Friday, October 4, 2013

The Snowpiercer Paradox, Part 1: If Korean Audiences Can Accept A White Protagonist, Then Why Can't Americans Accept An Asian One?

I've been anticipating Gravity for a while, and now it's been released to swooning reviews that compare it to 2001: A Space Oddysey. Can't wait to go see it in IMAX. But thinking of this movie reminded me of the other critical super mega smash of the year, Snowpiercer, which of course we won't be able to see until god knows when and in what mutilated condition thanks to Harvey Weinstein.

And this got me thinking...

Snowpiercer is an awesome Korean movie that has broken box office records in Korea, in addition to getting rave reviews from critics all around the world. The interesting thing is that while it's a Korean-made film, the hero is Chris Evans and most of the cast (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell, and Alison Pill) is White, while Octavia Spencer is Black. There are only 2 significant Korean actors: Song Kang Ho and Ah Sung Ko. And still, Koreans came out in droves to see this movie.

Tilda Swinton too wants to give Harvey Weinstein a big "Fuck you!" for wanting to cut 20 minutes from the
American version of Snowpiercer

Yet the reverse would never happen in America, or at least, it'd never be allowed to happen in America. In countries such as Korea, China, India, Nigeria, and Brazil, movies starring White people regularly set box office records and people of those countries have no problem watching foreign-looking actors such as Matt Damon or Brad Pitt star in movies about cultures they're not entirely familiar with in a language that they may not fully understand.

Let's take a look at the American all-time box office, shall we? I took a glance, and I had to go down all the way to #43 to find a movie that starred a non-White person, and that depends entirely on how you choose to classify the notoriously racially ambiguous Vin Diesel (the movie is Fast and Furious 6, by the way).

On the bright side, American audiences show a surprising high level of empathy and tolerance for bipedal blue cats (Avatar), anthropomorphic playthings (Toy Story 3), hairy-footed halflings (The Lord of the Rings franchise), animated lions (The Lion King), bugle-eared green ogres (Shrek), and waddling bug-eyed aliens (E.T.).

So great news, struggling minority actors! Though the timetable on your acceptance as protagonists may take a while, perhaps you can be reincarnated as a cartoon animal or a Martian, and thereby be instantly accepted by American audiences as being worthy of empathy because you're not so strange and foreign as an African American or an Asian American.

Pretty sad that this is Hollywood's most successful movie with a protagonist of African descent

But it's one thing to be totally ignored. It's another to be selectively ignored in the process of cultural re-appropriation. This happens a lot in Hollywood with regards to Asian culture. The message I get from them is that Asian culture is awesome! Our food is great, our history is fascinating, our architecture is inspiring, our myths are cool, and our philosophies are enlightened.

But our people? Meh. Asia is great, except for its people. Especially the men, since the women can be beautifully exotic in a way and fulfill a pre-feminist void that's existed in the West ever since the pesky 1960s and Hillary Clinton rolled along.

Don't believe me? Just look at this summer alone. Two movies were either greatly inspired by or took place in Asia: Pacific Rim and The Wolverine. The former was clearly based on Japanese manga like Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, and even its title pays tribute to the region from where it drew its ideas. And the latter mostly takes place in Japan and has a number of Japanese supporting characters. But are the movies centered around Asian characters? Nope. Pacific Rim has Rinko Kikuchi in a supporting role, and The Wolverine has some Japanese characters that orbit around Hugh Jackman's heroism. Unsurprisingly, the two highest billed Asian actors are both female.

Jeff Yang of the Wall Street Journal summed the movie up pretty well in a Facebook post:

Fantastical cultural self-insertion isn't inherently wrong. If there were a Korean movie that involved a time-travelling Korean dude who landed in King Richard's court, helped prevent the Crusades, and got engaged to an earl's daughter, then that's the stuff that cinematic imagination is made of. After all, aren't movies supposed to depict the unlikely or the impossible?

The problem with Hollywood is that it happens ALL. THE. TIME. Here are some recent examples of movies in which Asian characters were replaced with White ones.

Cloud Atlas (2012)
The King of Fighters (2010)
The Last Airbender (2010)
Dragonball: Evolution (2009)
21 (2008)

Yellowface in "Cloud Atlas". Yeah, I know.

B-b-b-but.. It's about box office draw! Well, argument won, I guess. Jim Sturgess, Justin Chatwin, Jackson Rathbone, Sean Faris, and Jim Sturgess again (seriously, what's up with this guy?)... Can't argue with that kind of megawatt, household name, Q-rating-busting starpower.

And then there are the other types of cases in which a largely Asian story and setting is used to tell the far more important tale of the one White dude in the midst of it all. I'm looking at you, The Last Samurai. The ridiculousness of this movie has been well-documented, perhaps immortalized by Paul Mooney's little skit, but let me rehash your memory: American Civil War drunkard Tom Cruise goes to Japan, kills a master samurai which makes his widow fall in love with him for some reason (Seduction 101, fellas: Murdering a woman's spouse is like writing her 20 sonnets), becomes 2nd best samurai in Japan in a matter of weeks/months, and becomes lone survivor of an epic slaughter so that he can teach the Japanese on how to really be Japanese.

Then there's the gem, Come See The Paradise, which was made in 1990 and is the only major movie about the Japanese Internment. Naturally, such a traumatic, seismic, and under-explored event in Asian American history is the perfect opportunity to tell the love story between some White dude and Tamlyn Tomita.

But the most hilarious example has to be the Canadian production, Iron Road (2008). It manages to take the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, perhaps one of the biggest sausagefests in history, and somehow make it all about yet another love story between a White dude and an Asian woman.

Feel the romance

Sensing a pattern here?

And in case you think that this is all part of the shameful past that's been relegated to the dustbin ever since the "post-racial" Obama era, let's take a look ahead. Smell that? It's the waft of more Hollywood bullshit. But that's going to be in Part 2.

1 comment :

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