Sunday, January 3, 2016

Why Hollywood's Fascination With "White People in Asia With Problems" Pisses People Off: A Critical Study

Disclaimer: For all the trash I talk about Hollywood, I really do like a lot of American films.

Oh my. . . look who's being a naughty geopolitical institution again . . . That's right! It's the Hollywood machine (the collection of corporate entities, not the town)! "Cultural faux pas" seems to be the name of the game with these folks, especially when they choose to produce content about East Asia, which appears to be fairly often. Honestly, at this point I could probably make a top ten list of shitty ways that Hollywood films portrayed (or did not bother to accurately portray) East Asian places and/or people this year alone.

The latest bit of controversy that has more than a few people once more annoyed with Hollywood for being a culturally insensitive suit-run, faceless entity perpetually stuck thirty years in the past is a film that is coming out next week, called The Forest. 

For those of you not in the know, the film looks to be a supernatural horror film set in Aokigahara Forest, which is in Japan at the base of Mount Fuji and, as it is famously dense and easy to get lost in, is a well-known suicide spot. It's directed by a dude who makes commercials, produced by a corporate type and the guy who wrote the script for Blade. . . and Blade II (among other sort-of-all-right movies), and seems to be a vehicle for Natalie Dormer, who's most famous for being in the latest Hunger Games movie and Game of Thrones, which I guess is some television show about chess or something (for those who do not understand subtlety, this is meant to be a joke. You can't be alive and on the Internet in North America without knowing what Game of Thrones is). 

Dormer as Sara, being stalked by an eldritch Japanese (I assume) horror! 
Natalie Dormer is famous now and Aokigahara has been on a lot of viral "Top Ten Creepy Places on Earth" lists lately, so I suppose some brain in Hollywood decided it was time to deal. Based on the trailers, the story seems to revolve around Dormer's character, Sara, looking for her kid sister, who for some reason ended up running into Aokigahara and getting lost. There's an evil ghost/zombie thing stalking her as she searches, there appears to be "more to the story," and there's ghosts and things.

Now if you couldn't tell by Dormer's name, she is obviously not Japanese. In fact she, while being a good actress, is very English and white . . . and her character and her character's kid sister are very American and white. What a little white girl with American citizenry is doing in Japan, alone and within running distance of a giant suicide forest, is beyond me. The whole thing seems rather contrived, and in fact, it is! It's the fourth movie made in the past five years about white American people going into Aokigahara specifically and searching for lost loved ones, only The Forest is getting more press because of Dormer's casting . . . as in it actually has a famous person in it.  

So here we go again! White People in Hostile Asia CLIV: The Forest. Yes, once more we have a film with an Asian backdrop in which the main characters are white, strong-willed Americans and the setting (Japan) and its inhabitants (the Japanese) take a back seat. To be fair, I'm merely speculating, as the film isn't out yet . . . but I mean, can we really expect something other than what I've just described at this point in the game? The answer is probably no. We've seen this old formula play out again and again, and it's one of Hollywood's longest-running currently existing tropes. White people in Asia for some (usually) poorly constructed reason are having problems, and all those unfriendly Asian people who take up maybe fifteen to twenty minutes of the total screen time just won't help them dry their white tears. Boo hoo.  

Another recent entry in the acclaimed White People in Asia with Problems series. This one appears to be so shamelessly unaware of itself that it actually depicts on the poster a white family of "innocent civilians" caught between disparate crowds of  battling Asian people. I mean, come on.
And this is really what I want to talk about here: why this sort of thing pisses people off and makes them boycott movies. I've complained about this a number of times before on this blog, but I don't know if I've ever examined critically why this stuff angers people so much. So I will, because this is the Alex's East Asian Studies blog, not the Alex's Rant about a Movie He Hasn't Seen blog.

For the purpose of this argument I will compare The Forest to The Last Samurai, because the problems that people have with the former are, I think, quite similar to ones they had with the latter. The Last Samurai, that movie about a white American soldier, played by Tom Cruise, becoming a bona fide samurai during the Meiji Restoration, while actually being a fairly decent film, is a textbook example of what I like to call "white American plot insertion" (this term kind of sucks but I just made it up right now). Perhaps assuming that the American moviegoing public, the majority of whom are white, could simply not handle watching a movie about Asia if it didn't have a character they could racially and linguistically relate to, the filmmakers inserted Tom Cruise's character into a highly implausible historical scenario and appeared to take great pains to do so.

The American-soldier-becomes-samurai plot may not be problematic in and of itself, but it does raise a few questions, mostly because of the following:

a) Aside from the samurai rebellion backdrop, it's entirely fictional.

The only records we have of a white person becoming an actual samurai is the account of William Adams, an Englishman who served in Tokugawa's court in the 1500s and was the inspiration for John Blackthorne in James Clavell's Shogun. Even then he wasn't exactly a warrior but more of an administrator of foreign trade.  

b) The odds of an American soldier actually being accepted into a rural samurai clan at a time when the old bakufu-shogunate order was on its last legs, largely in part because of foreign intervention, were pretty slim. Especially considering he was training their enemies in modern combat. They would have little reason or incentive to keep him alive after capturing him (which is what happens in the film).

c) The film boasted an entirely original script, meaning that it was not an adaptation of any outside source material.      

So the gaping question here is that if a + b + c = true, then why make this film in the first place?

Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. For all the flack I give this film, I actually don't think it's a bad movie from a cinema critic's point of view. It's just that it's a really good example of what I'm talking about here.
I suppose at the time samurai were in vogue, and presumably some film writer had a fantasy of becoming a cool dude samurai and penned it. It reviewed well, the action was good, the casting was good, the score was good, the story was good . . . it was a good piece of cinema! So what's the problem?

The problem, for me anyway, is that since the film was entirely original it didn't necessarily have to be about an American guy in Japan. If someone in Hollywood wanted to make an original film about the plight of the samurai during the Meiji Restoration -- which was a very real issue, full of its own drama and romance -- they could have done it in many different ways. They could have made a film about Saigo Takamori or about the actual Satsuma Rebellion, both of which were the inspirations for the film in the first place. They could've had an ensemble of Asian-American and Japanese import actors playing the various roles (like what they did in The Last Emperor and Letters from Iwo Jima -- two widely acclaimed films about Asia, produced and directed by Americans, that didn't star white people).

Instead the filmmakers, an American dude and a guy from New Zealand, opted to invent a fictional scenario involving fictional characters within the nonfictional historical space of Meiji-period Japan. They did this because presumably they figured that the Caucasian-majority moviegoing public of America wouldn't be interested in a movie about samurai if there wasn't a Caucasian dude in it. That or they were totally convinced that making Dances with Wolves with Samurai: The Movie would make the world a far better place to live in. I'm cynical . . . I'm going with the former.

In opting for pure fiction instead of an adaptation of recorded events in a real space and in casting a white American man at the forefront, the filmmakers effectively (and I'm sure they didn't do this on purpose) reduced the complex and turbulent space of Meiji Japan into a sort of playground for the American power fantasy portrayed in the film. Japan exists merely as an exotic backdrop against which the otherwise contrived plot of the film can be carried out ("Dude! This time it's in Japan!"). The Japanese are reduced to plot points ("Well, he's gotta become a samurai somehow!") who produce the various twists and turns and moral dilemmas on this American man's road to self-discovery. Even Ken Watanabe's character, the guy who instigates the major political conflict in the film -- a figure who would be much more important to the actual events of the period and setting -- is merely a supporting character.

What would you do if you were a samurai when your livelihood was becoming obsolete and you just happened to find a strange foreigner who was working for the people who were responsible for facilitating your impending demise? Train him in your most sacred traditions, obviously!   
The point I'm trying to make is that The Last Samurai isn't a movie about Japan; it's a movie about an American guy doing stuff in a foreign space. It doesn't really engage with Japanese culture or history in any meaningful way. Few well-known historical figures are represented, and when they are, they simply act as set-dressing. Few unique philosophies are explored, and no Japan-specific geopolitical problems are addressed or even dealt with beyond being used as plot devices. The Last Samurai didn't have to take place in Japan. Replace the Japanese with First Nations and the Meiji Restoration with American frontier expansion and you have Dances with Wolves. Replace the samurai with extraterrestrials and the Meiji Restoration with interplanetary resource wars and you have Avatar. The Last Samurai could have taken place anywhere on Earth (and beyond) and it would've been essentially the same story.

The problem here is that Japan, like America (or anywhere, really), is a very complicated place with many cultural, political and historical nuances where many real people have lived and died and continue to do so. Therefore you could make a clever film, with a plot that takes full advantage of the Japanese setting, featuring prominent Japanese characters and situations unique to that setting, or you could do what The Last Samurai did and tell a story that could easily take place in any cultural setting, with a Japanese skin. Reducing a sociopolitical space to an aesthetic and thereby rendering it arbitrary and interchangeable is at best kind of insensitive and at worst . . . exploitation.

Now, I'm not saying that every film set in a foreign space has to be an academic exposé of the life and times of that space. I mean, I liked The Last Samurai; it made for a good time at the cinema! However, for decades and with unabated frequency, Hollywood has been guilty of reducing East Asian spaces (among others) and the people who reside in them to exotic aesthetic backdrops. Hollywood producers are even now doing this, and people are getting sick of it, especially, it seems, Asian-Americans -- that considerably large segment of the American populace who are routinely underrepresented in the pop culture of that place. And this underrepresentation is yet another problem in the equation.

"You tryna tell me that Americans don't wanna see movies about Asian people? I'll bet you nine Oscars that ain't true." A screen capture from the highly acclaimed film The Last Emperor, an English-language movie written and directed by white people, starring a large cast of Asian-American actors such as Joan Chen and John Lone, to name a few. Oh, and Peter O'Toole was in it too, in a supporting role.
Let's clear up something here. White people go to Asia all the time and have interesting adventures that would probably make some pretty good movie material. I for one have been to Asia several times and have some great stories, which I often tell at parties and the like. There is nothing inherently wrong with a story about white American people going to Asia to find themselves. I mean, a lot of people actually do that. I did that! But the frequency with which Hollywood chooses to tell "white people in Asia with problems" stories over, say, stories about people of colour in Asia (or wherever) is overwhelming. Here are some examples off the top of my head (and I actually like some of these movies).

Lost in Translation: Two miserable white people in Japan become friends and sort out their existential crises together.

The Grudge: A white woman who doesn't speak Japanese goes to Japan to find information about a white family member (who lives in a traditional Japanese house for some reason) who killed himself. She and a bunch of other white people who happen to be living in Japan are terrorized by ethnically Japanese ghosts.        
Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift: A white kid from middle America gets in trouble with the law and is sent to live with his estranged father, a drunken delinquent who lives in Tokyo but doesn't appear to speak Japanese. He is sent to a Japanese-language high school despite not speaking any Japanese, and there meets other American kids who also don't speak Japanese. Somehow they can afford luxury sports cars with insane body mods (on their parents' military salaries) and race against jerky Japanese Mafia types who also don't speak Japanese (what?).

Karate Kid 2: The only person who can stand up to the karate thugs terrorizing Okinawa is a white American kid from the city (who doesn't speak Japanese).

The Forbiddon Kingdom: The only person who can save magical ancient China by bringing back the Monkey King is an American white kid from the city (who doesn't speak any dialect of Chinese).

Godzilla (most recent Hollywood production): After the death of his white wife in a nuclear meltdown at a power plant in Japan, a white scientist dies and his white son must save Japan and the world from Godzilla and other monsters with minimal help from an eccentric Japanese dude.

A scene from Lost in Translation, a film I actually quite like. I feel this shot could easily be used as an allegory for how Asia is most often depicted in Hollywood film. Just 'cause I like a movie doesn't mean I can't admit it's problematic for one reason or another. 
These are merely six examples of films that are guilty of the problems I pulled out of the Last Samurai. They display a very common trope that continues to permeate Hollywood filmmaking, at least in regard to how it engages with Asia: white people in Asia with problems. They also have the common trait (with the exception of Lost in Translation) of depicting fairly unusual or even implausible situations, which I touched on at the start of this post/essay/article.

This is even more frustrating, because if you think about it, you can tell that in many cases the scriptwriters have had to go out of their way to construct some truly ridiculous scenarios to serve as excuses for why these white American characters would be in Asia in the first place. In most cases it would make more real-world sense to cast an Asian person in the role and just have a story about Asian people in Asia (the actors could speak English and it would just be assumed they were speaking Japanese or whatever, 'cause they would be American . . . Asian-American). It's insulting to the audience and it's also a slap in the face to Asian-American actors, who get shafted enough as it is. This brings us back to The Forest and my conclusion (thanks for reading up to this point).  

The film's advertising campaign is presenting The Forest as being "based on true events," though I haven't been able to find which events those are exactly. I'm pretty sure that if an American woman went missing in Aokigahara while trying to find her kid sister who had similarly disappeared, it would have been a pretty big deal and an international headline. However, the "true story" elements here appear to be merely that Aokigahara is a real place where real people commit suicide. Here we have yet another level of exploitation. Fictional white woman runs around real forest in Japan, where real Japanese people actually commit suicide, to find her fictional lost kid sister who apparently ran into the forest when no one was watching (!?). Here we have exploitation coupled with (as far as I know about this film) a fictional scenario that is pretty hard to believe.

One of the real-life entrances to Aokigahara, a place where somebody could be committing suicide as you're reading this. Just putting that out there . . .  (got this from
Yes, indeed. There could be someone committing suicide in Aokigahara as I'm writing this article, but this film is using it as a creepy backdrop for a story that really could take place just about anywhere in the world. I mean, they could have invented a fictitious location for this film and the story would have made just as much sense (but then it would be too much like other films). And this is why I think this particular movie is getting the flack that it is.    

The trailer, which I admit is not much to go on, seems to depict the Japanese characters as superstitious, suspicious and, at the very least, not very helpful. The shots are mostly of a forest that could be any old forest, and the only characters who seem to matter are the white American woman and her sister. Furthermore, to add another dimension to the shenanigans, the ghosts the woman is depicted as encountering during her trials appear to be mostly little-white-girl ghosts. This had one of my friends who actually wants to see this film asking, "It looks interesting, but why are there so many white-girl ghosts in the Japanese suicide forest?"

Naturally I must reserve my judgement for when and if I watch the film (I feel that I kind of have to now, after all this writing). But I thought it would be interesting to analyze why people are apparently  boycotting this movie, why they have boycotted movies like it in the past, and why they will likely continue to as long as Hollywood keeps doing stuff like this. In one sentence: the filmmakers are exploiting the real-world setting of Aokigahara to sell their movie that appears to undermine its own setting (and the people residing therein). Who knows, it could be great as a movie (though I can't say I have great expectations), but it's still essentially exploitation -- used to tell yet another story of a white person in trouble.

Understandably, exploitation has a habit of pissing people off. Couple that with the film looking like it's reproducing a number of the usual stereotypes, and you've got irate people on your hands. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

PS: Now that I've spent so much time writing about this topic, maybe I don't need to talk about it anymore. Could I be free from this depressing burden?! . . . Nah. As soon as Johansen's Ghost in the Shell is released, I'll be waiting. I'll . . . be . . . waiting.                            

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