exactly that

The fine line…

So I was reading Whatsername’s review of Star Trek (it’s good, go read it), and we started discussing how some people (she is hardly the first person I have heard mention this) are reacting to John Cho playing Sulu, since he’s Korean Sulu is supposed to be Japanese, b/c George Takei is Japanese.  I (and The Guy) genuinely liked Cho as Sulu.  It wasn’t a huge part for this intro movie, but I think he did really well w/ it.  I am not the world’s foremost Trekkie, by any stretch of the word, so my opinion won’t count for the hard core fans out there.  But I have read in the past that Sulu was not supposed to be any specific nationality (“Sulu” not being a Japanese name at all and in fact named after the Sulu Sea).  Kind of “Generic Asian guy”, which is problematic in and of itself since apparently he is to be representative of all Asians everywhere (kind of like the monolith that people assume is Africa, Asia is a pretty big place and diverse even w/in borders of specific countries).  Nationality is glossed over WRT Asian actors all the time (Ando on Heroes is Japanese, but the actor who plays him is in fact Korean).  But Gene Roddenberry wanted to depict a future where there was harmony across Asia, long torn apart by war and disputes.  It was in fact Takei who pointed this out to the casting directors of the latest Star Trek, to reassure them that Sulu was not meant to be Japanese specifically (and if you research Sulu like a good nerd, one of his parents were supposedly Phillipin@).

To me, so what if John Cho is Korean and George Takei is Japanese?  Cho is a fine actor, George Takei, the iconic character was on board w/ it, and I wonder how much difference it makes what his ethnic background is specifically, and Sulu isn’t supposed to be any one nationality specifically.  So that brings me to what I believe is a fine line.  The fine line b/t the way, in American Cinema we seem to have the Interchangeable Asian and getting too concerned over specific nationality.  There is a fine line where it isn’t stereotyping and it isn’t broad sweeping.  We are dealing w/ iconic characters here, and I wonder how important race and gender are to keeping the spirit of the film.  Hollywood has this tendency to resort to the same names again and again when they want to cast an Asian actor (and seldom a woman other than Lucy Lu or Zhang Ziyi).  How many movies set in China or Chinatown star Jet Li or Jackie Chan?  

It is kind of like the way that I feel there is a huge oversight on the part of the casting of the Avatar movie, where they have erased race altogether, but then decided that the Fire Nation should be populated w/ brown people who are hell bent on oppression and control.  The source material was set in an alternate Asia, w/ subtle differences in culture blending from Inuit people to South Asians and everything in between. Arguably the Fire Nation is representative of Imperial Japan, the Earth Kingdom is probably drawn from both China and Korea since it has a vast range of looks and cultures (Ba Sing Se is very much like Bei Jing), but overall they all blend together a little at the edges and it is very distinctly Asian.  When they decided to make Aang a white kid, and Katara and Sokka white, it mattered. Perhaps Aang is supposed to be white, and not actually Tibetan influenced, as some believe, but I am as yet unconvinced.  The erasure of race mattered for this film, at least to me.  The difference, to me, is that the source material is set specifically in an alternate Asia.  It seems almost as if Asians have been erased from their own world altogether.

But why does that matter, and the the specificity of Sulu’s nationality not matter?  Should it matter?  Was Roddenberry really more ahead of his time than we are now?

Daniel Henney was cast as Agent Zero in the Wolverine film, and Agent Zero, as I understand it, is supposed to be German.  Should that have mattered?

How big of a difference does the race of a person make in a particular film?  What about gender?  What if Sulu had been played by a woman, like Brenda Song?  Would people have embraced her as Sulu, despite being Hmong and Thai and a woman?  What if Scottie or Chekov had been cast as women?  Did they have to be Scottish and Russian?  What if Kirk had been a woman (somewhere some Trekkie’s head just exploded)?

Does it matter more when dealing w/ iconic characters?  Are race and gender specificity so important?  Does the way a person looks in a role matter more or less than how well zie portray that role?

Where do we draw that line?  I am certainly not the person to make the call, not being Asian, but I do know that having Inuit people in Avatar cast as white is alienating as a Native woman.  I know that I am sensitive to the way that Native Americans are depicted in the Twilight universe.

Discuss.

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Comments on: "The fine line…" (4)

  1. […] 2009 by Ouyang Dan Dovetailing into my thoughts from earlier on Star Trek and if race matters in movies like this, I thought I would also like to discuss gender, […]

  2. i often wonder the same things that you pointed out here. i think it’s a tough call though meddling with iconic characters, but since (and i am by no means a trekkie) Sulu’s character doesn’t seem to reflect any specific Asian culture i don’t think it matters all that much.

    as for the avatar thing, that’s totally different because you’re taking characters who’s culture was part of the stories in an all Asian world and making them decidedly NOT Asian (but casting brown people as the “baddies,” which is the same tired racist cliche we’ve had for fucking ever).

    i refused to see Twilight. won’t read the book, won’t watch the movie. (man, i’m grumpy today).

    • I agree w/ the Sulu pick. Full disclosure: I don’t think appearances should matter so much when rebooting a popular series like this, even though I did find myself saying years ago “But he just isn’t Alec Guinness” (it was more a mannerism feeling).

      In Avatar, I fully think that b/c the source material is so dependent on Asian culture that it does matter to properly represent it in the way that it was intended. And the staff of the movie have violated both ends of what I was pondering here, by interchanging Asian people, and also whitewashing it altogether.

      As for Twilight, I am of the mind that since I have a child progressing into chapter books (she is currently reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at age 7, when I picked it from a required reading list in 8th grade) I need to be aware of what is popular among kids. I don’t want to censor her reading, so I would rather be familiar w/ it so that I can discuss it w/ her. It is what initially provoked me to read all of the Harry Potter series (which I am over the moon about), b/c a co-worker once told me that they were great books to get kids interested in reading long novels. And there sit the Twilight books, right next to where the Potter books will go if our household goods ever show up. The choice hers for the reading when she is of the appropriate ability level (which I don’t think is too far off). I would rather be able to talk about, w/ some authority, what she is seeing and reading.

  3. that’s very responsible parenting. the only children i have are of the “pet” variety so i can read or not read what i want. i will certainly change that attitude once i do have children (human ones). my parents never read what i read, and i was sort of disappointed not having anyone to talk to about the things i read. i might ruin the stories for my kid though–i’m such an elitist when it comes to writing, analyzing every bit of it. i will probably annoy the crap out of my kid.

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