Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Memento Morita

Well-intentioned but slightly disappointing piece by Lawrence Downes in the NYT today on the death of actor Pat Morita. Since I'm currently teaching two Asian American studies courses, I can testify to the extent to which Downes seems to have absorbed the conventional Asian Americanist critique of Hollywood, as it limits Asians to caricatured, pidgin-speaking, sidekick roles; he even notes that there's an especially poor choice of roles for Asian American men.

But the article would have been a great opportunity to point out some actual achievements in film by Asian American directors, writers, and actors. Even if you just start counting at Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing (1982), that's over two decades of films to choose from. Instead, Downes settles for describing a new Asian American-directed film as coming from "an unusual perspective, by past or current standards," and lamenting an "utterly forgotten" Asian American cast of a film of the 1950s (without naming any of them).

I'm certainly no expert on Asian American film. But last week I was reading Anne Cheng's The Melancholy of Race, which includes a slightly revisionist reading of the 1961 film of Flower Drum Song, which is remarkable for featuring an all-Asian American cast. I confess to never having seen it, but Cheng suggests that the curious attraction/repulsion many Asian American viewers experience towards the film (as opposed to the more conventional dismissal of the film as perpetuating orientalist stereotypes) is part of the work the film does: showing Asian Americans joyously embracing the American ideals they can never quite comfortably inhabit.

Then there's Wayne Wang's whole oeuvre, which ranges from the b/w indie Chan to big-budget tearjerkers like The Joy Luck Club (not to mention Smoke and Maid in Manhattan--c'mon, grad students, let's see some Asian Americanist readings of those), or Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala, and in the last few years films like Better Luck Tomorrow and Alice Wu's Saving Face. That's just the tip of the iceberg: those of you who have greater experience with Asian American film, please enlighten me.

What's missing, I guess--and this is something that Asian American viewers seem to crave as much as Downes does--is a "mainstream" male Asian American star, one who could be cast in a role not merely marked as "ethnic" and ring up big change at the box office. Would that be progress? Well, while we're waiting for Hollywood to figure it out, there's no reason not to see what Asian American filmmakers are actually doing.

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