I’m a pretty chill guy. Not critical at all.
No, that’s a lie, I’m pretty darn critical. That being said, most of the things I like to argue about and criticize are hypothetical, and not something that I feel passionately about. Usually, it’s because I’m discovering whether I care or not as I discuss – usually by the end of the argument, I care very much.
So it is with the Asian presence in pop culture.
Something is off…
When I first encountered this issue, it was (as it was for a lot of people) upon viewing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Short Round was just… offensive. I was a child, so I couldn’t really put my finger on it.
Then I watched Big Trouble in Little China in elementary school during afternoon day care. I was surprised when a character in the middle of the movie started fighting everybody with clear, practiced moves, as I had assumed the character to be a helpless bystander.
“He can fight?!”
Brandon, the aide watching my class during afternoon day care, said “He’s Chinese, so in this movie, of course, he knows kung fu.” Then he and the students around me laughed; his laughter was because the movie was making fun of pop culture by enabling it, and the students’ was because that logic just made sense to them.
I just didn’t get it. I assumed it was a plothole.
I grew older. I grew up on Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Yuen Biao – and absolutely anything by Tsui Hark, Corey Yuen, or Yuen Woo-Ping.
I found out that Jackie Chan was going to be in a movie with Jet Li. It would be called “The Forbidden Kingdom.” This is the poster:
It would get a western theatrical release! How exciting! Choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping?! Yes, yes, yes!
So imagine my surprise when the movie was in English. Okay. Interesting, considering almost nobody in the movie speaks it as a first language. Then I saw the most offensive part.
Who the flying Funk & Wagnalls is this, you ask? It’s the star of the movie.
What, was there not enough star power with Jet Li and Jackie Chan? These are international powerhouses. The marketing alone shows that they were aware of how Li and Chan would draw people in.
I was reading The Joy Luck Club with my class, and I decided to watch the movie. I didn’t end up showing it to my class because a lot of the movie has a mother talking to her daughter about her life at home in China – all in a thick, Vietnamese accent.
I got mad about it. I read Yellowface in college and got mad some more. Then I decided that the world needed to take a chill pill. It’s not worth being mad about, I thought. The world will learn, people will see.
Warning: the following image may cause intense physical pain to the viewer if they are in any way appreciative of the manga/anime Dragon Ball.
I can’t even talk about that one without seething for the rest of the day, (no matter who apologized) so I’m going to discuss one that all Americans have a chance of understanding.
Bones is one of those rare shows that both my wife and I enjoy. In it, a forensic anthropologist named Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan works with her FBI partner Seeley Booth to solve crimes by looking at the clues found in murder victims’ human remains. The show is entertaining because it has action, mystery, romance, and even elements of science fiction (the multi-million dollar Angelatron named for the Bachelor of the Arts grad that can hack into anything and create facial reconstructions from remains – no matter how grotesque of a condition they may be in. Once, the victim was already cremated.)
I was binge-watching the series with my wife on Netflix today when we got to an episode of Season 10 called “The Lost Love in a Foreign Land.” In this episode, Bones and Booth discover an underground human trafficking ring in which women were being trafficked out of Yianbian, China.
The murder victim looked pretty Korean to me, but that’s okay, I reasoned. [Further research explains this, as Yanbian is on the border between Korea and China. I didn’t know this, but before you start forgiving people, keep reading.]
Then it got insulting.
The Angelatron used facial recognition (or some other garbage tech) and pulled out a list of suspects. This led them to their suspect, Sung Dae Park.
I’m just so thoroughly disturbed by how Vietnamese his accent was. At this point, I realized that the story they wanted me to buy was that this Vietnamese guy had a Korean name and lived in a village in China. Maybe you can’t hear it, but his accent might as well have been Australian, and his name Igor Boris Natasha – that’s how noticeable these things are to an Asian audience.
I understand that the Korean thing can be explained by the bordering Korea thing, but you can bet that if it was a white person speaking Spanish, they would bother to explain why he knows the language. They just threw us Chinese people with Korean names… then had them played by Vietnamese people. Even if you excuse that, the accent! The ACCENT! Worse, the accent was a choice – by either the director, the producers… or Scott Ly, the actor himself. How do I know that? Look, Ma, no accent!
(“Ly” is a Vietnamese name, in case you’re doubting me.)
Maybe they couldn’t find anyone to play this character more authentically, you think. Well, Bones was filmed in Los Angeles.
This was just like the lady in The Joy Luck Club. If Jackie Chan can play a Vietnamese guy in his upcoming movie The Foreigner, then surely this is to be expected, right?
Wrong. I know I can’t effect change all by myself, but I’m putting them on blast. You thought surely nobody would notice?
We all notice. Be ashamed. Do better work.
That being said, I’m torn – because The Foreigner looks awesome.