July 12, 1996
Asian-Americans Films Discussed
By Jennifer Wagner DeNoma
UW-RF News Bureau
The geeky Long Duck Dong in "Sixteen Candles." The sneaky bad guys beaten up by David Carradine in "Kung Fu" movies. The vulnerable, sensuous love interest of Robin Williams in "Good Morning Vietnam."
All are examples of Hollywood stereotypes of Asians.
Twin Cities poet, non-fiction writer and third generation Japanese-American David Mura thinks these stereotypes are perpetuated by an irresponsible, greedy Hollywood film industry.
"Hollywood portrays Asian-Americans as more foreign, more exotic, with the sense of their differences heightened." Asian-American men are typically portrayed as nerds or bad guys, the women as fragile flowers.
Mura is the author of non-fiction works such as "Turning Japanese" and books of poetry and has also performed in the independent film "Slowly This." He spoke to high school teachers of English, literature, history and social studies July 15 and 17 at a summer minority film institute at UW-River Falls. The institute, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, examines how minorities are portrayed in film.
Mura contends that even critically acclaimed films like "The Joy Luck Club" creates too exotic of a portrayal of Chinese-American women and their experiences. All came from tumultuous immigration experiences; all have severe difficulties in relating to their American-born daughters. The movie leads Americans to believe this is the typical Chinese-American experience.
In contrast, Mura says, another Hollywood film, "Come See the Paradise," portrays Japanese-Americans as very ordinary, much like his own aunts and uncles.
The problem with the movie, however, is the point of view. The film is viewed through the eyes of Dennis Quaid, who portrays the husband of a Japanese-American.
Viewing the Japanese internment camps from that angle is too much of a stretch, says Mura, but it is typical of the Hollywood movie machine to view historical events involving minority groups through the eyes of a Caucasian hero. In "Mississippi Burning," it's Gene Hackman as an FBI agent, and in "Dances With Wolves" it's Kevin Costner.
Mura thinks the reason that Hollywood directors are reluctant to let Asian -American males play the hero is because they find them threatening. Hollywood has traditionally paired off Asian-American females with white males, and has portrayed Asian females as the archetypal submissive female: small, exotic, erotic, alluring. Asian-American males must be then be portrayed as weak, ineffectual and asexual as possible. When an Asian male is played as a "good" or neutral character it's usually because he's assisting a white male.
"Unfortunately," says Mura, "many people get their only images of people of color from the media. Film has a powerful effect on culture, and reaches a wider audience than literature."
Mura sees a trend toward independent filmmaking by minority artists as part of the solution. Independent films are often funded through agencies like the NEH, the National Endowment for the Arts or private arts foundations. While the budget of these films are substantially smaller than Hollywood productions, the payoff is films that are more artistic or accurate than Hollywood films.
Independent films about Asian-Americans are now more accessible for viewing than in the past. The independent films "Chan is Missing," "Dim Sum," and "The Wash" are readily available at most video stores. "Chan is Missing" is directed by Wayne Wang, the same director of "Joy Luck ," but Mura believes the range of characters are much wider.
Mura's film, "Slowly This," will be shown on KTCA Channel 2 public television in the Twin Cities on Sunday, Aug. 11, from 10-10:30 p.m.
"When people see images of people of color in film they need to be aware of who made the film, and look at those films with a critical, skeptical eye." Mura believes that when films depicting historical events and contemporary issues of minorities are made by minorities they tend to be more accurate in portraying their culture and point of view. Which Hollywood doesn't do.
"When Hollywood does a film, Mura says, "it tends to bleach the subjectivity out of it" in favor of box office profits.