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Hollywood and “Asians”

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21 Responses

  1. greglas says:

    Re Norwegian Greeks — did you see Oliver Stone’s Alexander? I saw about half of it, and it seemed that many of the “Macedonians” had Irish accents. (I was wondering why Angela Jolie kept talking that funny way.)

    You’re right, though, presumably they would not have subbed Norwegians for the Geisha, which makes it a little curious. I guess an interesting question will be what the Japanese have to say about the film.

  2. greglas says:

    Oops, looks like Ann’s link answers that question!

  3. Nate Oman says:

    Ann: Thanks for the link. Very interesting stuff. I find it facinating that Marshall defends his choices by talking about his committment to “the Asian community.” What is interesting to me is that the “Asian Community” that Marshall refers to seems to be largely an American creation. In Asia itself, they are more likely to think of themselves as Koreans, Japanese, or Chinese.

  4. While it did strike me initially as odd to have Chinese actors portraying Japanese people, I find it hard to articulate a principled basis for objecting to it. Your post got me thinking more generally about the issue.

    I think that it is more important that a movie portrays a culture accurately rather than simply uses actors of the ethnicity. HBO’s Rome used many British actors, and although the British accents for ancient Romans sounded odd at first, the quality and accuracy of the show is what made it worthwhile viewing. Is it problematic for non-gay actors to play gay characters or vice versa? Is it problematic for actors without disabilities to play people with disabilities? Or for actors of one religion to play a religious figure of a different religion?

    In other words, the relevant questions that come to mind are:

    1. Should it matter whether an actor has the same characteristics in real life as those people whom he/she portrays?

    2. If so, then what characteristics should matter? Race? National origin? Sexuality? Religion? Age?

    3. If certain characteristics matter and others don’t, why should they be treated differently?

  5. Nate Oman says:

    Daniel: It seems to me that it depends on what sort of story you are trying to tell. Memoirs very much bills itself as an insider’s peak into an alien cultural world. Hence, it depends a great deal for its dramatic force on its verrisimilitude. That being the case, I think that race matters to some extent. I have no doubt, however, that you can tell a compelling story about Japenese characters with Chinese actresses just as you can tell a compelling story about Roman characters with British actors. My dismay comes, I think, from a sneaking suspicion that the movie makers went into the casting process looking for “Asians” because, ya know, they all look the same and no one will really care, etc. etc. etc. In other words, my suspicion is that rather than deciding that in this case ethnic identity didn’t matter, they actually thought that they were getting the “correct” ethnic identity.

    I freely admit, however, that I may be too suspicious and touchy here. After all, Marshall may have simply case Ziyi Zhang because, hey, she is an awesome actress. I guess my problem is that I look at her in a Japanese role and just think: “Wow! You look really Chinese.”

  6. Ruchira Paul says:

    Normally the ethnicity of actors should not matter… it is only acting, right? But Hollywood movies with Asians in the lead are so rare that a bit of attentin to casting is a good thing – for two reasons. Asians indeed do not all look (or sound) alike and the Asian audience expects a tribute to authenticity in the rare event that a story based in the continent is a major mainstream production.

    Israeli actors playing Baghdadis? Or perhaps Asian actors playing Alexander some day? I surely hope so. Readers here are probably too young to remember that in 1968 there was a nasty uproar in the Arab world when Omar Sharif kissed Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

    I have heard that the Japanese on the whole, are not at all pleased about Chinese actors playing some of the main characters in the movie. This is purely anecdotal – one Japanese woman interviewed about the Memoirs of a Geisha apparently had this to say, “The director of this movie should be cut up into small pieces.”

  7. Bruce says:

    Actually, I can imagine a science fiction show with a lead character named “Jean-Luc Picard” who’s supposed to be French but speaks with a British accent, loves Shakespeare, and drinks Earl Grey tea. And a movie about a Scottish clansman who becomes immortal but sounds like he’s from Belgium. (“Thechhh cun be only waannnnn.”) And another about an American named “Douglas Quaid” who speaks with a thick Austrian accent. Not to mention innumerable war movies featuring Germans who sound like they just got off the boat from Dover.

    That’s not to say that ethnic substitutions can’t be disturbing; it is disturbing to see Italians playing Indians in 50s Westerns (not the spaghetti Westerns, ones made here in the U.S.), or Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich playing Mexicans. But that’s because actual Indians and Hispanics were shut out of the film industry back then. (It’s also because “Touch of Evil” is awful.) I’m not sure that explains the prevalence of Chinese actors in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

  8. an asian commenter says:

    I’m “asian.” I get mistaken for several different ethnicities all the time. I have absolutely no problem with the casting. So what if some Japanese don’t like Chinese actors? Part of it may stem from deep-seated historical racism. When it comes down to it, it’s better to break down racial stereotypes among “asians.” these categories are socially constructed. It’s far better for all asians that a movie with asians is even being made by hollywood.

  9. Papillon says:

    Well, there’s always the long standing argument that even made it to Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom about Cleopatra’s exact ethnicity and her portrayal as voluptuous Elisabeth Taylor by Hollywood…

    I’m not fussed in real life and in theatre by ethnicity, but somehow, I’m bothered with ethnic/cultural mistakes like these in cinematography, specially when the essence of the subject matter is the specificity of the culture.

  10. Muhammad says:

    It is also very common to see ‘Arabic’ roles filled by Jewish actors. This probably works for most viewers – the Semitic features and guttural language will usually sell it pretty well. And I’m sure it is much easier to find Jewish actors in Hollywood than Arabic ones. But its always funny for me when I hear basic Arabic phrases pronounced with a Yiddish accent.

  11. Simon says:

    I have to admit that I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference – physically – between a Chinese and a Japanese. At a stretch, I could probably pick a Korean out of a line-up, and I think most people familiar wit the area could pick them out by accent, but what are the physical characteristics that differentiate a Chinese face from a Japanese face?

  12. jimbino says:

    It’s been acceptable to confuse the races ever since Jesus took over as a white guy and Al Jolson as a black guy; then there are all those white guys the cowboys shot in films, thinking they were Indians. Anyhow, there must be Chinese-looking Japanese, just as there are Hispanics of all races under the sun.

  13. Mathew says:

    Whether out of cultural insensitivity or because I’m so wonderful that I’m entirely blind to ethnic characteristics I don’t know, but I’m pretty terrible at identifying ethnicities. I once learned one of my law professors was black only at the end of the semester. It is fairly easy, however, for me to see the difference between a Japanese person and a Chinese person so it is slightly disconcerting to see Chinese actresses in the lead roles. On the other hand, Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh are both fine actresses, relatively well-known to American audiences and have worked well together in the past so it makes some sense to cast them in the film.

    Interestingly, in addition to Japanese complaints about the casting, some Chinese are up in arms: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0512160202dec16,1,4285057.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed

  14. hangukin says:

    At the risk of making overly-broad ethnic statements:

    Japanese tend to have fairly rounded faces without promient cheek bones.

    Chinese tend to have less-round faces with more prominent cheek bones.

    Koreans tend to have more square-set faces.

    This is a gross over-simplification of course, as China is hardly ethnically homogeneous, and a person from Manchuria is likely to look different (more Korean) than, say, a person from Canton.

  15. They All Look The Same – But I Stand Out

    A recent issue of Newsweek had an interesting article by Cathie Gandel in the My Turn section. She says that at 5′ 10 and as a fair haired foreigner in Japan, she felt as conspicuous as a nail that stood

  16. peanuts says:

    Whether out of cultural insensitivity or because I’m so wonderful that I’m entirely blind to ethnic characteristics I don’t know, but I’m pretty terrible at identifying ethnicities. I once learned one of my law professors was black only at the end of the semester. It is fairly easy, however, for me to see the difference between a Japanese person and a Chinese person so it is slightly disconcerting to see Chinese actresses in the lead roles. On the other hand, Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh are both fine actresses, relatively well-known to American audiences and have worked well together in the past so it makes some sense to cast them in the film.

  17. Calvin Q. Calculus says:

    “Race” is no more than a social construct. This is especially true in regions where there has been a lot of mixing over the years. When you get past the bigotry and stereotypes, you will see that the difference between Chinese/Japanese/Korean is not enough to reliably guess people’s origins based on their facial features alone.

    If you don’t believe me, take the challenge at alllooksame.com

  18. Lola says:

    I saw Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” and wanted to stab Mel Gibson in the throat for…

    not his accent really.

    It was his horrible acting.

    Hope that wasn’t too anticlimatic?

  19. Lahela says:

    What’s up with this “Asian” classification? Just an attempt at political correctness today; but 75 years ago, there was a definite view by our government that immigrants needed to be Americanized, to make sure that they were not harboring any loyalties to their country of origin. In my experience, most Asians (and Asian Americans) think of themselves as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc., and not simply as “Asian.” This is not NECESSARILY a matter of racial prejudice — it’s a matter of wanting to stay in touch with your ancestral roots. There are plenty of Caucasian Americans who proudly call themselves Irish, Italian, German, etc.; and I think that’s just fine, as long as it doesn’t devolve into hatred of other ethnicities. If you don’t identify with anything, because you have so many ethnicities, that’s okay too. But at any rate, I think the casting directors were looking for box office draw — and they probably figured that the typical audience member wouldn’t know the difference. Can anyone think of an ethnic Japanese actress with as much draw power as Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li? I cannot. Could any of you determine whether she was Japanese or Okinawan? I could, but only because I grew up in Hawaii, where Asians are the ethnic majority, and the rich cultural heritages are proudly displayed and discussed. In this setting, it becomes easier to tell the difference.

  20. Brian Fang says:

    Get over yourself.

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