Thursday, June 15, 2017

Looking Back at Ghost in the Shell 2017 (Part 3): The Plot and My Conclusion

The Plot (biiiig spoilers)


Most of this is from my memory. I watched the film a couple of weeks ago by this point so not everything might be in the right order or exactly correct . . . still, I assure you this is more-or-less how it went down. 

Off to do section 9 stuff. This is Batou before he gets his eye mods.
First off the story presents ghost/shell technology as being something new and totally revolutionary in this world. This means that the Major is the only ghost in a shell in the film, or so we are lead to believe. In Oshii's animation and Masamune's manga just about everyone is section 9 is a ghost in a shell except Togusa and (I believe) Aramaki. 

Making the major exclusive to ghost/shell technology sucks in a few ways. Firstly the hard sci-fi stuff that permeates the manga and anime concerning complex details and questions surrounding the then commonplace ghost/shell technology, which made Ghost in the Shell and Oshii's animation such a unique (for the time) fan favourite is mostly gutted. This renders most of the cyberpunk elements purely aesthetic -- it's cyberpunk because there's robots and future cars and holograms and stuff, but the larger themes (corporate power and overreach, A.I. ethics, SCIENCE! etc.) are mostly glossed over. I get that not everyone gives a crap about cyberpunk and the film biz is a numbers game but it's what makes GITS, GITS. 

The only ghost.
Second, this means that, as the Major is the only ghost in a shell, the focus opts to shift from a deeply introspective story about what it means to be human and in ever-technologically advancing world, to her own personal search for self identity which, unfortunately for this film, is an overdone cliche at this point, and has been done better elsewhere (many critics have compared it to the Bourne Identity). What you get is the Major wondering around looking confused and complaining, for much of the first half of the film, that she is lonely because she is the only one of her kind -- "no one understands me!". It doesn't help that Scarjo delivers most of her lines in deadpan.

The film starts in a scene that is reminiscent of the first scene of Oshii's animation, wherein the major and other section 9ners are staking out an important meeting of shady business/government types at an exclusive club/restaurant/lounge populated with robot geisha -- presumably, at least partially designed after model and actress Rila Fukushima. There's some deal going on when the geisha-bots start going nuts and attack the diners. One of them is a big-wig at Hanka Robotics, a conglomerate that has a hand it most of the things happening in the film. The geisha-bot plugs into his brain and starts stealing company secrets (maybe). The major, in stealth camouflage, bursts into the restaurant through a window and starts taking down geisha-bots. The rest of section 9 takes the stairs. Geisha-bots are dispatched (exit Fukushima) and it is revealed that some sinister hooded hacker-man is responsible. Who is he?!    

It ain't cyberpunk without shady corporations. Check.
Next we see a bit of the Major's construction and inception into section 9. It is made clear that she is a technological marvel, the first fully functional synthetic body or "shell" with a human brain or "ghost" at the helm. Her past is foggy. She, along with her parents, were supposedly killed in an explosion deemed an act of terrorism, but her brain survived and was used for this project. She takes medicine to ensure her brain does not reject the new body she's been given (this is important later). She's also having weird visions from time to time of what looks to be a traditional Japanese shrine on fire. Could they be from her past life? Perhaps, but who knows for sure?! The Major wants answers.

The Major scans the brain of the one of the geisha-bots and finds that it has been tampered with, in the backroom of a shady yakuza-run establishment! Heavens! Queue the obligatory beatin'-up-the-yakuza-in-a-bar scene. They find the hooded-man but alas, he is but a hologram.

Who is that sinister minister?!
More existential crisis and scenes of the major being sad, confused, lonely, emotionless. Exposition about her back-story. A section 9 science person is attacked and vital information is stolen! It was the hacker-man, probably. Some, garbage men are doing garbage man stuff, but also one of them is hacking phones cause he wants to spy on his wife whom he suspects is cheating. Section 9 is on their trail and the garbage men suddenly get "ghost hacked" (they don't actually call it ghost hacking in the film but in the Anime and manga it's a thing that is highly illegal -- wait . . . how can they get "ghost hacked" if the Major is the only "ghost" . . . ?). The major chases one of the garbage men. They have a fight that is a shot-for-shot recreation of a scene from Oshii's film -- quite visually impressive I might add.

The garbage man is captured! Section 9 interrogates him. Turns out he has no wife! The memories were implanted by the mysterious hacker-man so the garbage man would hack into stuff as a sort of surrogate. Once again . . . how is this possible if the Major is the only "ghost"? How can they hack peoples brains?! They don't explain this. I suppose we are expected to believe that since people have various bodily augmentations (including neural) it simply stands to reason that these augmentations have interfaces that can be hacked. Still, implanting memories is a pretty big jump. They explained stuff like this in the manga and anime but in the movie it's just a thing we are expected to swallow -- suspension of disbelief and all that -- "Okay so they can hack people's brains. Cool."  

The garbage man fight live vs. animation. It's pretty cool that they recreated the scene so faithfully, but I have to question the point of doing so. I mean I can always just watch the original animation, which is more impressive in many ways since everything is hand drawn and expertly animated.
So now they have a trail to follow. They figure out where the hacker-man might be hiding, "let's get him!" they say, and section 9 is dispatched to find the bad guy. He's hiding in a spooky warehouse. During the raid the Major goes off on her own cause she see's something shiny and gets tasered or something. She wakes up restrained in some rig. The hacker-man is there and finally lifts his hood. He resembles a beat-up android, and his name is Kuze and he explains through much exposition that he was a prototype of the ghost/shell program that resulted in the Major and that he also has visions of a burning shrine-like structure. *gasp* So there is another! Turns out Hanka robotics has not been on-the-level and had been acquiring people's brains from somewhere to try to figure out this ghost/shell thing and Kuze is just one of the many failed prototypes.

This is actually a really cool scene. Kuze is awesomely unsettling since he's a basically a failed experiment that doesn't "work" quite right. He speaks in monotone and his voice skips and stalls periodically, like a buffering video or a CD skipping. His appearance is pretty interesting too as his shell has not been properly maintained by registered Hanka technicians and bits of him are missing or have been jerry rigged. Very Oshii-esque.

Kuze might be the best part of the film. He's also, curiously, a white guy named Kuze.
So where do these brains come from? Kuze can't remember exactly since he doesn't remember who he was before he became "ghosted" (not a dating term in this case, obviously), but he does remember a shrine-like building and that his name was Hideo Kuze and that Motoko Kusangi (whut!?) is an important name. He also recommends that the Major stop taking the drug that is supposed to help her synchronise with her "shell" because it actually suppresses memories.

The Major stops taking her medicine and starts digging up info about her past-life. Turns out maybe her parents weren't killed in an explosive terrorist plot after-all. Her investigation leads her to a mysterious apartment, with a mysterious Japanese woman. Who is she?! She is . . . get ready for it . . . the mother of Motoko Kusanagi!

Wait . . . huh? Motoko Kusanagi, is the name of the Major in the original film and manga, I thought they changed it in this version to Mira Killian cause whiteness and things.

Yeah . . . that's what I thought too.

I couldn't find an actual still of Kaori Mamoi from the film . . . but someone made this which is kind of funny. The resemblance is uncanny . . . no, not it is not.
SO. The Major -- played by Scarjo, talks to this mysterious Japanese woman, Mrs. Kusanagi, who tells her she had this daughter named Motoko, who most certainly was a young Japanese girl -- her meticulously preserved room is full of Japanese dolls and traditional chotchkies and the like -- who was spirited and artsy, and ran away from home one time and never came back. Mrs. Kusanagi believes she's still alive somewhere and suddenly pauses and says, looking strait at Scarjo, "You remind me of her . . ." Scarjo thanks her and leaves, "Won't you come visit me again?" she says. . . . OH MY GOD! THE MAJOR IS ACTUALLY MOTOKO KUSANAGI AND HANKA ROBOTICS JUST CHANGED HER NAME WHEN THEY GHOSTED HER!!! (apologies for the all-caps -- very plebeian *ahem ahem* -- this is what was happening in my mind as I was watching).

After that, the Major confronts the doctor who created her who up until then was sort of like a mother figure to her and her and Kuze team up. They figure out the shrine-thing was a place they used to hang out in, in their past lives in the slums with other street kids. It was on fire cause it got raided by Hanka goons who kidnapped Kusnagi, Kuze and the others for ghost/shell experiments. They eventually take on a shady Hanka CEO and his spider tank in a scene that resembles the climax of the Oshii film. Kuze is killed by the bad guy and the final scene has her brooding in front Motoko Kusanagi's grave stone before she goes rogue and takes off. But by then I didn't really care all that much because I couldn't stop thinking about how the script essentially took the elephant in the room and kicked it square in it's elephant-nuts so it started rampaging around and wrecking the place -- as elephants do when they get angry.      

The inclusion of tachikomas would have made this movie better.
So let's rewind a bit. The Major, Mira Killian, is actually Motoko Kusanagi. Hanka robotics kidnapped her and used her brain and reprogrammed her as Mira Killian, and gave her a new body in the process. Okay. So you remember the original controversy surrounding this film was that people were complaining that the Major's character was supposedly white-washed. Well in the film they literally white-washed her! You'd think the writers, producers, directors would, ya know, want to try to smooth over the controversy so more people would watch the film, but instead they frickin' wrote it into the script! Kuze, Hideo Kuze's shell is also modelled after a Caucasian man, so we can assume that he was also white-washed, literally, by Hanka Robotics!

So they made this meme generator type thing to promote the film and people kind of went nuts with it. Like, holy crap, there was so much of this all over twitter. I can't say I agree with all of these 100% and a lot of them target Johansson specifically, which I think is kind of unfair. I mean expect my actors to act, not be champions of social justice. Incidentally she didn't do much of that either as far as the film is concerned -- I chalk it up to the writing.  

This makes for some pretty gaping plot holes as well as greatly exacerbates the problem most people had with this film in the first place, which, from a narrative and marketing point of view is ridiculous and pretty stupid. There isn't even justification for this "stylistic choice" offered in the narrative and since Kuze and Mira Motoko Killian Kusanagi are the only examples of the ghost/shell project we have to go on, we are forced to assume that this is just what they do. The ghost/shell technology is also totally new in this story, so the whole "race doesn't matter in this context cause consciousnesses aren't fixed to a physical form (or whatever)" defence doesn't even hold up.

On paper you have this movie about a robotics company who is essentially kidnapping random Japanese street-kids and turning them into synthetic white people via some brand new project for no discernible reason. At least if there was a narrative explanation offered it would offer fans of this film some ammo with which to combat it's critics, but it doesn't. To make matters worse, the original subject matter didn't even have this. These elements were part of the original screen play!

They, seemingly, inadvertently made a film about white-washing in the most literal sense! It's hilarious! It's awful! It's insulting! It's racist! IT HURTS MY BRAIN! I was expecting to be like "well the controversy sucked, but the film was kinda cool and stuff" -- like, watching it would have made everything better or at least a bit more bearable, but instead it just made everything worse! The controversy is just smacking you in the face through the whole ending like wet rubber glove (or some other cruder appendage) so you can't even ignore it if you tried. (I understand this is likely not the mental experience everyone had watching this film but I can't get over it).  

So In Conclusion:

The producers wanted Scarjo, she's a big draw after-all, so they had her written into the script. People didn't like it cause she's white and they figured Motoko Kusanagi should be played by a Japanese woman and Hollywood has an uncomfortable history of dodging minorities when it comes to casting. The studio (supposedly) said, "it's cool, we're gonna give her make up so she looks kinda Asian (so, uh, yellow face? Seriously? Good lord . . .) and we're changing her name to Mira Killian, so no worries." Then they literally made a film about a Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi being turned into a white woman named Mira Killian. "Yeah! That'll shut em up! Not controversial at all! What's all this fuss about?" (NRrrrrrrrrrrrrrrg.) Tone-def is an under statement. You would have to be woefully ignorant of the current zeitgeist to fopaux this hard. It's mind boggling and I think I might have given myself a concussion and a broken orbital from all the face palms. So very, very stupid and unnecessary.        

You'd think that if you were making movie for tonnes of money, money that you needed to recoup, and people were causing a ruckus about it you'd, ya know, maybe look into it and try to understand why people were so pissed off? So you could get as many people to see this thing as possible? Maybe try to placate some of the angry mobs? But no . . . no attempt whatsoever. After the film bombed the producers were quoted as saying that "maybe the controversy had something to do with it" (paraphrased). Yeah maybe, that and the fact the story was as recycled as a hipster's grocery bag. In any case I'm convinced that this controversy could have been avoided by an afternoon of internet browsing. But "Hollywood don't care, Hollywood got things ta do, Hollywood got focus groups to monitor." For an industry that relies on the masses for income, they seem to be pretty good at ignoring sizeable and noisy segments of them. Social conundrums aside, it's extremely frustrating to watch from a logical stand-point. This is bad business.                  

And that's all folks! I really just wrote this review so I could rant about the ending (seriously; I also like writing). Despite the ridiculousness of this film, it's worth mentioning that its fairly entertaining in its own right. The action, the cinematography, the costumes, were all pretty neat. The film likely wouldn't have done very well even if a Japanese woman was cast in the lead, but honestly they probably would have made a bit more money back, cause quite a few people boycotted this film cause of the casting choice (face palm again) -- and Scarjo really didn't add much to in the end. Tragic really. So I mean, if you're wanting to watch this film out of pure curiosity and you don't really care about the controversy and stuff, then yeah, I guess you could do a lot worse to fill a rainy afternoon. The film, is mediocre, but the way the studio handled the controversy was abysmal. Also if you haven't seen any other GITS stuff, watch that instead. It's better.

Join me next time, when I talk/rant about something else that is in no way related to Ghost in the Shell.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Read the manga, it's good, and it's not ridiculously long like most manga.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Looking Back at Ghost in the Shell 2017 (Part 2): The Technical Stuff

This was all meant to be one post originally but I had too much to say about the plot so I decided to break it up to spare you, the reader, your precious energy.

The Review

Art Direction

This has to be the best part of the film. Not since blade-runner have I seen a live-action film that so totally owns and revels in 1980's cyberpunk aesthetic. It's perfect and it resembles the GITS world far more than it has any right to. Each scene was filled with colour, wild suppositions of future fashion and holograms, so many holograms (too many if you ask me, but that's nit-picking). Even the cars are largely comprised of retrofitted chassis from 1980's sports cars. Add the shot-for-shot recreations of select scenes from the animation and what you have is something so reminiscent of Masamune Shirow's and Momoru Oshii's aesthetic that it's almost awe inspiring. I was impressed.


Slick cover bro.

Like the visuals, the soundtrack is equally appropriate. I'm not familiar with all the sub-genres of electronic music but the soundtrack features music that you would expect from a film that is selling itself as cyberpunk. Bass-heavy ambient synth and remixed tracks from Oshii's original film make for a compelling atmosphere that suits the visuals to a T. Excellent effort. Again it totally feels like GITS.

Characterisation and Casting (Spoilers Abound)

I think it's important to mention that I've started giving the original GITS manga a serious read-through prior to watching the film. Before now all I had really experienced of the GITS universe was the Oshii animation, it's sequel, and a few episodes of Stand Alone Complex (a more recent anime spin-off). I'm loving the manga. It's amazing and it's stupid I haven't gotten around to reading it until now. That being said, the character of Motoko Kusanagi in the manga is pretty cool. She's cocky, sarcastic, and full of quips for her teammates but she's also an excellent operative and genuinely cares about her people. She's a complex, colourful and multi-faceted character. In Momoru Oshii's animation she's quite a bit more subdued and spends much of her time pondering the human condition and having philosophical conversations with her partners Batou and Togusa. The two likewise being converted from hard boiled comic relief, pictured in the manga, to more brooding and introspective strong, silent types. It's an Oshii thing. If the main cast is subdued in the Oshii film, they are virtually, excuse the term, "white-washed" in the Sanders film. 

This is the only time in the manga that Batou utters the words "GOLLY GEE!", he's using the exclamation sarcastically (not "ironically" since that wouldn't make any sense -- stop the misuse). Hard to imagine Oshii's or Sander's incarnation joking around with the major like this.  
This Major, renamed Mira Killian (I assume to smooth over the race swap -- more on that later) bears little resemblance to either the Masamune or Oshii incarnations (aside from her look which is spot on) and Scarlett Johansson goes into action movie mode reprising her role as Black Widow/Lucy, only less interesting than either of these characters. What we get is a character whose all brooding and no philosophy, who comes across more as a wooden, angsty teenager than a confident and vibrant section 9 operative. However, I believe this has more to do with lack-luster writing than Scarjo's acting ability (more on that later) which is a shame because I really felt like she could have done the character justice if she had better material to work with.

Like much of the rest of the film, she certainly looks the part.
Far more interesting than this iteration of the Major was Batou, played by Pilou Asbæk who, despite having one of the most inconsistent ascents I've ever heard in a film (which might have been intentional) managed to really capture the spirit of the character as he appeared in the Oshii film. Again it's a shame the Major was not given at least the same level of nuance. Some people were claiming that he had been white-washed too but while his name sounds vaguely Japanese, it's actually written in katakana (the Japanese alphabet typically reserved for foreign words) and in the Manga he was formerly a U.S. Army ranger so he could totally be a white guy.

I thought Pilou Asbæk was a pretty good choice at the end of the day, though I must admit, I had no idea who he was until I saw this film. He was in Lucy though, so he's worked with Scarjo before. That's a thing.
Togusa, played by Chin Han, spends some time in the field but has mostly been relegated to a background, suit-wearing HQ desk-jocky-type character who shows up at briefings and says important mission stuff. It's worth mentioning that in the Oshii film and the manga he was the only fully human field operative in section 9, which made for some pretty interesting team dynamics. He's one of two ethnically East Asian characters on the team. The second is Aramaki Daisuke, section 9's chief, played by Takeshi Kitano who is probably one of my favourite directors ever and who I generally like to see in movies. But I must say I'm not sure he was the best choice here. 

The still on the right is actually from GITS Stand Alone Complex which has a different art-style than the Oshii film -- the basis for the Sanders film, which explains why the characters look nothing alike. 
Kitano's style is dead-pan which is something he quite excels at. It's his thing. He sits around for a while and says funny and/or absurd things then eventually gets up and kicks someone's ass. Aramaki, in the source material, is an animated, gutsy, take-no-guff pragmatist, who is "in the shit" almost as much as he calls it. In the film Aramaki spends most of his time behind a desk speaking exclusively in Japanese and gets a fleeting moment of action-oriented badassery near the end. Not the worst and I love me some Kitano, but I'm just not sure if he was the best choice, I feel like he was there mostly to add a Japanese connection to the whole thing to sell it overseas (GITS 1995 was a lot more successful in the west after-all). Still it's fun to see him. Period.

As much as I love Kitano I just don't feel like he's very Aramaki-ish.
There's various other supporting section 9ners who are kind of interesting and resemble some of the supporting characters from the Manga which is neat. They don't get much screen time though.

The section 9ners. I assume this is from a screen test or something because I barely remember the two dudes on the left and there was totally an additional female member in the film. Unless I'm losing it. 
There's also the antagonist, Kuze, a.k.a. Hideo Kuze who, curiously was not featured in the Oshii film or the manga but was lifted from the anime spin-off, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Here he is played by Michael Pitt who does an excellent job of capturing the GITS vibe (his performance is pretty awesome when he finally reveals himself, again, more on this later). You could easily argue he has also been white-washed except that they didn't have the courtesy to change his name (but he's a ghost in a shell too so race doesn't matter, yadda yadda). 

He looks like a lot of things; not sure if a dude named "Kuze" is one of them. Still he was probably the most intriguing character, especially when first unmasked.
Finally to address the elephant in the room to some degree, Rila Fukushima, who had a substantial role in 2013's The Wolverine, and one of two actual Japanese women in the GITS cast is unrecognisable as a robo-geisha. She gets one line in and promptly get's shot by Scarjo's major. It's a pretty perfect metaphor for the problem people have with the casting in this movie, but I won't linger on it as there are way more gaping examples of this problematic in the actual narrative of the film (more on that in the "plot section").

Rila Fukushima as Katana in the Arrow TV series. They probably should have just given her the lead. I know she has a tiny fraction of the star power that Scarjo has but, seeing as how no one saw the film anyway and Scarjo played the role with all the emotion of a toaster, why not? Ah, the power of hindsight. 
Rila Fukushima as a geisha-bot in GITS 2017, featuring a design that no one in their right mind could ever find problematic. (I could write a whopping essay about why the appearance of this character is problematic, especially in the discursive space of American media, but for now I will say this: orientalism pisses people off and ethnically Asian peoples residing in America often get mocked for their facial features -- ergo when people see something like this in a film that's already being accused of white washing, shit's gonna get worse, real fast -- I reiterate, this is an American problem, in this particular case).  
The other Japanese woman in the film is Kaori Mamoi who plays Motoko Kusanagi's mother . . . 

Kaori Mamoi, pictured here in the 2007 movie Sukiyaki Western: Django, a totally-nuts movie which . . . might be better than GITS(?) (depending on what you're into). I just love this picture. 
. . . wait . . . hold on a sec. You mean Mira Killian right? They changed her name in the movie to avoid further controversy right? Since Scarlett Johansson is white and stuff? Like it would be pretty inappropriate to have a white person running around calling themselves Motoko Kusanagi and trying to pass themselves off as Japanese person in film made in 2017 am I right? Like, it could bring back uncomfortable memories of "less-enlightened" by-gone eras in American film . . . Right guys? . . . Guys?


 *Ahem* Alright! Let's look at the plot! . . . in part 3 -- the review comes to a head. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Looking Back at Ghost in the Shell 2017 (Part 1)

Before we begin. I know no one cares about this movie anymore but as it so happens I write more for me, than for anyone else and I got a lot of stuff to say about this film.

There's gonna be spoilers . . . 

Also . . .

I don't mean to beat a dead horse by bringing up the film's casting controversy, everyone and their mum has written about or commented on it and the film already came out . . . so yeah. However, I think it's important to take a look back at where the controversy came from and how it evolved, especially because it has a lot to do with quite a few of my criticisms regarding the film.   

Back when it was announced that there was going to be a Hollywood remake of Ghost in the Shell I can't say I had high hopes. To begin with it seemed that the film was attempting to be and adaptation of Momoru Oshii's 1995 adaptation of the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow -- effectively making it an adaptation of an adaptation. I figured they were going to ruin it. Dumb it down. Screw up the casting. Make something that perhaps looked kinda like Ghost in the Shell but ultimately fell short. Hollywood doesn't exactly have the best track-record when it comes to bringing hard sci-fi to the big screen and even less of an impressive record when it comes to adapting foreign content. Then it was announced that Scarlett Johansson was confirmed to play the lead heroine, Major Motoko Kusanagi and I, along with a lot of other people lost my shit. Her name was Motoko Kusanagi which is clearly Japanese. Johansson is clearly not Japanese. BOOOOO!

The Initial Controversy

As large swaths of the internet rallied in their outcry against the casting choice, an almost equal number of large and vocal groups emerged defending the choice. Some of these defences were pretty paper-thin, at best tone-def and at worst racist (along the lines of, no one's gonna see this movie if they put an Asian person in the lead!), others struck me as more level-headed citing the original content, the world of Ghost in the Shell (GITS), as a reason why the casting choice should have been a non-issue. The most often echoed argument I heard was that story takes place in a (more-or-less) trans-national world where it is commonplace to have human brains in synthetic bodies, ergo race is basically irrelevant (at least as a cultural identifier -- it has become merely cosmetic), I had also heard from some that even the series creator Masamune Shirow agreed that the casting choice was A-ok (which honestly is neither here nor there). 

I consider myself to generally be a man of logic, and this seems to be a fairly logical defence at first glance. However what really annoyed me was the way in which a number of the people using this defence would often, seemingly condescendingly (hard to tell with text mind you) denounce people expressing outrage at the choice as if it was simply inconceivable that anyone would have a problem with it in any capacity, and if you did, you must be some anti-white "social justice warrior". Riiiight. 

Objectively, there was nothing wrong with Scarjo playing the Major, just like how, objectively, there's nothing wrong with suicide. Only that context is a thing and history is a thing, and values are things that people have, and moments before this present one have surely happened and have left lasting impressions on our national and subjective psyches. So if you can't understand why someone might be upset at the idea of Scarjo playing a character that many have envisioned as Japanese, allow me to enlighten you on a few points.

First of all this film was written and in large-part produced in America by Americans. A rather large percentage of Americans are descended from Asian ancestry and many feel that the rather large percentage (over 6% which doesn't seem like much but considering the U.S. has a population of over three hundred million . . .) of the American population they comprise is noticeably larger than the percentage of well-written, Asian-American characters that appear in American media at present. If you combine this detail with Hollywood's rather poor treatment of Asian-American actors and characters throughout it's lengthy history, then, well, I think it's pretty easy to see where the controversy comes from. Most people who read the GITS Manga and/or watched Momoru Oshii's GITS back in 1995 probably imagined a human Motoko Kusanagi looking rather more Japanese than Scarjo's European heritage allows (I feel like this is a safe assumption to make especially since no one was talking about the Major's race before Scarjo had been approached), and when it was revealed that she would be playing the major, a lot of people were likely reminded of Hollywood's historical snubbing of minorities. In other words, the controversy was less about GITS's subject matter than it was about Hollywood's penchant for ethnocultural missteps when it comes to writing and casting. It also didn't help that just prior to the film's release a number of other films that had been released during GITS's production had faced similar back-lash for allegedly white-washing specifically Asian characters.

Like this film, about Hawaii, featuring no Pacific Islander or ethnically Asian peoples, based on a book featuring an Asian protagonist who was switched out for Emma Stone (who no one could mistake for an Asian person) despite these combined demographics accounting for over 50% of Hawaii's total population -- more than twice that of  the local Caucasian population to give you some perspective.   
 However, it seemed that despite this charged climate, the studio decided to ignore the controversy and go ahead with the casting choice anyway, because apparently focus groups are much more legitimate measuring sticks for audience reaction than entire online communities threatening to boycott the film should Scarjo be cast in the lead. Doesn't seem like the best marketing strategy. 

In any-case, in the beginning I was pretty miffed about the whole thing and I wrote a miffed article about it on this very blog. I also posted on a Facebook group that I would not be seeing the film. I was pretty livid. But one might wonder; why was I, a privileged white male frustrated with the casting choice? Because I imagined Motoko Kusanagi as a Japanese woman, I figured that, considering she was an operative operating in Asia -- specifically within the space of Japan (albeit a rather more multi-cultural imagining of Japan), it would make sense for her "shell" to resemble an Asian woman. But this is fairly subjective. You can't always get what you want after-all. Objectively, though, I think that given the substantial outcry, it was a poor marketing decision to go ahead with the casting and by choosing to cast Scarjo, the film lost many would-be viewers and gained little. I think no one would have minded if "the Major" was played by an Asian woman, but people certainly did mind that she wasn't. Then the film was released and received lacklustre reviews and ultimately bombed. Did it bomb because of the controversy? Honestly, that's somewhat doubtful -- it just wasn't all that great (to quote the antagonist from a much better movie it was "MEDIOCRE!") but you can bet that it didn't help, especially since some reviewers criticised the film for being "tone-deaf" as one of it's detractors.     

Still though, I was curious. Frankly, I like Scarlett Johansson as an actress, I'm a huge fan of cyberpunk and a fan of GITS insomuch as it exemplifies the genre. So I figured I had to see it at some-point. That point was just the other day, I ordered it on-demand here in South Korea and finally watched the sucker. So was it as bad as all that?

Find out in part 2 of this review/op-ed type article thingy . . . The Review. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

What's going on? (My Thoughts on Current Events)

I haven't really written much about what I've though about the state of the world or current events as of late. Although I guess I haven't really written much at all lately. I'd like to get back to that.

So since my last post, a lot of stuff has happened. England ceded from the E.U. with Brexit, Donald Trump took office in the United States, Syria is all messed up, the president of South Korea, where I currently reside, was impeached and now the country has no president until May. This was a lot to take in for such a politically aware mench as myself.

My opinions on all this? Well my blog is mostly about East Asia, but I am of English ancestry so suppose I feel some sort of irrational connection to the "mother land" despite never having set foot in it. In short, Brexit was probably a bad idea. It strikes me as an irrational act propagated by ardent nationalists who believe that their country, identity, way of life etc. is at risk because of immigration or something.  I've heard this rhetoric elsewhere, in my country too (Canada), it's stupid, we are developed nations, our people are getting older, our birthrates a dropping, we need immigrants to maintain our current level of development because we don't have robots yet but no, "Immigration is destroying our traditions blah blah blah, send em back!" In reality of course, England had a pretty good deal with E.U. reaping many of the political benefits yet none of the economic consequences of subscribing to the Euro as they were still allowed to use their pound. Now British folks need a passport if they want to travel in Europe and will probably have to pay more for university in Prague (or wherever). Also, a bunch of European immigrants might have to leave. Good job Engles, really solved all your problems there (sarcasm, this is sarcasm, Brexit was dumb).

'sup. Guess I'm prez now.
And then there is Mr. Trump. I hate Donald Trump. Is it because I am a raging "SJW" that hates everything because liberalism and stuff? Not so much. Way before any of this running for president business, I was convinced he was an asshole. The guy tried to copyright the phrase "your fired" for his awful show about shitty people trying to work for a shitty person. It was awful. The guy opened fraudulent universities and a fraudulent charity and ended up spending a large portion of the proceeds on himself. There's a shit-stained laundry list of shitty, grimy, creepy shit this guy has done yet people were all like "Let's have this guy run the country! He said we can have jobs! And that our country can be great again!" Yeah, right guys, Trump's just gonna end global trade, America's bread and butter since day one, and pull prosperity out of his ass. Nope, cause that's impossible and as expected it's been a bloody fiasco since day one. More like "Make America a joke!" only it's not a joke because America is still way too damned powerful and now it's being run by an asshole and his team of assholes. Boooooo.

A city in Syria right now. Yup, looks about right.
Syria. Syria is an awful and convoluted situation (that's putting it mildly) that I honestly don't fully understand because I haven't spent a long time researching it. I know that there's this guy, Assad, and he's the president, and a lot of people hated him and during the Arab spring people wanted him to go away. Then, because of that he started shooting at people, but then some of his army joined anti-government forces which ramped-up the scope of the conflict and basically made it a civil war. Then a bunch of other countries decided to start funding the various military and paramilitary groups fighting in the conflict (as they do), making the whole situation even more insane. Then Assad used gas, twice, to attempt to kill rebels, which is against the Geneva Convention. Then Trump authorised an air-strike on one of Assad's bases. Was he wrong to do that? Hmm, maybe not, but I'm not really sure what America's true motivations are in this conflict so . . . yeah. It's complicated and terrible and Russia is involved, which is never good. And way too many civilians are dying everyday.

Now back to East Asia . . .

Park Geun-Hye and Queen Elizabeth II. I actually like the queen, she reminds me of my granny.
South Korea. The South Korean president, Park Geun-Hye was impeached because she was found to be guilty of the same sort of corruption that her father and subsequent Saenuri party members have been guilty of for ages. She reportedly took bribes from large corporations and offered advantages in return and apparently let her old chum, a civilian named Choi Soon-Shil, have way too much power over official policy, which pissed people off, understandably. There was a huge protest, at the pinnacle of which, no less than one-million people showed up at Gwanghamun (Seoul's city centre - more or less) to call for her resignation. It worked. She was impeached. Now, the sort of things she was doing have actually been pretty common throughout South Korea's political history, so maybe she thought she was just doing what everyone else does, but it's the 21st century and people are tired of that shit. So, yeah, that's what happens.

My thoughts? I really don't understand why people still think the Saenuri party (the party Park was the leader of) should hold office. They haven't done anything significant for South Korea in recent memory aside from bankrupting the country in the late 90's and souring relations with North Korea in the mid 2000's, which . . . like why?! Why would you do that!? They're right there! You want to antagonise that country with missiles right beside you? It's dumb, especially since they reversed a lot of the progress made by the opposition. The Saenuri party did a lot for the development of the South Korean economy in the early days (albeit at the expense of democracy and human rights in many instances) but now South Korea's economy has all grown up. Now they need people who are going to introduce social reforms, and I think the Minju party (the opposition) knows what's up in that department, at least more so than Saenuri seems to. There will be an election in May to choose the new guy. Which brings me to my next point.

North Korea.

Murica's a commin!
This is the second time in my life that I've been living in South Korea during a time when North Korea is being very vocal about going to war. Do I think there is going to be a war? Well, I'm still here aren't I? And neither the American nor Canadian embassies have reported a significant threat level, so I'm generally optimistic. I am however quite annoyed with what America, specifically Trump has done. So North Korea has been testing missiles, which seems to be business as usual (birds fly, fish swim, North Korea tests missiles), but this time, they launched one uncomfortably close to Japan, which has Japan up-in-arms understandably. But Trump doesn't really seem to care too much about that specifically. More so, he is worried because one of North Korea's missiles, supposedly has the capacity to reach America's west coast, and in this world, you're not allowed to have nukes unless you're America's friend. North Korea doesn't like America so America doesn't want North Korea to have them nukes. So Trump told Xi Jinping, China's president, that if China wasn't going to deal with the situation as North Korea's only official ally in the area, he would. And now there is an American Air-strike team in Korean waters. Thanks Trump.

My thoughts? This irks me because, "Hey man, what about South Korea in all this? Oh, that's right, they don't have a President at the moment" (they have a prime-minister but as I understand he has limited power over the military)! Yeah, brilliant timing buddy, you couldn't wait one frickin' month to send your boats? You really think North Korea is gonna bomb America? Really? Really? Russia could have bombed America a hundred times over back in the Cold War, but they didn't did they? Because that would have changed the whole dynamic of the conflict and then Russia and America would actually have to get their hands dirty instead of getting East Asian people to fight their wars for them (Ooooh! Did he just say that!?), and also the world might have ended. Trump sucks, boo Trump.

A not-so-subtle cry to rally against imperialist forces.
The way I see it, if they actually had a war with the United States, they would essentially be fighting a multi-national military coalition, probably alone, as China would likely claim neutrality to save their globally fuelled economy and Russia appears to have it's own foggy agenda and hasn't been communist since the 80's (something that American pop-culture doesn't seem to be able to grasp). This coalition would likely utterly defeat the DPRK eventually. This would probably make reunification really frickin complicated and shitty too, because all these other countries would have their fingers in the pie. Also if North Korea went to war, their iron curtain would necessarily have to be lifted to some degree, which would likely lead to a flood of information which could rock the regime pretty hard. It is against North Korea's best interests to have a war with America, so they probably won't. On the flip-side, every-time America, the U.N. and whoever else is interested in regulating North Korea in someway, threatens action against the DPRK it is often used by the regime as proof of the threat of foreign imperialism, thereby strengthening the regime's grasp. You can bet that images of Trumps aircraft carrier are likely circulating all over North Korean TV sets right now, with slogans like "good thing Marshal Kim Jung Un is here to save us from the nasty imperialists". So yeah, welcome to 21st century, where having a bigger cannon doesn't necessarily solve all your problems.

So that's that, had to get all that stuff of my chest. I think I will blog more. This felt good. I'm currently working on a couple of posts that are more like the stuff I usually write about. Until next time, godspeed you black emperor!    

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Walk Through the Shoddy Lands: My Thoughts on Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers

I've been talking about a lot of, what I perceive to be, social ills on here as of late. Quite frankly it's tiring being pissed off all the time and it's been a while since I reviewed or talked about a piece of media or art that wasn't some offensive news story or video. Anyway, now I'm going to write about a Japanese film I watched.     

The other day I finally got around to watching Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers a.k.a. "Erogotoshitachi" yori Jinruigaku nyūmon  an influential piece of cinema from Japan's golden age of experimental film, a.k.a. the 1960's, You can tell it's influential because Criterion bothered to add it to their illustrious collection. Originally I was supposed to have seen it in my Japanese Cinema class back in University, however, I was sick that day and missed out.

On the surface, the story is about a nice, penniless youngish guy, Subuyan Ogata, who ends up falling in love with a matronly widow and hairdresser, Haru Matsuda, who he's renting a room from. He eventually becomes a sort of father figure in the household as he supports the family financially and morally. Seems like a nice happy time, only that Ogata is a pornographer in the Showa period of Japanese history (1926-1989) a time when pornography was pretty illegal, and by pretty, I mean totally (literature too!). He also works as a go-between for prostitutes and their customers -- shady business to be sure. Things start off decent enough, as Ogata seems like a stand-up dude who just ended up on the wrong side of the poverty line and is simply exploiting a market that would have existed anyway, trying to make ends meet. However, as the story continues you begin to see that he's just another hypocrite as he chastises other characters for consuming the products he produces and ends up in a relationship with his lover's teenage daughter, herself a person with very few redeeming qualities who repeatedly gets into trouble via poor life choices.

The Pornographers pornographing.
In fact as the movie carries on, you begin realize that all the characters are pretty loathsome people in one way or another. Matsuda, the widow, while being a decent business woman, I guess, is a superstitious git who keeps a carp in her room (in a tank of course) which she believes is the reincarnation of her deceased husband, because it showed up on the day her husband died (she lives in front of a canal by the way). She apparently promised her husband on his deathbed to never get involved with another man for the rest of her life, which obviously didn't pan out, and every time the carp jumps in the tank she interprets it as the discontent of her late husband's spirit. At one point she aborts her and Ogata's would-be baby, without consulting him, because of it's jumping. This doesn't stop her from having sex with Ogata right in front of it, multiple times, however. She eventually catches one of those Asian movie contrivance sicknesses (you know, those ones that are never diagnosed but have a wide range of symptoms) and goes insane and tells Ogata that she should raise her daughter and marry her when she's old enough after she herself dies. Later you find out that she may have had some deep-seated resentment towards her own daughter, because, she's young or something. She eventually bites it and I found it hard to feel sorry for her cause she was quite a frustrating character.

Ogata attends a reform school meeting with his Matsuda's daughter, Keiko. 
Matsuda's son is a pretty shitty dude as well. For much of the film he comes across as a snarky, layabout, loser sponging money off  Ogata and Matsuda to pay for, whatever it is he does when he's off-screen. He eventually fails to get into a bunch of colleges, moves out and get's married, it is implied, to a prostitute. It's also heavily implied as well, that he has an Oedipus complex and is just a little too physical with mummy dearest if you ask me. He sucks, though is more of supporting character.

Ogata's production assistant in the porn industry is also not exactly an endearing force either as he comes across as an odd, sort of perverse type, with a personal mantra that appears to be "who needs a woman when I have my right hand". A real card ladies and gents.

These shitty characters live out the plot in what looks to be a slummy portion of Osaka, or somewhere in Kansai (meaning they all speak that wonderfully guttural and hearty Kansai dialect) populated with low-lives, yakuza and those who exploit them (like richer businessmen looking for low-rent prostitutes). As I was watching it, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Boy, this whole story is a big pile of shitty shit, which just keeps getting shittier" (I pride myself in my eloquence). Of course, and I found this out later, that's exactly how director Imamura wants you to feel. Oh, and this film is actually a dark comedy.

Ogata working on his doll.
The plots of many of Imamura's films, especially from this time, appear to largely be about poor unfortunate souls, in many cases not all that likable and perhaps the sowers of their own discord, trying to improve their lot in life through various means. They often fail in the process or achieve a measure of success and then realize the high life isn't all it's cracked up to be. In any case it doesn't usually end well, but it's often almost laughable just how properly the characters screw themselves over in their many endeavors. Which I guess is where the comedy comes in, everything is just so shitty, in fact it's too shitty, it's perfectly shitty, it's so shitty it's hilarious. It's like when you have a bad day, and just about every little thing goes wrong and when you finally lay your head down to sleep in the evening you take a moment to reflect and can't help but chuckle at how deliciously terrible your day was.

The Pornagraphers is a perfect example of this dynamic. The ending is absurd and has Ogata becoming unhinged and working tirelessly on a realistic sex doll in a houseboat, only to turn down a lucrative offer to mass produce the doll he is working on (remember he was trying to get rich all this time). The boat on which he's building the doll eventually gets untied from the dock and floats out to sea with him totally oblivious as he fawns over his new creation. It's just all so shoddy.

In many ways the transitional nature of the Show period was evident even in the landscape. Tall skyscrapers, dwarfed thatched roof houses and while the urban elite lived with all the amenities, the countryside looked to be somewhat more archaic by comparison.  
But this film isn't merely a bunch of shoddy people doing shoddy things, for if it was I doubt it would receive the level of acclaim it has. While the story definitely appeals to the morbid curiosity of watching human tragedy play out in front of one's eyes, it is also formally as interesting as it is narratively. The shots are often dark and are filmed in cramped locations, the camera often peers around corners, hangs from the ceiling, lies at floor level, or is obscured somewhat by objects in the foreground, giving a sense of voyeurism to the watcher, a concept closely related to the medium of pornography itself. After all, in most pornographic material is not the watcher but a "passive" viewer rather than a participant? One can't help but be given the current constraints of the medium (I'm aware that's beginning to change however). In any case there's some truly stylish shots with my favorite being a top down shot through the carp tank, which in this case is placed on the ceiling (obviously not meant to be literal) of Ogata and Matsuda getting it on while the carp occasionally flicks into the foreground and obscures the picture with ripples in the water (the carp is actually used as the point of view for many shots, adding to the voyeuristic form of the cinematography).

While the style accents the grungy darkness of the subject matter beautifully, the formal choices that Imamura uses could also be interpreted in a historical, social sense as well (though, I mean anything could be interpreted as anything so . . . yeah). I've talked about the Showa period before on this blog, but for Japan this period represented a great shift in both it's internal (local) and external (international) identity. A country, formerly the most powerful, politically and militarily in Eastern Asia, largely rebuilt by western powers in the post/trans-war period after it was nuked twice by those same powers, Japan was having an identity crisis of sorts. The Showa period, which saw Japan on it's way to it's "post-war miracle" was rife with meditations on identity, concerned with where Japan had come from and where it was going. One may look at The Pornographers through a similar lens and interpret the formal elements of the film as an inward look at a problematic, perhaps archaic section of Japan's being that it wished to cast off -- it's local, superstitious and backward poor. Those who at war time might have exalted the Emporer while being, and perhaps choosing to remain blissfully ignorant of the atrocities committed by Japan's armies on it's own people and it's "enemies". The viewer, the vouyer, watching, judging and condemning but at the same time reveling in the hypocrisy and dysfunction of the characters, thus forming their own kind of hypocrisy -- "judge not lest ye be judged" and all that.

Perhaps this interpretation is a might too on-the-nose but I feel like the Japanese name of this film which translates to "An introduction to anthropology through the pornographers" is begging for this film to be dissected. In any case, should you choose to watch The Pornographers it will leave you with quite a bit to chew on. It's a sumptuous feast for the senses and that's just how a like my media. Tasty!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Rant: Moral Relativism and That Racist Chinese Laundry Ad

I have to get this off my chest.

Here we are again. The North American internet has blown up over some racist content that some people in China made, specifically a detergent ad in which a young Chinese women shoves her handsome and seemingly Black boyfriend into a washing machine and he comes out a light-skinned handsome Chinese guy. It's racist, pure and simple, and has all the shitty connotations. Blackness is bad, whiteness is good, blackness is dirty, whiteness is clean, blackness is undesirable, whiteness is what everyone needs etc. etc.

While this may not offend most Chinese nationals, I do agree that this ad is objectively racist and problematic. That being, said I can understand how it came to fruition, which is more than I can say for the majority of the English speaking internet at the moment. You can watch it here, if you want to feel uncomfortable.
So naturally hordes of North Americans netizens are taking to all sorts of channels to blast this ad, and say how backwards and terrible and racist and intolerant China is and making comments against China, its culture and its people that are pretty much just as racist as the ad itself. Many are questioning, "How could such a thing be made!? It's 2016! Who approved this?! What a bunch of insensitive assholes!" (that last one wasn't a question). And herein lies my problem with people who react, knee-jerkily to offensive things from other countries -- they ask questions but they don't seem to give a crap about finding the answers. 

It is a good question though, how did this come to be? Who in their right mind would make such an offensive ad? Well I covered this sort of thing before in my article on racism in South Korea which you can read here if you so desire, but basically I'm a believer, within reason, in moral relativism -- not so much as an ideal but more as a fact of life -- it's a thing that exists in reality for better or for worse. If you don't know, moral relativism basically equates to "what seems fine in some places is totally not cool in others". Now I do believe that some things can be considered objectively wrong, such as things that cause irreparable pain and trauma, like rape or murder -- wherein it is clear that great human suffering is taking place, but I think it goes without saying that in this vast world, different places have different conditions and circumstances that produce different social climates and situations. 

Segregated drinking fountains were a thing in America. In China, they were not a thing.
While this might be an unpopular opinion, I think racism works in a similar way. This is why I think that judging racism from a place like China in the same way you would judge racism from the United States or Canada, doesn't make sense. I believe most of our strong reactions to racism in North America are the result of our national histories, and present apparently, being full of unabashed institutional racism which makes a lot of people miserable and dead on a weekly basis. We carry with us a sort of national guilt, or anger or what-have-you that makes many of us, especially those who identify as "non-racist" very sensitive towards any sort of thing that could be construed as overt racism, like a laundry ad in China for example. To put it in the simplest terms, I believe that black-face or yellow-face in movies would likely be a non-issue if North America's history (and present) wasn't rife with discrimination against people of colour (especially in the film industry). I mean it would be kind of odd, but I doubt it would be considered nearly as offensive.     

But here's the thing, China doesn't have the same racial baggage that we do. The Chinese never sailed to Africa to enslave large segments of the local populations to work their fields, breaking up families and commodifying humans. They didn't (however "unofficially") summarily exclude them from higher education and, subsequently, higher wage jobs, indirectly (and sometimes directly) forcing them to live in poverty stricken ghettos, while chastising them for being lazy and somehow inherently less intelligent. Their cops don't racially profile them on a regular basis even now (not sure about that last one actually). I can't even find a statistic for the amount of Black people currently living in China which leads me to believe that there probably aren't that many relative to the massive Han Chinese and other populations that lives there.

This is from an interesting video which tries to put some things in perspective. You can watch here. The host in the video is English by the way.
I mean, the ad is still racist, and just cause it's from China doesn't make it right. But I would say that it makes it kind of a different beast entirely. I should bloody well hope that seeing a Black person, literally being "whitewashed" in a washing machine would strike a very strong cord for the average North American. I'm convinced that if this ad was released in North America it would be a media massacre -- no one would buy that detergent ever again, and that would be only the most peaceful outcome. However, it's pretty ignorant to expect the vast majority of Chinese to have the same reaction. Why did this ad get made? Because most Chinese wouldn't have a problem with it and it's a Chinese ad directed at Chinese people. If you get mad at China and the Chinese for thinking this sort of thing is okay, for being "backwards" or somehow intrinsically wrong, you are essentially getting mad at China for not being more like America or Canada and, like it or not, that makes you a cultural chauvinist. "We are right, they are wrong." I know it's hard, but just imagine if slavery, apartheid and racial segregation never happened, and you saw this ad, your reaction would, logically, be different, you might even think it was funny, perhaps a harmless bit of tongue-in-cheek. 

Now look, I know that as a white, hetero, cis-gendered, able-bodied, facially symmetrical, English speaking, middle-class, employed, male, I'm practically swimming in privilege and have little business telling less or differently privileged people, what they should be mad at. The internet is also a big place that gives us the illusion that we are all connected, that we should all know and be sensitive to each other's issues. But you can't expect a Chinese twenty-something who spent their entire lives in Chengdu, who speaks a smattering of English and works a dreary nine to five, to give the same amount of hoots you do about something as mundane as a detergent commercial made at the expense of an ethnic group they've likely only ever seen on television and in Hollywood movies - which, by the way don't paint an especially positive picture, by-and-large.

Hypothetically, imagine if you were some person living in a small city in China and Lil' Wayne was the only Black American person you knew of. Like you knew there were others, but Lil Wayne was the only one you'd ever seen, in a magazine you read in a hair shop one time (or something). Yeah, just think about that.   
And therein lies another thing that pisses me off about this whole dynamic. We North Americans seemingly love to get pissed off at people in other countries for portraying insensitive and stereotypical images of our Black countrymen but where do you suppose they got those negative stereotypes to begin with? You know what has been famous in Asia for a really long time? American movies and pop music. Now, I like me some Hollywood and I'm not suggesting that all racism in Asia against American people of colour can be traced to American pop culture, but I'd wager that quite a large portion of it can, especially when it comes to portrayals of Black American culture.

Take a second and think for a moment. Could you imagine what kind of mindset you would have if your only point of reference for Black American culture was Kanye West, Lil' Wayne, Chris Brown, Rihana, Nicki Minaj, and Beyonce combined with the numerous Black stereotypes one can easily see in the latest Michael Bay vehicle and the like? (Transformers was very popular in China I'm told) Also imagine if you didn't have normal Black people around to balance out this extremely lop-sided influx of information? Yeah see that's what I think is going on here. It's like sneezing on someone and then blaming them for getting sick. I honestly can't think of a more racially segregated industry, rife with racialized caricatures, yet still so widely accepted as legitimate, than the American pop music industry. Also, it's still a big deal when a Black American person let alone a Black woman gets a role in a Hollywood film that isn't exploitative in some way. I mean, what year is this again? I digress.

Remember these lovable scamps from Transformers? Hehe, and one of them had a gold tooth, and they spoke in ebonics and they were lazy and kind of slow and everyone loved them and we all had a good laugh, hahaha, and nobody was offended? Remember that? No?  
In my experience, the proof is in the pudding. I've gone through more instances than I can count wherein I've tried, with varying degrees of success, to convince my students and local friends here (in South Korea, where I am currently living, albeit not China) that Black Americans aren't anymore prone to delinquency, promiscuous behavior and/or violence than anyone else, and I mean, lets be honest here, where else could they getting these ideas than from American media? East Asian television shows sure don't feature too many Black characters period.

If the add featured one of these migrant workers getting "whitewashed" I get the feeling it would have generated way more controversy locally. And most Americans, probably wouldn't give a crap about it. 
I'll end with quick turn back to moral relativism. I bet if the advertising execs decided to replace the Black man in the Ad with a dark-skinned migrant worker from Northern China, or a Turkic Muslim, or a Tibetan, or a South East Asian man, you would have a shit-storm on your hands -- at the very least it would definitely strike a cord with a number of sizable local populations. It's a different reality over there, plain and simple, and that's how terrible commercials like the one everyone is raging over get made. Sure, the world is seemingly getting smaller and we're all getting more connected, but it's still frickin' huge and we're not all in the same boat. We also have to think about the consequences of the messages we send out -- context is important and certain information processed in certain conditions can lead to all sorts of outcomes, some great, some terrible.