Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Changing the Game by Staking a Claim

(Apologies to all readers. The following post is neither as well-written or coherent as I would have liked. I'm still adjusting to life with my newborn son, so sorry if my thoughts seem to tangent or get a bit ranty.)

An opera production of
Yellowfacing The Mikado

The issue of Asian representation in arts and entertainment has flared up once again thanks to a recent production of Gilbert & Sullivan's classic but inherently problematic operetta The Mikado. For those concerned, the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society's mounting commits multiple sins: reviving the piece itself (a musical romp set in a made-up and highly inaccurate depiction of feudal Japan), presenting the piece as it was originally conceived in the late 19th century (with exaggerated faux-Japanese hair, make-up and dress), and perhaps most damningly, casting only white actors. The Asian American community has been pretty swift in its condemnation. The critical response has included comments by writer Jeff Yang on CNN, a satirical take by the folks at YouOffendMeYouOffendMyFamily, and an embarrassing radio conversation between a cast member of the show and an Asian American journalist who penned a pointed editorial. The situation is also a very tiresome retread for those in the Asian American community who dealt with the 2012 "Yellowface" casting controversy during the staging of The Nightingale at La Jolla Playhouse and the frustrations of their UK counterparts during the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Orphan of Zhao. Heck, we might as well go all the way back to the Ms. Saigon casting controversy in 1990.

It's at times like this I really wish there was some way for Asian American writers, directors and producers to seize control of all the existing Western-created representations of Asians (and Asian Americans) on stage and screen. That, in addition to creating new and original works genuinely illustrative of themselves, their families and their communities, they could get a shot at reworking some of those outmoded (and offensive) characters and stories with an added layer of cultural authenticity born of their own life experience (Not to mention providing racially appropriate casting). Not just hoary theatrical works like The Mikado. Maybe a new TV series or movie reimagining Chinese detective Charlie Chan, created by white author Earl Derr Biggers in 1919 and popularized in a series of 1930s/40s films played by white actors Warner OlandSidney Toler and Roland Winters.

Close up of a man with short hair, slicked back, and a moustache. He wears a bow tie and looks into the camers.Sidney Toler.jpg
Charlie Chan, as portrayed by by Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters

What if a prestigious Asian American director like Ang Lee or Cary Fukunaga crafted a respectable, well-written noir mystery thriller take on the character, or at least what if Justin Lin was allowed to deliver a solid action-adventure version? (BTW, in my head a kick-ass version of the portly Chan is portrayed by plus-sized Hong Kong action star Sammo Hung.)
Sammo Hung on the CBS series "Martial Law" (1998)

It should also be noted that Charlie Chan was inspired by two real-life Chinese detectives on the Honolulu police force: Chang Apana (鄭阿平) and Lee Fook. If a new Charlie Chan film went back to the source, seems to me that pre-WWII Hawaii with its stew of ethnicities, international trade and colonial politics would make a great setting for mystery and adventure.

I also wouldn't mind a redo of fictional Japanese secret agent Mr. Moto. Like Charlie Chan, Moto's creator was not Asian (John Phillips Marquand), but surprisingly he was a hero and a positive character running counter to much of the Yellow Peril stereotypes of the period in which he was created (the 1930s). Urbane, well-educated and equally well-dressed, Moto is a multi-talented gentlemen whose polite appearance disguises a capacity for ruthlessness and violent action (Sound at all similar to a certain British secret agent?). Despite being a pulp hero largely forgotten by modern audiences, the character had a prolific run in six novels, an eight movie series (1937-39), a radio series and a standalone 1965 film. However, like Charlie Chan, Moto was always portrayed by non-Asians: James Monks on the radio, German expat actor Peter Lorre in the 30s film series, and by Henry Silva in the 1965 film.

Peter Lorre (left) and Henry Silva (right) as Mr. Moto

What I find really fascinating about Mr. Moto (besides the terrible accents employed by the actors who played him), is that his character was written as an agent of the Japanese Empire, which was already at odds with the U.S. at the time. However, despite his official status, Moto personally disagrees with the expansionist aims of his country. Thus, it really wouldn't take much story-wise to revive the character for modern film audiences (and not offend the all-important Chinese and Korean markets to boot). I actually think that in addition to actually casting an Asian in the role (preferably of Japanese descent), maintaining the original 30s setting would be a plus. You could get all the period intrigue and romance of an Indiana Jones movie, with the added dramatic urgency of dealing with the racial prejudices of the time. Who knows, maybe even the internment could figure into the script?
For your consideration, should a Mr. Moto remake ever be made. 
(Me performing in my friend Shreeyash Palshikar's magic show. Duds borrowed from Theatre-Hikes)

It's unlikely anything like the above would happen, given all the issues of rights, ownership and authorship that would be involved, plus the whole problem of Asian American-led projects getting funded in Hollywood's risk-averse atmosphere. But wouldn't it be something? Maybe even an Asian American-helmed reboot of The Last Airbender, properly cast and given back its full original title of Avatar: The Last Airbender (confusion with James Cameron be damned). Or something to replace that awful Seth Rogen version of The Green Hornet. For me, where that film figures in this discussion is that, in addition to its overall mediocrity, despite the fact they did cast an Asian to play Kato (Taiwanese actor Jay Chou), it felt like the filmmakers were unaware that the Green Hornet's lasting place in pop culture is entirely attributable to Bruce Lee's portrayal of Kato in the old 60s series version. In fact, in Hong Kong, the show was retitled The Kato Show, and Lee's portrayal has been so influential Chinese kung-fu stars Jet Li and Donnie Yen both borrowed the image of Kato for their films Black Mask and Fist of Legend: The Return of Chen Zhen respectively. I wasn't expecting the new film to feature a Kato that exactly recreated Bruce Lee. That would have been unreasonable. But it seems like the producers and director thought all Kato needed to be was Chinese and do kung-fu, without realizing they were dealing with an icon. A very specific Chinese icon requiring a certain energy and characterization that were completely absent in their version.

Clockwise from top left: Bruce Lee as Kato (1966-67), Jet Li as Black Mask (1996) 
and Donnie Yen as Chen Zhen (2010).

While we're at it, I'd even love it if an Asian American director took on remaking Breakfast at Tiffany's just to supplant Mickey Rooney's Godawful portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. Besides the fact, I'm actually quite fond of the novel, to which Blake Edward's movie is not very faithful anyway. There's no reason there couldn't be a Japanese photographer living next to Holly Golightly who isn't a mind-bogglingly hideous buck-toothed stereotyped. Maybe someone based on real-life photographer Toyo Miyatake.
Left: Mickey Rooney as photographer Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Right: Real-life Japanese American photographer Toyo Miyatake

I genuinely believe that undertakings like those imagined above would be good ideas in and of themselves, not just indulgent experiments in a kind of Asian American revisionism. Incorporating cultural authenticity and details to performed works, even those of the most popular and perhaps maligned nature, opens up all sorts of possibilities for new and deeper storytelling. Plus audiences get a chance to be introduced to new cultures, attitudes and perspectives. Back in the 70s, director Francis Ford Coppola fought with Paramount Pictures to make their mafia epic The Godfather just as much a story of the Italian American immigrant experience as a violent crime blockbuster, bringing in details about traditional family relationships, food, music and customs. Though the film has its critics among Italian Americans for perpetuating a stereotypical mobster image, it also has its fans for presenting rich and complex characters informed by their specific history and culture. It could have been a lurid big-budget exploitation film like many earlier gangster films. Instead, it ended up being a critically acclaimed and award-winning cinema classic; a winner with audiences and the launchpad for Al Pacino's career (It should be noted that the studio didn't want the authentically Italian-American Pacino to play the role that brought him recognition. If Coppola hadn't stood up to the brass, WASPS Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal would have gotten the part.).

Unfortunately, we're still not in the world of my imagination, so  Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society gets to do their all-white Mikado, the Union Theatre in London gets to present Pacific Overtures with nary an Asian in sight, and so on and so forth.

Think I'll sign off now and take in the blockbuster movie in my mind. In this movie, during the 1930s the U.S. government recruits a super squad of Asian operatives made up of Kato, Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto to combat alleged mad scientist Dr. Fu Manchu. However, it turns out that Fu Manchu is actually a Chinese patriot who is being framed by Western interests attempting to maintain their spheres of influence in Asia. The truth of the situation is revealed to them by 100-year-old ex-Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine . . .

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