Mr. Harris went on to decry what he considered to be insincere apologies from Washington and other famous celebrities like Mel Gibson and Michael Richards, who both said some pretty f*cked up things that were offensive to the Jewish and African American communities. But I noticed that he didn’t include Rosie O’Donnell, who recently thought it would be funny to impersonate Chinese language by repeatedly chiming “CHING CHONG!” on The View. Whether she meant to mock Mandarin or Cantonese is unknown. But she, too, offered a non-apology. Why didn’t this make the editorial?
Maybe she took a cue from Will Ferrell – in Talladega Nights, he also mocks Chinese, but in more of a “WA DAO PING WU” way, in a fake plum candy commercial. Did that make national news? Nope, but Talladega Nights went on to become the 11th ranked Hollywood film at the box office in 2006, grossing $148.2 million in the U.S. ($162.9 million worldwide). Ching chong? More like CHA-CHING!
Well, as the red carpets of white Western acceptance begin to roll out and people begin to talk Oscars, I indulged in my secret guilty pleasure and read up on web reviews, magazines, articles, whatever I could get my hands on. Starting with Premiere magazine’s Jan/Feb 2006 issue, I checked out their Finest Performances of 2006 issue. Hmmm – not a single Asian/Arab/Pacific Islander/American made the list. Well, that’s just Premiere, right?
Then the nominees were announced – Deepa Mehta’s Water and Rinko Kikuchi’s performance in Babel received nods. But I found it strange that though Letters From Iwo Jima is nominated for Best Picture and Clint Eastwood is nominated for Best Director, none of the Asian cast from that film received nods for any of the acting categories.
Strange. You may argue they didn’t receive nods because the performance was mostly in Japanese, and it was an ensemble cast – so no single actor stood out for a nomination. Then consider Rinko Kikuchi’s nomination: she also spoke all in Japanese, and the cast of Babel is definitely considered an ensemble. It’s like they flipped a coin between the two favored Western representations of Asians on the big screen: Asian men tragically dying, and tragic naked sexualized Asian woman.
And why hasn’t anyone pointed out the fact that none of the cast of Letters received nods? You might say that the Oscars routinely rob people of the honor. But in other cases, at least people notice – on the day of the announcements, Moviefone posted an article decrying the fact that Brad Pitt didn’t receive a nod for Best Actor though Babel received a nod for Best Picture. This is especially strange given the actors in Letters were receiving plenty of acclaim and praise, all of which went silent when the Oscar nominees were announced.
This isn’t the first time in the Academy’s history that Asian actors got screwed. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received a good amount of nominations – but none in the acting categories. The Last Emperor set a record for its time in 1987, nominated for 9 Oscars and winning every single one of them – yet there was not a single acting nod for that film either, the Oscars all went to the white people involved in the film, the exception being the Asians who shared the Oscars (with another white man) for Best Original Score. Last year, two white men took home statues for Memoirs of a Geisha, thanking their Asian partners during their acceptance speeches as the cameras cut to them in the audience, as if to say that because these men had Asian partners, they were legitimately down with the Asian people. Geishariffic!
Which reminds me, the first Oscar that went to an Asian was in 1957 to Miyoshi Umeki (Best Supporting Actress), who played the Geisha-ish wife to Red Buttons in the horrendously racist Marlon Brando vehicle, Sayonara. Check out what Entertainment Weekly says about her win:
"Umeki is the most obvious example of what might be called Oscar Exotica: first time film actors who get nominated – and occasionally win – for having the good luck to be so believably foreign...and the late Haing S. Ngor, who won Best Supporting Actor for 1984’s The Killing Fields after essentially reliving his Cambodian genocide experiences." (Feb 2, 2007)
What Entertainment Weekly fails to mention is that neither of those actors received another good role after their win – proving that, even if you are recognized by the Academy, Hollywood remains a place with few quality roles for Asians. An exception is Sir Ben Kingsley (birth name Krishna Bhanji), of mixed race heritage, who after winning Best Actor for the titular role in Gandhi in 1982 went on to star in movies good and crappy – though interestingly, he has mostly played non-Asians in his career.
And why cast Asians when you can swap them for white people? Mark Wahlberg, who got into trouble in his earlier years for a hate crime against two Vietnamese men, in which one of the Vietnamese men lost an eye from the assault (read about it here) gets his first Oscar nod for the Scorsese remake of the excellent Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs. Not only was his hate crime a non-issue, his first role in Boogie Nights granted him a giant prosthetic penis, AND he dated China Chow, AND he co-starred in a movie with Chow Yun-Fat! Violence against Asians is fun AND rewarding!
(Disclaimer: for those of you apologists who insist that he did such things in his foolish younger days and choose to forgive him for assaulting Asian men and taking out one of their eyes while hurling racial slurs at them, not to mention forgive him for his terrible rap album, forgive him because he is a handsome white man with a muscular body, that’s on you. Let’s hope that you will forgive all people equally, for any horrible transgressions we may or may not have committed.)
Though The Departed recast the popular Infernal Affairs in Boston (ironically the same city where Wahlberg assaulted those Asian men), Hollywood has a history of literally substituting white actors for Asians. From Robert Ito’s essay “A Certain Slant: A Brief History of Yellowface”, here’s an incomplete list of white Hollywood actors who have been cast as Asian: Katharine Hepburn; Fred Astaire; Myrna Loy; Ingrid Bergman; John Wayne; Marlon Brando; Mickey Rooney; Peter Sellers; Helen Hayes; Peter Lorre; Lon Chaney; Anthony Quinn; David Carradine.
At this point, you may say, screw the big budget Hollywood films, bring on the small independent films! Well, just because a film is an indie doesn’t mean it’s gonna do our people right – Lost in Translation, anyone? How about Asian American films? Unfortunately, Hollywood seems more intent on exploiting Asians rather than giving Asian American films a chance: even limited release Asian films like Oldboy and Curse of the Golden Flower have a better chance of making it to Minneapolis than Asian American films like Michael Kang’s The Motel and Ham Tran’s Journey From The Fall, films I was dying to see. As in the case of good independent Asian American films with limited releases like Alice Wu’s Saving Face, we here in the Twin Cities have to wait until it comes out on DVD.
What about the good things? 2003 marked the first time that an Asian or Pacific Islander was nominated in all four of the Best Acting categories – Sir Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for their outstanding performances in the problematic film House of Sand and Fog), Ken Watanabe (Best Supporting Actor, for the far worse Japanese-men-dying film The Last Samurai), and Keisha Castle-Hughes (Best Actress, for the great but seldom seen Whale Rider). Unfortunately, none of them won that year.
Ang Lee made history in 2006 as the first non-white person to win Best Director for Brokeback Mountain (why isn’t anyone talking about this?!), though that revelatory film lost Best Picture to the far inferior Crash, a film about race relations in LA made by white people that taught Asians that, if your father has a convenience store, make sure to fill his gun with blanks in case he decides to assassinate his locksmith – and the answer to human trafficking is Ludacris.
Can we look forward to 2007? Well, right off the bat, that Edward Norton/Naomi Watts vehicle The Painted Veil kicked us right in the ass. Eddie Murphy puts on make up and acts as a Chinese man, Mr. Wong, in his next film Norbit. And the U.S. production of The Rape of Nanking s currently being screened at Sundance – starring noted Asianphile Woody Harrelson. If there’s good news to be had for 2007 at the movies, somebody please send it my way.
*(Thanks to Juliana Hu Pegues and Giles Li for the conversations and advice which led to the formation of this essay).
Thien-bao Thuc Phi is an award winning poet and spoken word artist who watches too many movies in his spare time.