Eastern Exposure

February 26, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

In 1937, the Oscar for best actress went to Luise Rainer, a native of Austria, for portraying a Chinese peasant in "The Good Earth." In 1944, MGM managed to make a movie, "Dragon Seed," about the Japanese invasion of a Chinese village without casting a single Asian actor. Even in 1961, Mickey Rooney donned buckteeth to play Holly Golightly's Japanese neighbor in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Today, that sort of Asian version of blackface probably wouldn't even play at the Friars Club. Rather, Asian and Asian-Americans are starring in as well as producing and directing movies in greater numbers than ever before. In the past year alone, Hollywood released "The Joy Luck Club," about four Chinese women and their Americanized daughters; "Heaven and Earth," in which the ravaging of a Vietnamese woman parallels that of her country; and "Golden Gate," about the FBI's infiltration of San Francisco's Chinatown. And three of the five Oscar nominees for the best foreign film are Asian, the first time more than a single Asian film has been nominated in that category in one year.

But while lauding this greater visibility on movie screens, film observers say the stories and characters still represent a narrow band of the larger experience and often fall back on stereotypes that Western audiences are comfortable with. It's why, some believe, so many of the recent Asian-themed movies feature women rather men: They're docile. They're exotic sexual objects. They're victims to be saved by white men.

"In this country, Asian-Americans have been perceived as the least threatening minority. They're good at math, they don't yell, they're submissive. Within this, there's also gender politics -- women have always been perceived as less threatening," says Minnie Hong, exhibition director for the New York-based Asian CineVision, a non-profit center that develops and showcases independent filmmakers. "So with Asian-American women, you have the least threatening group. Stories about Asian-American women are sort of the easiest way of easing into the mainstream consciousness."

"The Joy Luck Club," based on Amy Tan's best-selling novel, generates mixed feelings among some Asian-Americans. While cheered that a major studio put its weight behind a movie featuring an ensemble cast of largely unknown Asian and Asian-American actors -- and gave independent director Wayne Wang a shot at breaking into the mainstream -- some have criticized the movie for its negative depiction of Asian men. It's reminiscent of the criticism directed at two novels by African-American women that also were made into movies: Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" and Gloria Naylor's "The Women of Brewster Place."

'Two sensitive Asian men'

"The only Asian men you see in the 'The Joy Luck Club' are brutal or rapists," says James Moy, author of "Marginal Sights" (University of Iowa Press, 1993), which looks at how American popular culture depicts Asians. "Oh, wait, there are two sensitive Asian men, but they're both old, a father and a deaf piano teacher, and thus non-threatening. The young ones are all schmucks."

Mr. Moy, a professor of theater and drama at the University of Wisconsin, says racial and ethnic minorities often are treated this way by Hollywood. "The primary reason is the producers of [mainstream] films tend to be white men, and you can't ever have white malehood threatened," he says. "The only time you see Asian men in movies is as gangsters or bad guys. The same is true with all non-white groups."

" 'The Joy Luck Club' is a very important step in terms of advancing Asian-American filmmaking," Ms. Hong says. "It just shouldn't be the last step or the only step."

Unfair or narrow depictions of any group are only a problem when members of that group are only rarely portrayed. No one, for example, would argue that, say, Sylvester Stallone movies unfairly depict all white men as testosterone-poisoned aggressors because there are any number of other movies that portray white men in a full range of ways -- as fathers, as leaders, as poets, as athletes, as cross-dressing nannies and on and on.

"I think it's marketing -- if one really looks at who's behind the money end, the producing end, it's men. And Asian women are appealing to men while Asian men are more of an unknown quantity," says Russell Leong, who teaches media and ethnicity at the University of California, Los Angeles, and edited a book about Asian filmmaking, "Moving the Image" (University of Washington Press, 1990).

There is, of course, a long tradition of viewing foreign women as sort of sexual exotica -- the Swedish blond, for example, or the lusty, busty Italian. Asian women have been depicted over the years as prostitutes -- Nancy Kwan in the 1960 movie, "The World of Suzie Wong" -- and babes -- Tia Carrere, in the two recent "Wayne's World" movies.

Most stereotyped

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