“The Life of Pi”. courtesy of 20th Century Fox

When I set about writing my retrospective of Asian Pacific Islanders in the media in 2012, I thought of it like explaining a diagnosis to a patient. “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” If it were me, I’d almost always want the bad first, but I quickly realized that getting the bad out of the way so I can end on the good wouldn’t really work. Because the good this year has been pretty straightforward and the bad, well, has been complicated. And it’s hard to get something complicated “out of the way,” because it’s hard to really put a lid on it. It’s more of an ongoing discussion or thought process, as opposed to a definitive statement.

“The Life of Pi”. courtesy of 20th Century Fox
“The Life of Pi”. courtesy of 20th Century Fox

So here’s the good:
“The Life of Pi” — a film with API director Ang Lee, a largely API cast and a budget of $120 million — was a success. It’s doing well domestically and doing great internationally. And, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t suck. In fact, despite a few flaws, I feel like it’s easily one of the year’s best films. It’s a rare mix of exhilarating computer-generated imagery spectacle, quiet contemplative moments and philosophical provocations. For the most part, the Asian characters are portrayed as complicated, relatable human beings. (Minor gripe with a key change from the book regarding Pi’s interaction with the Japanese officials who interview him, but overall a “win” for API representation in film).

In TV, “Parks and Recreation” continues to go strong. Aziz Ansari is one of the show’s stars and Alan Yang writes and produces for the show. And Steven Yuen’s Glenn on “The Walking Dead” officially became the best role an API guy has ever had on a television drama. I haven’t seen Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project,” but it’s been well received and is also definitely a milestone; it’s reportedly the first U.S. television show starring a South Asian American series lead.

So, now, on the bad:
One of the biggest offenders of the year was the show “2 Broke Girls,” but there isn’t a whole lot to talk about there. The show (a multi-camera sitcom with a laugh track, is one I never had any intention of watching) has a Long Duk Dong-grade stereotypical Asian dude as one its cast members. But it’s a little bit like watching the GOP make ridiculous bigoted statements all year long. You can kind of smirk, feel superior and maybe feel some righteous anger or indignation.

But that show’s stereotypes feel like something from a different era that got lost and wandered onto a 2012 sitcom.

I think what we’re going to be facing in the future, is going to be less comfortable. It’ll be like that feeling you get when your friend does something offensive and hurtful.

(Though, it’s a topic for another column, I felt that way about a couple of journalism incidents this year, namely the NPR show Radiolab and some of the local coverage of the Richard Aoki story).

Watching “Cloud Atlas” was like that. In case you’re not familiar with the controversy, the film tells several stories that take place at different times over a period of hundreds of years. One of its primary themes is interconnectedness, and the filmmakers decided the best way to express that theme was to have the same actors play different characters in different time periods but use heavy make up to change their age, race or gender. This was a bad idea. Period. It’s distracting, the makeup is often unconvincing and the actors aren’t really well suited for all the roles they play — Tom Hanks, who is, of course, a very versatile actor, feels miscast in two of his six(!) roles. All of this makeup is a big, dumb mistake, but where it gets offensive is one of the storylines in which you have white actors playing Asian people.

Now, I had several issues with this storyline. It’s the only time we see Asian people in the film, and for the most part, they’re depicted as an uncaring, abusive overclass of decadent consumers, slum dwellers (prostitutes, street musicians, etc.), or fabricants (human women genetically engineered to serve the “consumers”). Now, these fabricants are portrayed with a lot of sympathy, (in one instance, by the great Doona Bae), but they’re also, you know, serving robots — i.e., two of the biggest stereotypes people have about Asian people (subservient and robotic). Add to that, they’re easily the most sexualized characters in the film. (And the fast food restaurant they work at, Papa Song’s, has a logo that looks a lot like a stereotypical laughing Buddha to me).

The one Asian character who isn’t a stereotype is the storyline’s leading man, Hae-Joo Chang, a freedom fighter who aims to liberate the fabricants. He’s a highly positive character, heroic and romantic and he’d almost balance out the other stereotypes, except … he’s played by a white guy. In theory, I’m not a complete hardliner on yellow face. If the effects were good enough, then it’s probably akin to having a white actor voice an Asian character in a cartoon. But the fact of the matter is, there just aren’t a whole lot of roles available for Asian and Asian American actors in the U.S. (male actors in particular).

As Guy Aoki of Media Action Network for Asian Americans pointed out, this could have been a plum role for an API actor, but instead, they just threw some makeup on the same white dude from an earlier segment. That much I feel completely confident about saying, but there’s another thought that might be more of a stretch that I nevertheless feel is important to mention. I’m sure that the filmmakers were undoubtedly trying to say that we’re all the same inside, race doesn’t matter, yada yada yada. I think there’s a sort of an unintended subtextual message here: the hero in the Korea segment is a white guy reincarnated and, therefore, has a white soul.

And that’s what’s so bothersome to me here. Ultimately, you can see lots of good intentions shining through, but the end result contradicts a lot of what it sets out to accomplish. Throughout the film, it’s really conspicuous every time you see a black woman made up as a white woman and a white guy made up as an Asian guy and an Asian woman made up as a white woman or a white man as a white woman. It actually highlights racial and gender difference because it sort of implies that even professional makeup can’t hide it. And it really didn’t have to be this way. You could have made the same points, in my opinion much more effectively, by having different actors in those roles.

To be honest, I don’t take any pleasure in slamming “Cloud Atlas” because I really like the filmmakers. The Wachowski siblings are responsible for the “Matrix” films, and regardless of the quality of a given work, they try to infuse a political and social conscience into their films. They also produced “Ninja Assassin,” which I loved for its solid racial politics, and thoroughly enjoyed as an action flick. Plus, Lana Wachowski is one of the most prominent transgender people in entertainment today.

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas

“Cloud Atlas” has a lot to appreciate. Even though two-thirds of the six protagonists are white, there are more people of color in prominent roles in this film than any other big budget film this year (other than “Life of Pi”). And though I feel ambivalent about some aspects of the racial politics of half of the stories, it generally tries very hard to be an anti-racist work. Also, one of the best storylines revolves around a very well-executed queer romance. The biggest themes in the film are progressive; “Cloud Atlas” is largely about interdependence, compassion, and the courage needed to challenge existing power structures.

And while I take no pleasure in criticizing a film like this, I tend to dislike the discussion it generates even more. Whenever something like this happens, I survey the comment sections of articles about the issue and end up feeling even more frustrated. For every measured assessment of the issue, there are two ridiculous ones. On the one hand, you have people who claim the yellow face was completely necessary and anyone who criticizes it just isn’t sophisticated enough to understand the “whole point” of the movie was to depict reincarnated souls (and the same actors in heavy makeup was the only way to do this). Words and phrases like “over-sensitive,” “making something out of nothing,” and “grow up” abound. In my opinion, any time people of color take issue with a media depiction; it shouldn’t be dismissed that way. Disagreement is fine, but the dismissiveness is not. (One commentator, Timothy Wells, did a great job summing up this position: “It’s funny how white dudes in comment sections are always on top of their game and ready to explain to people what is, and is not racist. WE GOT THIS ONE GUYS, SURE WE MADE SOME MISTAKES, BUT AS OF RIGHT NOW WE GOT A HANDLE ON THIS.”)

The Complicated
You also have a lot of people who don’t understand that by taking issue with the Wachowskis’ casting decisions, we’re not calling them “capital R” racists in the way much of the country understands the term. A lot of it probably also comes down to differing understandings of what racism is/means in this country. The mainstream understanding of the word racism is overt, conscious and intentional. In the slavery scenes of “Cloud Atlas,” for instance, there is a lot of what mainstream America would recognize as racism. But many activists, scholars, and media critics see the term racism as meaning something more subtle that doesn’t require ill-intent; it’s something that doesn’t automatically make someone a pariah or bad person. It’s kind of hard to have meaningful conversations when you don’t share a common language.

And maybe that’s what I’m left feeling at the end of the day. The results of this year’s presidential election, and the changing demographics that many people think decided the outcome, indicate the era of open bigotry is on its way out. What we’re left with are more subtle issues and we’re going to need to do a lot of work to make sure we are all speaking the same language when we discuss them.

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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