Asians, Another ‘Crash’ Casualty

March 15, 2006

Asians, Another ‘Crash’ Casualty

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New America Media, Commentary, William Wong, Mar 10, 2006

Editor’s Note: Complex as the Oscar winner ‘Crash’ wants to be, it’s still pretty simplistic when it comes to Asian characters, writes William Wong, author of ‘Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America’ and ‘Images of America: Oakland’s Chinatown.’

OAKLAND–It may be churlish to insert a dissonant note in the lilting symphony of praise that the Oscar-winning best picture, “Crash,” is getting these days, but here it is. As impressive as the film is in showing the multidimensional humanity — the good, the bad and the gray in-betweens — of Los Angelenos of various ethnic backgrounds, the movie continues a Hollywood tradition of mostly one-dimensional portrayals of Asians.

Oh, no, you say, not another yellowish whine! If “Crash” weren’t about complex racial and ethnic relationships, then my complaint would, indeed, be inappropriate, paranoid even.

But that was exactly the point of the movie, to portray the nuances of Los Angeles’ — and by extension, America’s — racial and ethnic relationships. So why would it portray East Asians in such an inept and unflattering way?

The movie has won deserved kudos for how it shows different facets of white, black, Middle-Eastern and Latino characters. Many of these characters move from one set of attitudes to another during the course of the film’s limited timeline. All except the two principal East Asians, who by the way are minor players compared with Matt Dillon’s racist cop and Terrence Howard’s uptight junior executive.

Granted, one of the East Asian characters goes through a transformation of sorts, but his denouement is anything but flattering. The East Asian woman is shrewish throughout.

Not that there isn’t truth to the characterizations of these particular stereotypes. We know of shrewish Asian and Asian American women. We know of criminally inclined Asian and Asian American men.

But if the film’s director and screenwriters want to explore the depths of how people of varied racial and ethnic heritages behave toward one another, how come they didn’t add an East Asian or Asian American character who showed a modicum of humanity beyond the bitchy and evil?

It should no longer be a surprise or revelation that people of East Asian descent are a presence on the Technicolor American landscape. That’s been the case for more than a century and a half. Yet, it seems for some Americans, Asians are Johnny and Janie-Come-Latelies and may not deserve more wide-ranging media portrayals.

More to the point of Hollywood movies — the fantasy and mythmaking factory nonpareil — it’s rare that Asian characters, whether American or not, are shown as complex and multidimensional.

There have been exceptions, of course. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was one, directed, ironically, by this year’s Oscar winner (for the pioneering “Brokeback Mountain,” the early best-picture favorite) Ang Lee, who got his artistic start in Taiwan and who has now risen to Hollywood directorial stardom.

(As an aside, Lee may be a celebrated mainstream director now, but where was he in all those post-Oscar shows like “Entertainment Tonight,” “Oprah” and “Good Morning America?” Why didn’t the celebrity-salivating interviewers give Lee a few moments of post-Oscar glow?)

(One more aside: Lee’s closing remark as he accepted his Oscar in only slightly accented English were quite revealing in itself; he spoke a Mandarin phrase aimed at TV audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, the future of global media messaging perhaps?)

Another exception was “The Joy Luck Club” from Amy Tan’s blockbuster novel (that, unfortunately, painted a one-dimensional, nasty portrayal of East Asian men — ah-hah, a yellow gender war case study!).

A few other standouts are Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” and, perhaps, Eric Byler’s upcoming “Americanese,” which will headline the annual Asian American Film Festival next week in San Francisco.

I am old enough to remember the goofy Charlie Chan movies with the main “Chinese” character played by taped-eyelid white actors. Some Asian American intellectuals and writers have complained about the Chan movie portrayals, a point of view I generally share, except for the fact that the Hollywoodized Chan is a pretty smart guy — yet another stereotype about Asians and Asian Americans.

Younger Asian American artists and writers are repeating the refrain, asking why there are not more multidimensional mainstream media portrayals of people from their ethnic backgrounds. With the help of the latest technology, some are creating their own works that may, one day, capture the imagination of the mainstream Hollywood machine.

Till then, “Crash,” as good as it is, misses a golden opportunity to break some new ground in a fully multidimensional way.

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