Skip

"He's perfect...he looks just like...which he really does...he looks just like the character."
July 19, 2010 5:29 PM   Subscribe

Yellow Face (Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5) is a short documentary (about 50 minutes) that broadly concerns the history of white actors portraying Asian characters in American cinema and, more specifically, reaction to the casting of M. Night Shyamalan's generally reviled recent film, The Last Airbender. (Previously.)
posted by kittens for breakfast (70 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Something something "Best person for the role" etc.

It's always interesting how "colorblind" casting always skews towards white folks when it comes to lead roles.
posted by yeloson at 5:40 PM on July 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


I hated the fact that none of the zombies in "dawn of the dead" were really dead...
posted by HuronBob at 5:45 PM on July 19, 2010


Ya, I don't know about all of that, I'm on a slow connection and could only watch the first minute of the Part 1 where they're doing a Michael Moore on people waiting to get into an extras audition. But I liked the movie. I don't really get all the bitchy grown-up hate. I went with my 8 year old son; neither of us had seen the animated series so we didn't go into it all nerded-out with preconceptions. We both thought it was pretty good, as far as fantasy-genre kids movies go. And ever since we saw it he's been playing this game with his cousin where they have to choose if they're Earth, Water, Air or Fire and then they battle it out with dramatic hand movements and crazy mouth sound effects. So it had an impact.
posted by chococat at 5:55 PM on July 19, 2010


There was a similar controversy when the musical Miss Saigon transferred from London to New York City, and Jonathan Pryce, a white British actor, was cast in the role of "The Engineer." David Henry Hwang wrote a play about it, also called "Yellow Face."
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:02 PM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I remember Samual L. Jackson commenting in a print interview that Hollywood only allows one leading black actor at a time, and he was patiently waiting to take Danny Glover's place.

There isn't a leading dramatic actor or actress in Hollywood of Asian heritage that I can think of, and "Asian" is a very broad term. If Asians are cast in roles, they usually play supporting characters, or conform to an Orientalist stereotype.

The lovely Sandra Oh in Sideways is one of the few Asian characters who is played just as a regular character, with no racial/cultural baggage.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:15 PM on July 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


Well, there's Lucy Liu. No male I can think of that does regular roles though.
posted by cj_ at 6:18 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


There isn't a leading dramatic actor or actress in Hollywood of Asian heritage that I can think of, and "Asian" is a very broad term.

Would you accept half-Samoan Dwayne Johnson?
posted by Etrigan at 6:23 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


This probably pairs really well with Hollywood Chinese, which is about "the Chinese in American feature films," both Chinese and Chinese-American actors and filmmakers as well as the portrayal of Chinese people--there are some really revealing interviews with white actors who played Chinese characters in old Hollywood, including Christopher Lee.
posted by Tesseractive at 6:25 PM on July 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


I went with my 8 year old son; neither of us had seen the animated series so we didn't go into it all nerded-out with preconceptions.

You two really need to see the cartoon. I got clued into it by the first Metafilter thread, and by the surprising revelation that Roger Ebert likes it. I don't think it's possible for Sokka to say something that doesn't end up hilarious.
posted by JHarris at 6:34 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lucy Liu seems to be more of an action/genre movie star.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:41 PM on July 19, 2010


I'm watching The Fatal Hour right now! Boris Karloff as the wise Mr. Wong.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:45 PM on July 19, 2010


I hated the fact that none of the zombies in "dawn of the dead" were really dead...

Dismissive, nonsensical, and totally missing the point.

A threadshitting trifecta!
posted by kmz at 6:51 PM on July 19, 2010 [13 favorites]


Yeah I didn't see the "dramatic" qualification on first read. You got me there, I can't think of anyone.
posted by cj_ at 6:51 PM on July 19, 2010


A related and highly recommended Moth segment: Chink.
posted by kmz at 6:54 PM on July 19, 2010


The last real leading Asian man in the traditional sense in Hollywood might have been Sessue Hayakawa. That was a long time ago, friends.

We had high hopes for Russell Wong and Jason Scott Lee but that didn't pan out so now we're watching John Cho with a lot of expectations. Eyes on the prize, brother. Eyes on the prize.
posted by cazoo at 6:54 PM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


the history of white actors portraying Asian characters in American cinema

As a little kid, I remember constantly being confused when watching the series Kung Fu with David Carradine. In almost every episode, someone would say something like, "You keep out of this, Chinaman!"

I couldn't understand why everyone kept saying that. Could they not see his face because of his hat or something? Was it because he had a tattoo on his arm that looked like a dragon that they thought he'd been to China?

When I finally heard him addressed by name, Kwai Chang Caine (I usually thought of him as Grasshopper) it really floored me to make the connection that he was actually supposed to be from China. Seriously, this guy?
posted by misha at 6:55 PM on July 19, 2010 [8 favorites]


I couldn't understand why everyone kept saying that. Could they not see his face because of his hat or something?

These are the Ghosts of the Heroes I never had.
posted by yeloson at 7:27 PM on July 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


I went to a high school in Toronto where probably half if not more of the students were of Asian descent (we had a really awesome Dragon Boat team). In Grade 12, I was involved in a production of Romeo and Juliet, which the head of the Drama department (the director) decided in a fit of less-than-inspired lunacy to set in Taipei instead of Verona (for one thing, it didn't have the right number of syllables to fit correctly into the Prologue, and that was just a first of a nest of issues). The Montagues were to be Italian traders, and the Capulets would be Chinese. It was an interesting concept that was taken to ludicrous ends when the director also decided that the Montague family would be decked out in traditional Commedia white-face makeup, and the Capulet family...

You guessed it. Yellow makeup.

Thank goodness a few levelheaded students stepped up before the first preview and managed to get rid of it, because, really, WHAT.

I went to an extremely diverse high school in the most diverse city in the world, where there really were basically no tensions, and there was still a noticeable lack of diversity in the drama majors stream. To the point where we had to import a black student from another school to play the lead in our production of Six Degrees of Separation because the one black male major dropped out of the show. It troubled me then, and it troubles me now.
posted by ilana at 7:39 PM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I wonder if this is whitewash or just a symptom of M. Night Shyamalan not making very good movies lately. I'm not trying to be dismissive. I'm asking because, from the outside, everything I hear about the movie says total trainwreck (not in the good Unbreakable way) and that the casting decisions would therefore be like asking why the toilet has stopped flushing in the passenger car — well, the passenger car is now in two pieces, one of which is upside down.
posted by adipocere at 7:58 PM on July 19, 2010


John Wayne was totally convincing as Genghis Khan.

The last real leading Asian man in the traditional sense in Hollywood might have been Sessue Hayakawa.

What about Ken Watanabe or Chow Yun-fat?
posted by kirkaracha at 7:59 PM on July 19, 2010


John Cho ... siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh!
posted by liza at 7:59 PM on July 19, 2010


exactly my intent... good call!

Why would you do that? What is wrong with you? I know you're not twelve anymore.


As a little kid, I remember constantly being confused when watching the series Kung Fu with David Carradine. In almost every episode, someone would say something like, "You keep out of this, Chinaman!"

Yes! My friends and I - all of us some mix of Hawaiian/Chinese/Japanese/Filipino - would watch it and wonder why people in the show thought this dude was Chinese.
posted by rtha at 8:02 PM on July 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


I loved the cartoon, so I'm not going to watch this. For the same reason I didn't see the A Team. The casting was a big-time WTF, but from what I can see that's not even close to the worst problem with the movie.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:06 PM on July 19, 2010


This probably pairs really well with Hollywood Chinese, which is about "the Chinese in American feature films," both Chinese and Chinese-American actors and filmmakers as well as the portrayal of Chinese people--there are some really revealing interviews with white actors who played Chinese characters in old Hollywood, including Christopher Lee.

Mentioned in Hollywood Chinese is a brilliant indie film by Wayne Wang (Yeah, that Wayne Wang as well as that one), Chan is Missing. Siskel & Ebert talking about it (cont.). Well worth watching if you can track it down.
posted by juv3nal at 8:33 PM on July 19, 2010


Keanu Reeves is sad that everyone is forgetting him.
posted by Artw at 8:40 PM on July 19, 2010


Keanu Reeves is sad that everyone is forgetting him.

yeloson didn't.
posted by juv3nal at 8:42 PM on July 19, 2010


I just watched The Circus of Dr. Lau, which on the one hand gets points because the only bigots were the villains, and the hero was Chinese, but on the other loses points because Dr. Lau was played by Tony Randall in eyelid tape and an astounding variety of accents (that's ACTING!!).
posted by Jimmy Havok at 9:27 PM on July 19, 2010


Keanu Reeves is 1/8th Chinese, and 6/8ths European. Are we going by the one-drop rule here?
posted by Jimmy Havok at 9:32 PM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Keanu is sad you feel this rules him out.
posted by Artw at 9:42 PM on July 19, 2010


My son will look like Keanu Reeves when he grows up. This makes me happy.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:05 PM on July 19, 2010


Yeah, how do these things happen, in this day and age? Think I'll go rent me an Ang Lee film... maybe "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", for old times sake.
posted by polymodus at 10:15 PM on July 19, 2010


What about Ken Watanabe or Chow Yun-fat?

They are Asian Asian as opposed to Asian American so it's a different ballpark altogether. Don't get me wrong, I think they are both great but they don't really represent that same thing. They are considered "foreigners" and not part of the American dialogue.
posted by cazoo at 10:21 PM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Keanu is sad you feel this rules him out.

You know it's not being only 1/8th chinese that rules him out, it's the fact he only really gets cast because he's 6/8th white. For many people, they don't even know he has asian heritage at all. If to be an asian lead in Hollywood you can't "look TOO asian", that's not something to be lauded as diversity, but rather how much we're so deeply wading in white supremacy as a media guide. See also: Halle Berry getting regular casting over Angela Bassett.
posted by yeloson at 10:34 PM on July 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Asian American actors, thank you Wikipedia. Not sure how many are lead or dramatic actors, but there's a lot of them here.
posted by IvoShandor at 12:30 AM on July 20, 2010


I remember there was a big stink when Chinese actors portrayed Japanese geishas in Memoirs of a Geisha, too.
posted by eegphalanges at 12:31 AM on July 20, 2010


Asian American actors, thank you Wikipedia. Not sure how many are lead or dramatic actors, but there's a lot of them here.

Wow.. That is not "a lot". The fact that the full list can almost fit on one browser screen of my laptop is incredible, especially considering the vast majority of them are probably not notable at all. I picked three names at random and searched them all on IMDB; all three of them are part-time actors in television roles, playing ethnic Chinese characters rather than Chinese-American. YMMV.
posted by cj_ at 1:42 AM on July 20, 2010


It has always irritated me that Hollywood can accept Arnold Schwartzeneggar's accent without having to explain it, but anytime an Asian is on screen he or she must be justified: math, science, computer geek; wise old sage; banker; accountant; martial arts expert.

An Asian can never just be there.
posted by bwg at 1:49 AM on July 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow.. That is not "a lot".

Well it's not thousands, no. But my point was more that there are plenty Asian American actors, whether they choose them for roles, that's another thing. The fact that there are more than 200 listed just there, says to me that there really isn't an excuse for not casting Asian-American actors as Asian characters in Hollywood films. Film-makers aren't really trying.
posted by IvoShandor at 1:53 AM on July 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


That should say Asian-American characters in Hollywood films, btw.
posted by IvoShandor at 1:56 AM on July 20, 2010


I remember listening to the commentary track for Doctor Who's 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' and the defence by the actors for the yellow face in that was pretty embarrassing.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:47 AM on July 20, 2010


I don't think anyone is claiming that there are no of actors of Asian heritage. You found a list of a few hundred actors (which is vanishingly small in its own right -- let's ignore that for now), but if you click through them and cross-reference with IMDB, you'll find they are mostly bit-part actors playing stereotypical mystical parts or the role of foreigners, and overwhelmingly for television rather than Hollywood.

The demographic of Asian-Americans (people who live in America but happen to be of Asian descent and don't know Kung Fu), simply doesn't exist as far as Hollywood is concerned. It's true that Asian-Americans only make up about 6% of the population, but you'd think that would spawn one or two mainstream actors. Apparently not.

This isn't particularly surprising or shocking. Blacks make up 14% of the the American demographic, but are also very rare as leading roles in Hollywood. We only get a few lead blacks, and they brush up against the "magical negro" stereotype in really uncomfortable ways, though they are awesome enough to make mostly an uneasy footnote.

The issue is American media is overwhelmingly whitewashed in a way that doesn't reflect the demographics of people living here, or even consuming the media in question.
posted by cj_ at 3:18 AM on July 20, 2010


but if you click through them and cross-reference with IMDB, you'll find they are mostly bit-part actors playing stereotypical mystical parts or the role of foreigners, and overwhelmingly for television rather than Hollywood.

That's just it though. They do exist, even if in small numbers. They are not being cast in very many roles, or appropriate roles. And yeah teevee isn't Hollywood, but the medium is a lot more respected than it was in the days of Full House and Falcon's Crest. Really I didn't post the link to get into an argument about American media though. I posted it because I hoped someone could find an actor on the list that they had forgotten about. Several commenters mentioned they couldn't think of an Asian-American lead dramatic actor. I was really only trying to help and I suspect we agree, mostly, on this particular issue.
posted by IvoShandor at 3:55 AM on July 20, 2010


At first I was mildly annoyed at the street-interviews of people where she asked if they (non-Asians) thought they could perform the role, or how they felt about having to wear yellowface. Then I realized she was making a point - non-Asians who said the all-white casting was wrong were mostly OK with it if it was - even hypothetically - them being cast in an Asian role. Which is what the academic was talking about when he said whites began to soften their support for civil rights when actual sacrifice came up.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:15 AM on July 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


IvoShandor: I think we are in agreement in the broad sense. I didn't mean to call you out personally. I was just riffing off the contents of your link, which I realize you aren't personally responsible for creating. I understand what your intent was. What I would give for it to be so easy that I could lay blame for the ills of society on one person.

I just feel that listing Asian actors doesn't substantially address the problem that they are treated as "other" in American media. It doesn't matter if there's 100 or 20,000 people there when it is overwhelmingly obvious that none of them are considered very important in the grand scheme of things. Not important enough to get a lead role, anyway, unless they are doing CHOP SUEY HWAH HWAH or imparting ancient wisdom, or whatever. Regular ole Americans that happen to be from Asian descent simply don't exist in media, but are unremarkable and common in real life, at least for me. There's a huge gap there.
posted by cj_ at 4:55 AM on July 20, 2010


A related and highly recommended Moth segment: Chink.

I have to disagree, his declamation-style is insufferable.
posted by ts;dr at 5:36 AM on July 20, 2010


[A few comments removed; Mefi is not the UN but it's also not the HuronBob show, so please just move on next time you make a dumb joke that gets panned.]
posted by cortex at 7:09 AM on July 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


'The Talons of Weng-Chiang'

Oh man, that is a great Tom Baker who, but yeah...
posted by Artw at 10:27 AM on July 20, 2010




Mister Rathbone. Would that 'needed tan' be tinted yellow and come out of a bottle?

Well, the character he would be playing would be a brown Inuit character, so it'd be more like brownface/redface, which also has a long, problematic history in the US. (see early casting issues around Jacob for the Twilight movies...)
posted by yeloson at 12:18 PM on July 20, 2010


Fair enough - my mistake.

...sadly, that just means that the only thing the Avatar movie is missing is blackface.
posted by zennish at 12:52 PM on July 20, 2010




Man, why did everyone like Signs? It was garbage. The Village was better by comparison.
posted by Artw at 2:12 PM on July 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reporter ask M Night asks as 'the audience has lost faith in his recent work... is Air Bender an attempt to be more commercial'. He doesn't take it well.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:04 PM on July 20, 2010


I remember there was a big stink when Chinese actors portrayed Japanese geishas in Memoirs of a Geisha, too.

Yeah, I was living in Japan when this movie came out, and older people tended to have a problem with the casting choices but the younger people didn't seem to care too much. That could have been just my experience though. More surprising to me was the fact that nearly all my Japanese students loved "The Last Samurai," where the character that eventually rises up and leads the samurais into battle is a white American guy played by Tom Cruise. Go figure.
posted by Kirk Grim at 3:27 PM on July 20, 2010


Reporter ask M Night asks as 'the audience has lost faith in his recent work... is Air Bender an attempt to be more commercial'. He doesn't take it well.

He and Kevin Smith should start a support group.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:06 PM on July 20, 2010


The critics don't matter!
posted by Artw at 4:09 PM on July 20, 2010


I'm kind of confused with how sure people are about what races the Avatar nations are supposed to line up with in our world. They're fictional races in a very different world. For all we know they all DO look like white people with various levels of tanning. Sure, it would've been nice to have their races follow the ones which their cultures most closely resemble but people are WAY too up in arms about the live-action representations of entirely fictional races.
posted by EtzHadaat at 6:02 PM on July 20, 2010


The live-action casting choices, if I may be blunt, are pretty fucking ridiculous.
posted by PsychoKick at 7:33 PM on July 20, 2010


unless they are doing CHOP SUEY HWAH HWAH or imparting ancient wisdom, or whatever. Regular ole Americans that happen to be from Asian descent simply don't exist in media, but are unremarkable and common in real life, at least for me. There's a huge gap there.

I totally agree with this.

Man, why did everyone like Signs? It was garbage

I agree with this as well. Signs was an insult to my intelligence. Aliens killed by water visit planet that is 3/4s water. Corpses at eleven.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:47 PM on July 20, 2010


Water falls from the fucking sky here! What's more the aliens live in a fucking corn field, where water condenses every morning.

The Village was actually rather sensible and coherant by comparison.

And then there was Lady in the Water... I'm not really sure how anything could be worse.
posted by Artw at 6:07 AM on July 21, 2010


I saw Lady in the Water recently. WTF, M. Night?

And I kinda liked Signs... It had an old school War of the Worlds feel (aliens capable of interstellar travel have never heard of viruses? Hrmm). But then, I have a feeling if I watched it again now, with a bit less M. Night love in my heart (I still quite enjoy Sixth Sense and Unbreakable), I might be less forgiving.
posted by antifuse at 7:09 AM on July 21, 2010


Sure, it would've been nice to have their races follow the ones which their cultures most closely resemble but people are WAY too up in arms about the live-action representations of entirely fictional races.

How disingenuous.

Did you check the links? Take all of cinema history and a long standing practice of excluding asians from lead roles, especially has heroes or normal people. Hell, look at the how they whitewashed 21 (based on real world events, with asian people) or are trying to get Mickey Rourke to play Genghis Khan.

Do you think Lord of the Rings would have been "true to the source material" if it was cast completely with non-white people?

Job discrimination is every good reason to get up in arms. Pandering to white supremacy is a damn good reason to get up in arms. It's 2010, why are we still casting like it's 1950?
posted by yeloson at 8:11 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I watched the Happening very recently and I was actually amazed at just how awful it was on so many levels... especially the script-writing and the acting. What made it doubly surreal is that M Night obviously has a decent cinematographer and camera team so the shots look pretty slick so the overall film ended up kinda like a Ferrari with a go-kart engine in it.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:23 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


M. Night Shyamalan Promises 'Last Airbender' Sequel Will Be Darker

See? Problem fixed!
posted by Artw at 10:28 AM on July 21, 2010


chococat: "Ya, I don't know about all of that, I'm on a slow connection and could only watch the first minute of the Part 1 where they're doing a Michael Moore on people waiting to get into an extras audition. But I liked the movie. I don't really get all the bitchy grown-up hate. I went with my 8 year old son; neither of us had seen the animated series so we didn't go into it all nerded-out with preconceptions. We both thought it was pretty good, as far as fantasy-genre kids movies go. And ever since we saw it he's been playing this game with his cousin where they have to choose if they're Earth, Water, Air or Fire and then they battle it out with dramatic hand movements and crazy mouth sound effects. So it had an impact."

And another little boy, about the same age as yours, who was delighted to see an Asian hero just like him and would play pretend and always want to be Aang-- when he learned that the movie cast Aang as white, this same young boy asked his aunt if this meant that he couldn't be Aang when he played Avatar with his friends from now on.

That's why this matters, chococat.
posted by ShawnStruck at 2:36 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's why this matters, chococat.

Except I didn't say it didn't matter. I'm just coming from the perspective of having zero preconceptions going into the movie--no knowledge of the previous animated series--and kind of enjoying it. Only afterwards did I read some reviews that trashed the film from a snarky adult film critic point-of-view which mostly criticized their perceived bad child acting.
And not until this post was I aware of the casting issues and controversy surrounding the film.
posted by chococat at 3:18 PM on July 21, 2010


And not until this post was I aware of the casting issues and controversy surrounding the film.

The fact that a bunch of white kids dressed up in "ethnic" gear, doing kung fu, while the rest of the nations all happened to be people of color led by white saviors (minus the brown-led villains, of course), didn't seem weird to you is pretty much evidence enough that this stuff matters.

I often joke that soon enough, we'll have a Malcolm X movie starring Mark Wahlberg... but the way Hollywood keeps going, I'm afraid it'll be seen more as a serious movie pitch...
posted by yeloson at 10:44 AM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, again, having no prior knowledge of the series, I didn't perceive it that way while I was watching the film; I admit that I wasn't really considering the racial implications since I was caught up in the fact that it was, you know, a fantasy world where magic people could conjure up balls of fire and freeze people in blocks of ice.
But you're right; had I been aware of the original story and how it was framed I may have viewed it through a different lens.
posted by chococat at 1:58 PM on July 22, 2010


I don't understand, why is fantasy world in italics? And while the series may be fantasy, the race of the actors, and the culture in which is was filmed is not.
posted by ShawnStruck at 4:17 AM on July 23, 2010


I don't understand, why is fantasy world in italics? And while the series may be fantasy, the race of the actors, and the culture in which is was filmed is not.

I think what chococat is saying, and it's a viewpoint to which I'm not entirely unsympathetic, is that even though the aesthetic of the world is very much Asian, it's not The Real World, and so that its heroes are white might not immediately send up a red flag for someone who isn't familiar with the original series. For me, I think that the white heroes/minority villains dynamic in the context of an Asian-styled world should seem kind of sketchy and ill-advised even to people who are completely unaware that the film is based on a pre-existing property, but that's me, and it really is reflective of where we are right now. I mean, although Tolkien certainly did not have this is mind, I would have no problem with a LOTR that featured an Asian Gandalf or a Latino Legolas or a black Aragorn or what have you, because (a) I don't think there's much social danger in failing to "honor" the eurocentric roots of LOTR, and (b) it's not a story set in Europe in the 1500s or something, even if Tolkien drew from European myth when he created it -- it's not the real world, and (c) a more inclusive myth may not change our world in any measurable way, but it's certain to do more good than harm. I don't think Peter Jackson was at all obligated to cast non-whites for his films, and they're films I love and have no quarrel with; I'm just saying that I would have found nothing objectionable about more inclusive casting. Because it's not a loaded prospect to view LOTR as a straight-up fantasy world, to my mind. Whereas it is a loaded prospect to look at Avatar that way, because that these are Asian characters in an Asian world is socially relevant right now. In a hundred years, it might not be, the same way that it's just not important that Frodo is white. But that isn't now.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:23 AM on July 24, 2010


« Older A lie told often enough becomes the truth   |   You’ll be pleased to note, it... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post