking the stereotypes of Asian Americans (and others), and the enjoyment of seeing Kal Pen and John Cho be first and foremost Harold and Kumar rather than Asian American guys.

And perhaps, the most radical thing the film does, is that it allows us to see Asian Americans as just guys and to see this film not as the be all and end all of Asian Americans in film--but that Asian Americans can be in mediocre films too.

Of course, the only problem with saying that is assuming that there are CHOICES that Asian Americans have for starring in mainstream Hollywood productions...(sigh).

I wanted to end on an upbeat note, but the truth is, in almost a century of Asian Americans being represented and acting in Hollywood cinema, not much has changed as far as mainstream media.

Calgon, take me away!
[for anyone who doesn't understand that reference, lets just say, you either didn't group up with American television in the 70s and/or you are far younger than me].


Poor Charlotte said...

Hmm...what about Asian Americans on television? Have you seen the series on PBS called "Tie a Yellow Ribbon?" I caught the end of one episode, and it seemed pretty interesting. It seems to center around a group of Asian/Asian American women. I'm not sure of where the series is set. I'll have to do some research. Any thoughts?

Jennifer said...

Hi Charlotte,
I have heard of the "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" series; unfortunately, where I live, PBS is not showing it (nor are they showing any APA themed shows that I can find).

I think that Asian American representation on tv is *marginally* better than in mainstream Hollywood cinema--but only marginally. Actually, the best track record in the last few years has been reality tv. Yul Kwon winning Survivor sticks out--and Hung winning Top Chef last season (and Dale is a strong contender in this season's Top Chef). And I know that people point to the 2 Asian American actors on Lost, although I would contend that they play Koreans and not Korean Americans (like that guy on Heroes--he plays someone from Japan even though he is a Japanese American actor). There is Sandra Oh on Grey's Anatomy, and she does have a sizable role on that show. But now I'm stumped.

Things are better now than they were 5 years ago, but truthfully, there is still plenty of room to improve--particularly in terms of portraying Asian Americans as AMERICAN and not math geeks and immigrants with accents.

Blogger X said...

hi, i just wanted to ask what you think about the new nickelodeon kids' show "nihao kai-lin."

Jennifer said...

Well, I've only seen one episode--the one about Chinese New Year. In an effort at full disclosure, I should say that I know someone who worked on the show. And so I know that the goal/aim was to create an Asian American version of Dora. Since it's animated and aimed at kids, it's obviously not looking to re-create realism, per se. From the one episode I saw, what I appreciated about the show was that Dora and her grandfather and her animal friends didn't speak in accented Chinese-English. And as much as the episode was a primer on Chinese cultural customs, it seemed also to be about teaching kids some basic stuff about cooperation and sharing.

Anyway, I thought it was a good attempt but I'd have to watch more shows to know whether or not it didn't devolve into the cultural flavor of the week or actually veered off into not just Chinese cultural mores but about Asian American issues.

Eastern Reflections said...

Have you ever heard of the 1932 film "Thirteen Women"? was about several women who used to be part of a privileged sorority group being murdered one by one by a former member who had felt ostracized by her white counterparts b/c of her 'mixed-racial" Javanese heritage.

Now....considering that the actress who played her was white, but b/c of her exotic looks she was cast in "exotic roles"....and the role itself "vengeful exotic person out to destroy her white counterparts".......I thought that the speech she gives near the end that explains her motivation was interesting.

She was still suffering from the racist abuse and rejection she felt from the sorority BECAUSE of her heritage, and at one point (paraphrasing) said you are no better than I am because you are lighter skinned. I think that the film, although poorly directed, was ahead of the times. The film though wasn't a success and even was cut down drastically and struggled in the theatres.