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Friday, 27 May 2016

Will Hollywood ever respect east Asian actors?

That's the title of an Opinion piece in today's Guardian newspaper. The author, Carmen Fishwick, is probably not  responsible for the title but it's the title which makes me not want to read the article. It's just so Guardian.

First, because this is another example of The Guardian's Hollywood obsession, completely disproportionate to Hollywood's contemporary cultural interest. Second, because I immediately think of the my-grievance-is-bigger-than-your-grievance competition implied by the phrase "east Asian". So I start wracking my brain to think of ways in which north Asian, south Asian and west Asian actors are more respected in Hollywood than east Asian ones - and of course draw a complete blank - and, I trust, not because I am hopeless at the geography. So in the end I have to read the article.

It's dire. It's one of those plug-in advocacy pieces where you assert that X is under-represented in Y and produce some illustrative examples. In this case, east Asian actors are under-represented in Hollywood films and when they are represented they get lousy stereotyped parts - and, as we all know, Hollywood is normally scrupulous in avoiding lousy stereotyped parts for anyone. But as with all such pieces of advocacy, it's unclear what would count as an adequate change to this situation and why you want the change anyway. Women are surely under-represented among the prison torturers of any dictator you care to name - I will bet money on that - but you couldn't get an Opinion piece attacking that state of affairs into The Guardian. But everyone at The Guardian wants a slice of Hollywood.

As an aside to the issue about representation, the author complains that in Hollywood films, "We're rarely ever just normal people". But that, of course, is a different argument and a strange one. Why would you want or expect Hollywood to be particularly interested in normal people?

I went to my quite small collection of DVDs and pulled out a few which had an east Asian connection. Maybe my geography is defective and if so you can jump on me, but I pulled out six titles. In no particular order:

In the Mood for Love, director Wong Kar-Wai, two prizes at Cannes 2000
The Ballad of Narayama, dir Shohei Imamura, Palme d'Or Cannes 1983
The Last Emperor, dir Bernardo Bertolucci, 9 Academy Awards 2004
Memoirs of a Geisha, dir Rob Marshall, Three Oscars 2006
Lust Caution, dir Ang Lee, Golden Lion 2007 Venice etc
Hiroshima Mon Amour, dir Alain Resnais, Cannes selection 1959

I can say that I have enjoyed all these films and have kept the DVDs. They seem to have east Asian actors in quite a lot of leading roles and half of them have east Asian directors. I guess that one counts as a Hollywood movie and maybe more than one. But I am sure that someone could make a case that for this batch of Ys, some X or other is under-represented. For example, I don't recall any normal east Germans in any of them. And none of the directors are women. The absence of east Germans is with a high degree of certainty irrelevant to any political or cultural cause worth troubling about. In contrast, the absence of female directors is relevant to quite a lot of things.

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