Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sisters of the Gion

Hey hey friends, midterms are OVER!!! Got another gem from my Japanese cinema class that I recently discovered was on youtube in its entirety, so here's some more vintage Japanese cinema for ya'll and it's a talkie this time. Allow me to introduce Kenji Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion. 

It's about 70 minutes and quite nicely remastered with English subtitles! The story tells the tale of two sisters who live in the Gion pleasure district in Kyoto in 1936. One sister is caring and compassionate but ultimately romantic to a fault and the other is jaded and unscrupulous and takes advantage of her would-be patrons at every turn. Both end up in rough situations in the end, with the romantic woman abandoned by the man she stuck by despite criticism from others and the pragmatic woman getting injured by a vengeful former patron that she took advantage of.

The two sisters, romantic and traditional Umekichi and modern and pragmatic Omocha.  
So let's talk subtext! I was at my tutorial on Friday and we students were asked to pick the film apart which we did like vultures on carrion! (Eww. . .)

So the two sisters are Umekichi and Omocha, Umekichi is the older of the two and is portrayed as embodying many of the traditional traits that would have been most commonly associated with women at the time. She has a sense of obligation to her patrons, especially the man who helped her become an established Geisha, (the same man who eventually abandons her) she's loyal, believes in tradition, and treats her patrons with warmth and respect, and she's always wearing a kimono. Her vice appears to be that she has no ambition or initiative and is content to stay where she is in her life, which is poor and dependent on others. Her younger sister Omocha is quite the opposite. She is younger, much more driven, is often seen wearing western clothes and will not hesitate to exploit certain people to get what she needs. Her justification is that the geisha system is messed up anyway, men are all pigs and you might as well just take what you need from them and move on to the next one. Her vices are pragmatism and materialism. In many ways Umekichi represents the traditional woman and Omocha represents the "new" woman, two paradigms that were popularly explored in those days.

Omocha in her "western" garb.
 Beyond gender archetypes it is my opinion that these characters are also allegories for the divergent approaches to Japan's development in the 1930's. So what was going on in Japan in those days?

Well in 1936 Japan had more or less consolidated its empire. It had quite some time ago, effectively "modernized" it's government, military and infrastructure and had a number of colonial efforts in the works. By this time Korea had been officially part of the Japanese empire for 26 years and a number of South East Asian countries had also felt the brunt of Japanese colonizing efforts. While these things were going on abroad, all manner of folks back in Japan were starting to look inward at their own identity wondering how all this modernization, expansion and whatnot had affected it. The popular question of the day seemed to be along the lines of:

What did it mean to be Japanese in an ever-expanding empire (one that was expanding to include those not ethnically Japanese) and what was the future of Japan?

Well it would seem to me that Kenji Mizoguchi decided to put fourth his two sense by using Umekichi and Omacha to represent two of the diverging and popular mentalities of the time.

Umekichi in her Kimono (left) and Omocha in her modern clothes (right)
Umekichi is representative of a popular notion at the time, that Japan and Japanese people ought to preserve a strict sense of identity through the preservation of tradition in order to bolster a concrete sense of what it meant to be Japanese and what it meant to be not. There was at this time a popular sense of national nostalgia among many Japanese, perhaps a yearning for simpler times when what was "Japanese" and what was "foreign" was much easier to discern, before the introduction of "modern" and "foreign" technologies. However, Umekichi ultimately suffers because she is not able to move past her current situation and ends up being quite literally left behind. Perhaps a metaphor for what might have happened to Japan if they had decided not to "modernize with the rest of the world" so to speak.

Omocha, on the other hand is representative of the more militant, pragmatic and in a manner of speaking, materialistic elements of the Japanese empire at the time. She can often be seen wearing more "western" or "modern" clothes; she uses her role as a geisha to seduce and exploit people until they are no longer of use to her, and she appears to have an insatiable urge for advancement. At the time many Japanese scholars were regularly researching and experimenting with various models of government, education and technology thought to have come from Europe and North America; oversees, the empire's military apparatuses were governing and acquiring many additional territories and often exploiting them for both human and natural resources; and overall the Empire of Japan seemed to be obsessed with continuous, uninhibited development. However in the film, Omocha's character also meets with a sorry end by being ejected from a moving taxi and sustaining severe injuries at the hands of a vengeful patron.

The tragic endings of the two sisters, one bed-ridden with injuries and the other pining for a lost love - incidentally, despite being a pre-war film, this situation eerily reflects Japan's state right after the war.
It seems to me (as of right now at least) that through this film's subtext Mizoguchi was attempting to indicate that there were two popular extremes being realized in Japan at the time and fully committing to either would prove disastrous. On the one side, losing the nation in tradition and cultural stagnation would result in national complacency and Japan would inevitably get left behind by other ever-advancing societies.

On the other side, assuming that this is indeed the intended message it's quite alarming when you consider that Omacha, as an allegory for Japanese militarism was physically damaged at the end of the film and then contrast that with the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 10 years after this film was made. It's almost like Mizoguchi unintentionally predicted the future to some degree - rather mind-blowing isn't it?

Still I do have to urge that this is only MY interpretation of the film and is certainly not authoritative, so feel free to derive your own meaning from the film and share it with your friends or whomever! On the surface this film is still an interesting portrait of modern, post-war Japan so if your not a huge fan of reading into things then its still very much enjoyable from a completely literal point of view.

Still film analysis can be fun and is good for your brain - yay critical thinking!   

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Page of Madness

Last week in my Japanese film class I watched Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1926 experimental film A Page of Madness. And you can too! Right here! 

I must warn you though, if you don't like films that lack clear narratives and have all sorts of unsettling surrealist imagery than you may want to skip this one. However if your immensly interested in pre-war Japanese film and avant-garde cinema in general than I would highly recommend giving this one a watch, especially as its available right here in (what I think is) its entirety. Still not sure if this one's for you? Check these freaky images out below! 

Sort of looks like the stuff of nightmares doesn't it? But actually there's a lot of really interesting Japanese post-war subtext in here. The story takes place in a mental asylum (cheery!) and the patients are seen going about their business with their mental-illnesses being manifested in different ways - mostly shown through surealist visuals. The main story, if you could call it that, revolves around a man who apparently works at the asylum whose wife is a patient there - apparently the result of their child having drowned some years earlier. So yes, this is not exactly light content. Still, A Page of Madness is considered to be a monumental piece of Japanese cinema and warrants a watch for anyone interested in the history of that country or film in general. 

That's all I'll say for now - it's midterm time so this one's short - if you chose to watch this I hope you enjoyed it or at least found it interesting!      

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

This Chinese food makes me sick. . .

Chinese food makes me feel great actually - the title is supposed be an LFO reference as an example of an inappropriate lyric. . . remember LFO?! No? Maybe that's for the best. So yes, this happened. . .

Were you able to watch the whole thing? It took me a few tries. I originally found out about this uh. . . song on Angry Asian Man (click the link). So, is this the worst thing EVER? No, I don't think so, but is it awful? Pretty much. Yesiree, this music video has more than few people riled up for a number of reasons and it's fairly obvious why, but for those of you who can't understand why a young girl singing about Chinese food is making people upset then watch as I dig into this video like I dig into a bowl of BBQ pork on rice with a side of kailan at Ka Ka Lucky (Toronto East Chinatown REPRESENT!).

Here's my favourite Chinese food - bbq, kailan and rice (I'm a simple man), $4 in Chinatown baby! 
On the surface this video is basically this girl, Alison Gold singing about how much she loves Chinese cuisine - what's the harm in that? Well aside from being lyrically mind-numbing and vocally lack-luster (though I suspect this song is aimed at children) this song and its video actually perpetuate ideas of orientalism! That's right we're busting out the O-word. Now how is this!? Well let's get the song out of the way first, as I feel that most of the problems people have with this is the video itself. Lyrically I suppose the song is more silly than offensive (see a full lyric sheet at the Angry Asian Man post I referenced) but essentially it's Gold going on about how she likes, fried rice and noodles and chow mein and then this dude in a panda-suite starts rapping about how he likes broccoli and sweet and sour sauce and using chopsticks and Panda Express (I think it's some American chain or something). 

If I had to agree with Gold on one thing it's that chow mein is awesome.
Now noodles, fried rice and chowmein are popular forms of Chinese food and broccoli has often been included in various Chinese dishes I've had. Fine. . . but it seems what she's actually singing about is American "Chinese" food which while quite tasty, is often quite limited in it's portrayal of authentic Chinese cooking. I'm not saying I don't like chicken balls, egg roles and General Tao's chicken but at the end of the day many of these dishes were either adapted from way more complex Chinese recipes or straight up invented in North America by restaurant owners to fit the tastes of Non-Chinese North Americans. The fortune cookie is perhaps the best example of this as it was originally based on a traditional Japanese cookie, tujiura senbai and re-purposed by an L.A. based Chinese-American business man. As such these are not really the best representations of authentic Chinese cuisine and that is probably irksome to a lot of people. Furthermore the way in which a lot of American Chinese food is sometimes represented in popular media can be fairly orientalist - as this sort of 'other worldly' food that is as delicious and exotic as it is food-poisoning inducing. This is not to mention that American Chinese food names and motifs have been hurled at Asian-Americans as racial slurs for years. So yes the topic is understandably a bit sensitive for a number of folks. Now how about the video?

If your interested in learning about the histories Chinese food and American Chinese food and the divergence between them (among other things) I hear this is the book for you! (Though I have yet to read it myself). 
The video is the most problematic part about the whole thing and contains a few major 'orientalist' stereotypes. Let's examine them! I'll do this in list form cause its easier to track - I'll identify the stereotype and then explain what's wrong with it. 

This is apparently a "stock photo" if that's any indication how popular this motif is.
1. The bowing, smiling, Chinese spouting waiter - Yes I know, he is a waiter and waiters ought to be polite for customer service and all that but the image of the docile, smiling Chinese waiter serving their particularly white customers while bowing profusely and speaking accented English is a stereotype as old as colonialism. How often do we see the reverse situation in popular media, of a white waiter serving an ethnically Asian customer? Not very often eh? This motif harkens back to the old master and servant roles imposed by a number of colonial European regimes in China and elsewhere in days past and has continued to be perpetuated into the present largely through cinema and television. Think this is a stretch? Ask yourself how many times you've seen the Chinese waiter character in American film and television and then ask yourself how many times you've seen a Chinese character who wasn't a waiter or some other stereotype. . . Yeah. Also the whole part at the beginning in which he says a bunch of stuff in Chinese can be construed as being pretty damned orientalist precisely because we have no idea what he's saying - there's no subtitles! I have enough experience with Chinese to know that he's actually speaking Mandarin but I'm pretty damned sure that this video wasn't made for Chinese people so he might as well be speaking gibberish. In other words it seems that the only reason he's there in that scene is so people can say "Look! A Chinese guy, SPEAKING CHINESE! WHILE COOKING CHINESE FOOD! How exotic!" - orientalist! 

2. Emphasis on the fortune cookies - It always strikes me as odd that one of the visual symbols that is most commonly associated with China and Chinese cuisine in North America, the fortune cookie, isn't even from China. I know that fortune cookies continue to be a big part of the North-American Chinese dining experience, but strictly Chinese it is not. So what? you change the lyrics to "I love American-Chinese food"? No. You just simply don't write a song about Chinese food and avoid the whole dilemma.   

I typed 'geisha' into google and immediately got this. It took less than thirty seconds to type in the word, get the results and realize all of them had the word 'Japanese' in their descriptions - I didn't even have to click on anything so there's no excuse. Click on the pic to make it so you can actually read the text if you want.
3. The frickin' Geisha - At one point in the video Gold and her friends are dressed as what I only imagine are supposed to be Geisha. Geisha have nothing to do with Chinese food - they are Japanese. Japan and China are totally different countries and were at one point engaged in BRUTAL warfare with one another. Suggesting that China and Japan are more or less the 'same thing' is just about as orientalist as you can get.

So you might be thinking, "Alex, you just wrote a three page critique on this little girl's video! What's wrong with you!? Don't you have anything better to do!? She's just a kid!". Well for your information I wrote this in-between classes and true, Gold is a kid but my beef is not with her as at 13 (or however old she is) I wasn't very culturally sensitive either (not to say that kids are incapable of being racist mind you). But I am pretty damned sure she didn't write the song nor conceive the video. My problem is that adults who should have known better were responsible for the offensive content in this video and it doesn't make sense to throw the book at some people for racist ignorance and not others. There's nothing wrong with liking Chinese cuisine and singing about it. . . I guess. . . but if your gonna do something at least try not to needlessly piss people of by not checking your facts! We have a thing called the internet nowadays so you don't need to own an entire set of encyclopedias to know stuff anymore. Writing a song or making a video about Chinese food? Well don't. But if you absolutely have to then do some research, educate yourselves and it will make your lives so much easier and less hate-filled. Trust me! I'm a white guy who blogs about East Asian stuff for goodness sake! Just something to think about.

After-thought: What the kind of 'clubbin' is Alison Gold doing anyway!?         

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ghost in the Symphonic Shell

I recently came across this video on YouTube and thought it was one of the coolest things I've seen in a while.

If you're like me and grew up in the '90s, you may very well remember when anime started becoming a pretty hot topic. And you may also remember Ghost in the Shell as being one of the earlier anime features to gain widespread popularity in North America. One thing that always stood out about Ghost in the Shell, among other things, was its haunting soundtrack. I remember the opening, displaying a gritty futuristic cityscape of Hong Kong with the opening number of this video playing. It's just always stuck in my mind -- the perfect blend of dystopian imagery with the haunting, almost unsettling voices of the singers is always enough to give me goosebumps. Just hearing this video made it all come back.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Story of Wong Fei Hung

An actual photograph of the quintessential Chinese hero, Wong Fei Hung (1847-1924)
Who's this, you ask? Why, silly, it's Master Wong! That's right, the Master Wong. You know, Wong Fei Hung . . . of Po Chi Lum? That famous Cantonese hero? Doctor and kung-fu master extraordinaire? What do you mean he doesn't look like Jet Li!? Ugh, fine . . .

Jet Li in his iconic portrayal of real-life Chinese icon Wong Fei Hung. 
Now you know who I'm talking about, right!? Yeah, that Once Upon a Time in China guy! Yes indeed, many people who do know Wong Fei Hung probably know him from Jet Li's portrayals of the character in the well-known Once Upon a Time in China series of films and Li's portrayal in other films too. Despite other prolific actors such as Jackie Chan filling the part, Li was the go-to guy for the role in the 1990s and has since become the quintessential Wong Fei Hung in HK cinema -- but this isn't the case for everyone.

Kwan Tak-Hing as Wong Fei Hung.
For an entire generation of Chinese moviegoers, Kwan Tak-Hing was the definitive Master Wong. Just the other day I watched one of his early films, in which he played the role in 1949's The Story of Wong Fei Hung: Part 1, a.k.a. Wong Fei Hung's Whip That Smacks the Candle (yes, I know that could be misconstrued as some sort of bizarre innuendo), and you can watch it too -- right here!

This here is one of the classic Wong Fei Hung films from the early days of kung-fu cinema. The quality is not the best and the film obviously hasn't been remastered, but it's more than watchable and the subtitles are most excellent and informative! The film consists of two chapters that aren't really related to each other; I think this was meant to be part of an episodic serial that ran at local cinemas (I imagine TVs would have been pretty rare in Hong Kong in those days), especially as the second "episode" ends with a "Find out next time!" cliff-hanger (it literally says that on the Chinese title card).

The film itself is very interesting from a cinematic point of view, as the shot count is significantly lower than in a typical modern-day film (not hard to do) and a number of the performances in the film, such as a lion dance, a number of kung-fu forms, and even a traditional folk song, are filmed in their entirety. This will doubtless make things a bit slow for modern audiences, but for those of you interested in the evolution of the Chinese film form, it certainly is a good example of a (relatively) early Chinese talkie and of the prolific kung-fu movie genre -- traditional martial artists should be interested too. The fight scenes are rather engaging as well, though don't expect any high-flying stuff; they more closely resemble the multi-person forms that one might see advanced students performing in a traditional kung-fu class. Still, the production is quite charming and it is quite a privilege to have something like this subtitled in English, so I entreat thee to check it out!              

Here`s an old poster for it. I think this would make a great T-shirt!     

Sunday, October 13, 2013

GTA Gyeong Seong

For those Korean history buffs out there, SNL Korea made a sequel to their "GTA Joseon" skit called "GTA Gyeong Seong," which showcases a hypothetical GTA game that takes place during the Japanese colonization of Korea. Check it out: it's also pretty hilarious, even if you don't understand the language . . .

For those of you who don't know, back in the pre-WWII days after the Meiji restoration, Japan had managed to build up a pretty impressive empire in a relatively short period of time. And like most empires, they decided they wanted to expand and had their sights set on their nearest neighbour -- the Korean peninsula. It just so happened that there was a peasant uprising in Korea (then called Joseon) at the time (this was around 1894). Eventually the rebellion got too much for the Joseon government to handle and they petitioned their old buddy China to send military aid. It took China a little while to respond, and Japan ended up catching wind of the situation and decided this was a pretty good opportunity to get a foothold on the peninsula.

A painting of the donghak rebels.
So Japan hopped over to Joseon and essentially quelled the rebellion alongside Joseon forces. It was all rather successful; only, after the whole business of the rebellion was settled, Japan didn't leave. Instead Japan built up a significant presence on the peninsula and started exercising its power to change a number of things. It started out with trading and the opening of ports and what-not but eventually resulted in the full annexation of Korea in 1910 (this whole process was fairly gradual, but explaining all these events in detail would take several posts). This brings us to Korea's Japanese colonial period, which lasted from 1910 to about 1945. During this time, as with most colonial regimes, many injustices were committed against the colonized, and Korean people were regularly exploited for the benefit of the Japanese motherland. If you've ever wondered why Korea doesn't seem all that fond of Japan, then this is a good time to start reading about.

Some Korean independence fighters posing in Manchuria. 
Anyway, Gyeong Seong was the name of Seoul during the Japanese occupation and the SNL Korea sketch is based on that, which is why the police and army guys are all speaking Japanese and wearing Japanese imperial uniforms. I love historical comedy and this particular sketch is quite entertaining, though quite a bit more esoteric than the last one. Check it out, though!

Friday, October 11, 2013


The poster for Kinship (1963)
Just watched the 1963 South Korean film Kinship, also known as Blood Relation or Hyeolmaek in Korean. The story revolves around a small group of North Korean refugees who live in a little shantytown community in Seoul and get by with a meagre lifestyle selling socks and pens and performing menial tasks for money. The older folks in the community are obsessed with trying to get their children into better social positions but are rather haphazard in their methods. One character, Kim Deok-sam, wants his son Geo-buk to get a job with the U.S. military, while another family attempts to convince their daughter, Bok-sun, to become a prostitute. The two kids eventually flee the town in search of greener pastures. There are a number of other subplots concerning other characters and what-not, but it seems the main story is centred on these events. The film has a happy ending, with the two young protagonists eventually getting jobs at a textile factory and everyone feeling pretty good about the whole thing.

Geo-buk listening to another lecture from his father about making money.
The film is quite entertaining and the characters relatable enough, and it paints a very interesting portrait of the time. South Korea in 1963 was a very different place; that year was the second year of the deeply pragmatic and problematic dictatorship of Park Jung-hee (the father of the current president of South Korea Park, Geun-hae), and it could be said that the film really captures the national policy of the time. Among other things the Park regime was credited with laying the foundation for South Korea's future economic success, through an intense (albeit at times ruthless) economic development strategy, with a huge emphasis on production and investment in local industry (Park went so far as to ban many imports in order to give local industry a fighting chance). On the social level, Park advocated moving away from the "archaic" superstitious and largely agricultural roots of traditional Korean society and attempted to effectively "modernize" the country's economy (South Korea was actually poorer than North Korea at this point). So here we have a film in which young people persevere, break away from the outdated ideas of their poor and complacent parents, and eventually end up working at a new textile factory, which is portrayed in the film as an impressive pristine and very desirable place in which all the workers have smiles on their faces and beam with self-worth. Is your propaganda alarm going off yet?

Everything is AOK in the factory!
Park was actually largely successful in his economic endeavours, and some of your favourite companies such as LG, Hyundai, and Samsung got their start in those days. However, there were a lot of problems with the Park regime as well, mainly that, like many other production-based regimes, his wasn't a big fan of intellectuals. The problem with intellectuals is that they do inconvenient things like sit around and write about stuff when they could be piecing together television sets or building ship; they also tended to be critical of Park's authoritarian government policies. There is a student character in the film who doesn't do anything but lie around and talk about how he doesn't have time to work because he needs to think about the unification of his country (this sentiment was quite popular at the time -- this was just 10 years after the Korean War). As a result his family constantly berates him for being a broke bum, and it isn't until he starts working in construction that he feels fulfilled and earns the respect of his older brother and mother.

The tormented "Yankee girl" in her snazzy digs.
Finally there is another character, who is a "Yankee girl," which is an old derogatory term for girls (some of whom were reportedly prostitutes) who hung out and often hooked up with foreign (usually American) soldiers for money and a number of other, likely more complicated reasons. She is portrayed as a deeply conflicted individual, and though she is seen as being rather well off money-wise, she is ultimately unhappy with her lifestyle and eventually starts thinking she'd rather work in a factory as well. Could this be indicative of how relying on foreigners and foreign sources for capital yields short-term economic prosperity while ultimately rendering South Korean industry dependent on external capital and therefore essentially empty!? Could be!  

The older generation in their squalor.
This is, of course, only one interpretation of this film (I just finished watching it about an hour ago), but the wonderful thing about film is that it can be read in so many ways. It's also interesting to note that the film promotes an idea of independence for youth, allowing its young protagonists to make their own decisions and portraying these decisions in a good light -- an idea that would be in sharp contrast to Korea's neo-Confucian roots. In any case, as a film in and of itself, Kinship is at times quaint, compelling, and, from a 1960s Korean slice-of-life standpoint, pretty neat and enjoyable even if you leave the possible subtext out of the equation. If you're interested in modern Korean history or film, or international film in general, I'd recommend watching it. The best part? It's available to watch for free on the Korean Film Archive's YouTube channel, which boasts an impressive collection of English- subtitled remastered pre-Korean-new-wave films, all available in HD. Truly a fabulous resource -- check it out here.                                         


Monday, October 7, 2013

East + West

"Perception: How Germans and the Chinese see one another"

What is this!? This has been floating around for a while and was introduced to me through Facebook. This here is an image from Yang Liu, an artist in Germany who originally immigrated there from China at the age of 14 (the whole collection can be seen here). She has recently created a series of images like the one above to draw on the most prevalent cultural differences between her country of birth and the country she now resides in. It's pretty interesting and also, depending on your stance, a bit problematic. In what way? you ask. Because this particular way of portraying culture requires generalization.

Generalization gets people pretty riled up most of the time, especially when it is applied to a culture or society. I imagine this is because no matter what cultural society you are living in, there are always exceptions (i.e., unconventional people who don't "follow the rules"). Perhaps for this reason I have noticed some people accusing this little project of perpetuating stereotypes. Now if you read this blog, you know I'm no fan of stereotypes, but at the same time -- and this might upset some people -- the reason stereotypes are so damned complicated and annoying is because they do in some capacity reflect a cultural reality. Incidentally, stereotypes represent only a very specific reality, which is then unfairly applied to everyone who could possibly be associated with that reality.

In other words, stereotypes often do not just appear out of thin air, but at the same time they always oversimplify and assume. For example, the stereotype that black people like fried chicken, for example, is a blanket statement. It doesn't ask why, and it doesn't take into account non-African Americans who like fried chicken, and it doesn't take into account African-Americans who don't like fried chicken. For that matter, even though it is a blanket statement by its very construction -- suggesting that all people who could be considered "black" like fried chicken -- it doesn't take into account the millions of black people on the African continent, many of whom might not have access to fried chicken, especially if they don't live in one of Africa's urban centers. So then the statement becomes a logical fallacy: something that could not be true based on the law of averages alone. So yes, in other words, despite the fact that stereotypes may have an air of truth to them, they cannot hold up to pure logic and are thus pretty stupid. But how about generalizations alone?

Stereotyping is in many cases cultural generalization, but in the case of Yang Liu's project here, it is a way in which we are able to view a culture cohesively. Yang Liu has lived in both cultures; she has likely dealt with Germans and Chinese in both cultural spaces. In other words, her experience goes beyond "I saw five black guys eating fried chicken one time, so I guess black people like fried chicken." Liu is taking cultural elements that she has found to be prevalent in both societies and is contrasting them. That's quite a bit different from stereotyping, in my opinion. Here she is looking at cultural trends, which do exist and are quite real. Stereotypes are things born of limited experience that offer a skewed reality, apply only to a specific group of people, and should never be a measuring stick for an entire ethnicity or culture. But cultural norms do exist and are tangible. Sure, there are always exceptions, but there are reasons why etiquette sections are included in travel guides. Cultural conventions, though not immune to change, are things that can be explored, studied, and challenged, and I feel that's what Liu has done here. It might be easy to dismiss what she has done as stereotyping, but doing so would be to deny that cultures are in fact different from one another and have at least some easily identifiable attributes.  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Asian Evasion

Hey! Just saw this video by Totally Biased, featuring Kevin Kataoka, about Hollywood's evasion of Asian actors in starring roles. This is a huge problem that I've certainly wanted to talk about more on this blog. Now it's certainly true that Asians get stiffed casting-wise in Hollywood in general. As Kataoka explains, even films that take place in an Asian setting will almost always star a white guy. This is true and this is frustrating.

Tom Cruise as the last white samurai. 
Now you can make the argument "if the story is based on real events or is an adaptation of a story wherein the protagonist is indeed a white person, then to preserve the accuracy of the original we must have a white actor." I actually agree with that argument, but the problem here is the stories that Hollywood chooses to tell. Looking at the majority of Hollywood films that deal with Asia or Asian themes, it is obvious that Hollywood has a tendency to be partial to stories featuring Caucasians, with the Asian characters -- the natives of the setting -- often taking a back seat. The best example I can think of is The Last Samurai. While I can't say The Last Samurai was not compelling or even a bad film, I certainly found it odd that the screenplay inserted a fictitious Caucasian character -- and an American one at that (in the form of Tom Cruise) -- into real historical situations such as the Meiji restoration. As if a group of military Luddites rising up against a new regime that would essentially render them obsolete would not be compelling enough, the brilliant minds of Hollywood thought it necessary to insert a white American into the mix.

Remember all those white actors in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Me neither.
The question is, I suppose, is this actually necessary? Are white North American moviegoers so self-absorbed that they can't bring themselves to be interested in films in which a member of their ethnicity does not fill the role of the main character? Is human drama itself not compelling enough? Well, I'm not sure about that, but I do know that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won several Oscars and was a runaway hit in North America and around the world. I know that Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle became a modern cult classic when it was released on DVD. And I know that Memoirs of a Geisha, though a rather problematic production, did very well at the box office, and I know that Slum Dog Millionaire was a smashing success. What did these films all have in common? They were successful in North America -- some very much so -- and all featured ethnically Asian leads. So yes, it would seem that there is a market for films that don't star white people. But even in these cases a lot of the Asian actors used were "imported" from foreign film markets. In fact, only one of the films I've mentioned has specifically Asian-American leads.
I remember thinking when it came out that this movie was going to be full of awful Asian stereotypes, and I avoided it out of fear of that. Big mistake. Now it's one of my favourite movies. 
Now maybe you're thinking Asian-Americans are just a bunch of butt-hurt complainers about all this. Mabye you might use some of the films I mentioned above as examples of how sometimes Asians do get lead roles, and everyone should just chill out about the whole thing. But ask yourself this: how many current famous A-list celebrities can you name who are Asian-American . . .  No, no, no! Not Asian but Asian-American, as in ethnically Asian people who were born in North America or immigrated here. Let's see . . . Lucy Liu . . . John Cho . . . err . . . Kal Pen? Is he still acting? Sandra Oh? Um . . .  half the cast of Hawaii Five-0? How about the music industry? Well, Far East Movement made that one song about G6's or something, and there's that girl in the Pussycat Dolls who looks like she's Indian or something . . . but other than that . . . huh. Now take whatever number you came to and compare it to the number of famous white or black actors and musicians in mainstream media. Quite telling, isn't it?

Whether or not you like Far East Movement, they were one of the few Asian-American acts to receive widespread mainstream success. Why is that so unusual!? 
Let me offer a hypothetical situation. Say you'r an Asian-American actor and you catch wind of an American production that is supposed to take place in New York's Chinatown. The story is about the struggle of mainland Chinese immigrants acclimatizing to American life or some such thing. It's all about cultural identity and is meant to be a portrait of the cultural enclave that houses these people. It's about their struggle! Say you're naive and you're like, "That could be cool. I should ask my agent about casting calls for that one." But then you find out that it's all told through the eyes of the main character, who is a white beat cop who patrols the area and lives there with his family, and most of the scenes revolve around this white family that's been inserted into Chinatown and deals more with how they perceive the place than anything else. You'd probably be pretty frustrated.

Finishing the Game, a satirical look at the studio completion of Bruce Lee's Game of Death, deals a lot with movie casting and ethnic stereotyping.
The immigrants themselves, who make up the majority of Chinatown inhabitants in real life, have been pushed into the background in favour of a "fish out of water" main character who likely wouldn't have all that much to do with Chinatown in the first place. For you, the Asian-American actor, it's like a culturally insensitive slap in the face. The story would likely have been much more plausible and realistic if it had revolved around an ethnically Chinese character, and that's one less opportunity you have to get a paycheque in an already woefully exclusive market. Shit. Also, do we really need another one of those white-guy-in-predominantly-Asian-setting movies?

This was a two-part Canadian miniseries that revolved around Chinese gangsters in Vancouver, in which the main character was Asian American (or Canadian, I suppose) and was married to a Caucasian woman. It actually dealt with a few of the issues I've included in my hypothetical film, and it was pretty damn good.  
Wouldn't the story be even more interesting if the main character was a Chinese-American guy from Milwaukee who can't speak Chinese all that well and is out of touch with his roots, so to speak? Let's say this guy has to deal with first-generation locals who, based on his appearance, assume he's culturally Chinese and then get frustrated when they realize he's more American than Chinese, while he must combat stereotyping by his non-Asian-American colleagues -- which causes him to wrestle with notions of self-identity, etc. (which is something he's been doing all his life anyway, from growing up with predominantly non-Asian-American friends). By the end of the movie some of the audience realize, "Holy crap! People from Asia and Asian-Americans ARE different! I had no idea!" I would pay to see THAT movie.

Toronto's Reel Asian International Film Festival showcases films produced in Asia as well as a wealth of Asian-American and Asian-Canadian productions. Wouldn't it be neat if more of these sorts of films entered the North American mainstream? 
We are living in an age when multiculturalism is the talk of the town. North America's non-white demographics are constantly growing and are increasingly making up more of the movie-going public -- and no, I don't think that's a bad thing. Also, the age of globalization is bringing to light a lot of questions and discussions about the significance of culture that have not previously been explored. Canada and the United States specifically are quite unique places, in that people from around the world have and continue to immigrate here for myriad reasons, bringing their cultural elements and nuances with them. Indeed, our countries are lands of immigrants. I often view film as being a representation of a country's culture, but North American culture is constantly changing, and our film culture, I feel, has not changed with it.

My theory? Hollywood is a business. They care predominantly about capital and as such stick to formulas that will likely make money. In other words, they don't like taking chances on investments. While I can certainly understand the mentality behind this, I feel it's led to a sort of cultural stagnation within Hollywood, breeding producers and marketers who are out of touch with the ever-changing demographics and sensibilities of Americans (and Canadians). Perhaps think about it this way: it took them decades to realize that you could have a black protagonist and still have a marketable product. My guess is that Asian Americans will have to wait a similar amount of time to become "viable" as lead roles. This is, of course, extremely shitty, and the sooner our mainstream film industries become as dynamic as the societies they are attempting to portray, the better.  

That's my two cents on the matter.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What Everyone Thinks I Do

So I made one of these! Anyone who's ever taken East Asian studies can probably relate to this. I suppose the real joke is that it's me in every picture, so I am doing everything that people think I do . . . which is kind of confusing. Anyway, there is an air of truth to this, um . . . meme? That is, of course, that there are many preconceptions people seem to have as soon as you tell them you're an East Asian Studies major, which goes doubly true if you are a Caucasian male who typically wears glasses, like me. I'd just like to take the time to go over each panel and explain what the idea was behind it. Why? Because it's fun and I'm too tired to post anything that takes actual brainpower. I'm going left to right, top first, then the bottom.

1st Panel: What my friends think I do.

My close friends and I have this running joke in which my sole motivation for choosing to major in East Asian studies was to pick up Asian women. My friends, of course, understand that this is not the case, and while my friends understand this, I have met an annoyingly large number of people who ask me if I like Asian girls, right after I tell them my major. This implies that they believe my major is somehow a result of my interest in Asian females. Of course, what I tell people is that I don't need to spend over $15,000 a year on school fees just to date women of a certain ethnicity. The picture was taken at my 26th birthday party, and the two girls are good friends of mine who came to Toronto for a year to brush up on their English.

2nd Panel: What my mum thinks I do.

All right, so yes, I spell mum with a u instead of an o. There's a long story behind that, but basically if I spelled mum as mom, my mum would never let me hear the end of it. So there. My parents, despite being not Asian at all and, in the case of my dad, not having any particular interest in Asia whatsoever, are very supportive of my studying East Asia, and that's awesome! My parents are quite aware of what it is I actually do, so the idea that they think I sit around all day practising Korean calligraphy is pretty amusing. The picture was taken at the King Sejong Museum in Seoul, by a local friend of mine.

3rd Panel: What society thinks I do.

I suppose this one depends on what society you live in, but honestly I have no idea what the majority of Torontonians (those are people from Toronto, where I live) think East Asian studies students do. One thing I do know is that many Torontonians who aren't ethnically East Asian don't know all that much about Asia beyond the basics, such as that sushi comes from Japan, dim sum comes from China, and kimchi comes from Korea. Hmmm . . . I suppose that's actually pretty good, relatively speaking -- you go, Toronto! Still, I suspect society assumes that we East Asian studies people hang out and talk about geisha and samurais and things while watching anime and engaging in orientalist delights. Not true! . . . at least not in most cases. The picture is of me posing with a Kitana cosplayer at Fan Expo, one of Toronto's major comics, sci fi, etc. conventions. Kitana is from the popular video game series Mortal Kombat, a series that uses a mishmash of Asian-inspired and fairly orientalist visuals in its art design (though I understand it's meant to be totally fantasy and therefore do not fault the series for that).

4th Panel: What I think I do.

This is a picture of me in a performance at Yonsei University in Seoul, where I joined one of the traditional group-drumming or pungmul clubs. It was a blast and I met some truly awesome people from it. As an East Asian studies major I imagine myself as an open-minded person eager to immerse myself in East Asian culture, both traditional and contemporary. I thought that playing in a Korean drum club in front of an audience of Koreans of all ages was pretty immersive!

5th Panel: What my profs think I do.

I'm not really sure what it is our profs think we do, but I imagine they suspect we look deeply at both the historical and contemporary realities and cultures of East Asia, analyzing and drawing conclusions based on what we learn in lectures and readings and such. Well, I love my major precisely because we do this, and I'd say this is at least true for me, though I suppose I can't speak for everyone. What better picture to use than one of a bunch of people examining a temple in Korea. This picture was taken at a temple stay that a friend and I went on in Kangwon-do, South Korea. I'm the one in orange with purple sleeves and my buddy is to my left. Temple stay is totally cool, but it can be pretty rough if you don't know what to expect.

6th Panel: What I actually do.

So yeah, I drink a lot -- or I used to. I used to hang out with a lot of international language students and working holidayers from Japan and Korea. Toronto is a pretty hot destination for these folks, and when they get here, they typically have this vacation mentality and like to drink and party a lot! I would often join them, as I had many friends among this crowd, although I've toned it down considerably since I got back from studying in Korea. In Korea I did drink quite a bit too much, I feel. Let's just say my liver is likely not too fond of me -- though I have been giving it a rest lately. This photo was taken at a "room bar" (it makes sense in Korean), where one can go to a private room and get smashed with friends. It was taken right after a school festival, which is why I'm wearing all blue. Room bars are quite popular in South Korea and are frequented by couples and used often for private corporate parties.

Anyway, I thought that was pretty fun! I'd like to close by saying that usually when I tell people about my major, they often ask me, "What do you do with an EAS degree?" To them I say "East Asian Studies" (EAS) is kind of a deceptive title, because even though I am an EAS specialist (meaning that I study only East Asian studies), through this program I have learned so much about the world at large. It's a pretty eclectic field, and I feel as though, since I enrolled in it, I have learned so much about societies, people, language, and the world at large that when the time comes to start my career, I'll be ready! I already have several ideas.

Also I feel that I don't talk enough about my personal life on this blog of mine, and maybe that should change. I feel I should give a face to this random white dude who talks and rants about Asian stuff. Anyway, until next time!                                  

To all my people in EAS, keep it up!