So 2010 has come to a close and, as I look back over the year, I have to agree with Angry Asian Man’s Phil Yu and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jeff Yang — it was a breakthrough year. Far East Movement and Bruno Mars topped the music charts and Asian Pacific Islander athletes like Manny Pacquiao and Apolo Ohno broke sports records. Jean Quan (mayor of Oakland) and Pete Rouse (White House chief of staff) were firsts in their respective offices.
I’m a little hesitant to celebrate some of these things, but I’ll save that for another column. One thing I noticed and will write about this time is that there were several controversies I didn’t cover this year in Entertainment Re-Oriented:
“The Last Airbender” came to the big screen, an adaptation of an animated kids show that (debatably) changed the race of the lead from Asian to white. A sitcom based in India, “Outsourced,” debuted on network TV, ensuring that the airwaves would be bombarded with racist stereotypes on a weekly basis. Music icon Morrissey called Chinese people a “sub-species” and Floyd Mayweather told Pacquiao to make him a “sushi roll.”
The year’s end, I suppose, is the deadline to write about it or forever hold my peace, so, here goes…
It’s not something I’d go out of my way to watch but, for the sake of weighing in on the controversy, I watched “Outsourced.” The series, based on the Tom Gorai-produced film of the same name, tells the story of an American office worker sent to India to manage a call center. He is joined by another American guy and an Australian woman. The rest of the cast is all South Asian American/British.
This show could have easily been a complete disaster or an unqualified success. For better or worse, from the couple episodes I saw, it’s neither. “Outsourced” necessarily has a good deal of “culture clash” humor, a particular subset of comedy that is really hard to do well, and really easy to do in a way that is horribly offensive. The episodes I watched play it safe and in doing so, steer clear of both anything offensive and anything funny. The rest of the writing is pretty good, but completely unexceptional — the kind of mildly amusing stuff you expect from a run of the mill sitcom. The best thing that can be said about “Outsourced” is that the comic acting is strong. Everyone is funny and at least intermittently likable and relatable, including the five South Asian cast members — which means “Outsourced” has approximately five more South Asian cast members than most shows.
I’d call “Outsourced” a mild success, which seems to be the critical consensus. “The Last Airbender,” on the other hand, I would call only a mild failure, which is far from the critical consensus. It came out in July and (assuming tickets for the film were about 10 bucks a pop), more than three million people went to see it worldwide, despite that fact that an astonishing 94 percent of critics (94 percent!) agreed it was horrible. Again, for the sake of writing about it here, I gave away 104 minutes of my life and subjected myself to “The Last Airbender.” Most criticisms were dead on: terrible acting, cheesy dialogue, and all around bad filmmaking. The mechanics of the film simply don’t work. For one, too many important plot and emotional elements are explained through voiceover narration, instead of shown to us in real time. This means that if you’re paying careful attention to the narration, then you know what’s going on but don’t care about it because you’re not invested emotionally. If you’re not paying attention to the voice over, you neither understand the story nor care.
The weak filmmaking sort of puzzles me because, despite displaying a complete inability to distinguish a good film concept and a bad film concept, M. Night Shyamalan has some real talent. I remember seeing his breakthrough film “The Sixth Sense” in high school and being awed, not as much by the famous twist ending, but by how well all the film’s elements worked together to tell a story. The plot, the subtext, the acting, the sound design and Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography seemed to move in synch. Shyamalan knew what to convey visually and what to convey with dialogue, when to hold a shot and when to move the action forward.
“Airbender” displays none of these instincts, which is just one of the ways it fails to live up to its potential. While you hear a lot about how bad the film was, what you don’t hear is how great it could have been. It has several ingredients that could have made a classic fantasy film franchise, like “The Matrix,” “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings.”
First of all, the story is quite good, even if the telling is clumsy. It’s real mythic stuff. The protagonist, Aang, is “the chosen one” or whatever they call it in this film, but not wanting to accept his responsibility, he runs away and his entire village perishes in his absence. He resolves to accept his “chosen one” role, but refuses, initially, to really mourn his loss. Nothing new or innovative, but, hey, some things become clichés because they work.
The world he inhabits is compelling as well. In it, different groups of people are able to command different elements — Aang is of the recently extinct “Air Nation” which can control wind, for instance, and the world is under siege by the power hungry “Fire Nation.” There’s a lot of talk of “balance” and “harmony” between humanity, nature, the elements and the spirit world. Again: clichéd but effective. And the art direction brings this world to life nicely.
Also, there is one sub-story in the film that pretty much works: that of the “Fire Nation” characters. While Shyamalan gave a white kid the horribly mishandled lead role and made his aggressively bland sidekicks white as well, he gave the most engaging parts — the Fire Nation’s people — to South Asian American/British, Maori and Arab actors. Dev Patel plays Zuko, an exiled prince seeking to regain his lost honor. Cliff Curtis plays his father, the Fire Nation’s aggressive and cruel ruler. Shaun Toub is Zuko’s wise and compassionate mentor and Aasif Mandiv is a treacherous Fire Nation general. Zuko’s sister is played by Summer Bishil. The most interesting relationships and conflicts in the film are between these characters and they also grow and develop more than anyone else. Additionally, they seem set up to become protagonists later in the series.
Perhaps Shyamalan wasn’t being disingenuous when he said he doesn’t understand the outrage directed at him. If he had insisted on an Asian lead maybe the studio would have just handed the film off to someone who would cast everyone white. Zuko is the most important character in the story after Aang, and Shyamalan gave that role to Patel, probably justifying it to the studio by touting the box office success of “Slumdog Millionaire.” This then allowed him to cast the pivotal role of Zuko’s family with actors of color — roles which were set up to be even more prominent in the sequel, if the end of the first film is to be believed.
At the end of the day, “Airbender” is still way more diverse than lilywhite “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” (lilywhite with minor roles for Sam Jackson, Temuera Morrison, and Jimmy Smits). It probably beats “The Matrix” and “Star Trek” as well. Plus, there is more blatantly Asian philosophy and aesthetics. Even with the whitewashing of several key parts, it would still be a landmark fantasy film for APIs… if it were any good.
There are plenty of arguments to be made that Shyamalan folded to studio pressure and gave us a product that’s not very good. You could also argue that compromise got the film made, and without it, you’d have a film with no API roles at all.
This year, the Democrats passed landmark financial and health care legislation that prevented giant corporations from skinning us alive and feasting upon our young, but did little to challenge their overall dominance of our society. And, while there is no consensus on whether or not we could’ve gotten more, progressives almost all agree that we could have gotten nothing and that would have, obviously, been much worse. Maybe, for APIs, “Airbender” is a movie for our times.
Next column, part 2: What “Cinderella Man” teaches us about Mayweather and Pacquiao. Why politicians and the media should be kissing up to evil Asians. And Steven (Patrick Morrisey), it was really something.
Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He currently edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine.