Wednesday, March 15, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—The Slanted Screen: An Evening Class Interview With Jeff Adachi

The Slanted Screen's official website is a treasure trove of information, including a trailer for the film, a synopsis written by Antony Bolante, subject profiles of individuals interviewed in the documentary, a screening calendar, educational resource materials, bios on the filmmakers, in-depth reviews and interviews, and contact information!! The graphics alone are a brilliant amplification of an already-brilliant documentary. (I am fascinated by the Yellow Claw comic book covers on the contacts page!)

US Asians interviewed Jeff Adachi earlier this month and Susan Gerhard followed through with her own SF360 interview for the San Francisco Film Society. Their interviews deftly cover the making of the documentary and provide excellent background information. They left me free not to have to repeat those questions when I approached Jeff Adachi for an interview, allowing me the luxury of pursuing personal concerns.
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EC: Mr. Adachi, I hope you intuit that I approach The Slanted Screen in complete solidarity. I've already written that—as a fair-skinned Chicano with Asiatic features—I have been mistaken as Asian-American and have experienced not only the prejudice aimed against Asian-American males, but the frustration of being an actor of ethnicity in search of appropriate roles. Your documentary made me uncomfortably aware that I have played "yellowface" in at least three theatrical productions, but absolved me at the same time as you indicated that Sessue Hayakawa played "brownface." I was wondering if you knew of any other cinematic examples of Asian-Americans playing "brownface" and if you could speak to the necessity of "ethnic borrowing" for young actors of color? Is this past practice no longer ethically viable?

JA: The issue of actors of one particular ethnic background playing another recently surfaced with the controversy concerning Chinese actors such as Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li, all famous actors in their own right, chosen to play Japanese characters. Many people expressed outrage at this choice. Are they right? Should only Japanese actors play Japanese roles? There is something that is disturbing about this type of reasoning, but it doesn't really lead to any kind of consistency in our beliefs. Should ethnic actors be allowed to play roles outside their ethnic background, yet Caucasian actors be forbidden? These are the questions that still need to be answered. I think it depends on the context in which the role occurs. Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon playing an Asian in yellowface was a no-no, just as Al Jolson was criticized for his portrayal of black slaves. I don't think that Fu Man Chu would be acceptable even if he were played by an Asian. Ultimately, as a society, we are not at a place where we are free to depict other ethnic groups in any way we wish and not face the consequences of reprisal. It's because racism and discrimination run deep, and these kind of portrayals are a reminder of the oppressive images we have seen in the past.

EC: You profiled the 21 Jump Street storyline of Ioki's past and escape from Vietnam, and his American alias as a Chinese-American. As an Asian-American actor, is any Asian role fair game? Are there any discriminations that young Asian-American actors should use here?

JA: He was actually initially presented as a Japanese American, and it was later revealed that he had accepted the identity of a Japanese baby to hide his roots in Vietnam. I don't think anyone had a problem with Dustin Nguyen playing a Japanese American. I think it's because he did it well, and people felt that as an actor, he was playing a Japanese American as he should be played. That does count for something. Now, if Dustin Nguyen played the Japanese character like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, then yes, I think people would have a problem with it.

EC: So if it becomes politically incorrect for one actor to portray or represent an ethnicity not their own (blackface, yellowface, brownface, or even whiteface) or questionably incorrect for Vietnamese to act like Chinese or Japanese, is there not a great danger of this historical project of ethnic reclamation leading to a cul de sac? I'm a great fan of the work of Guillermo Gomez-Peña who challenges the future efficacy of identity politics by asking where you would place a child with a Dominican father and a Korean mother? Would that child be Black, Latino or Asian? Would you have any issue with that child claiming multiple ethnic cinematic histories? For myself, I feel it requisite to have both The Slanted Screen and The Bronze Screen on my viewing shelf. They both speak to me uniquely. What is your hope that by focusing on the ethnic specificity of Asian-American males it lends to a future of a more ethnically-blended multiculturalism?

JA: The fact is that each ethnic minority group has faced a unique history of oppression and discrimination. To say that one group's discrimination is greater or lesser than another, or is more or less justified serves no purpose. We need to take a greater interest in how these images affect us as a people. What do we think about Muslims or Middle-eastern people who are portrayed as terrorists or killers? Is that accurate or is that just Hollywood finding a convenient scapegoat? What we can learn from each other's history is that the common denominator, so to speak, is that these images perpetuate stereotypes for a reason—to disempower a group of people. It is true that these distinctions may one day no longer exist, and that the multi-cultural blend of peoples will someday make us indistinguishable from one another. But that certainly isn't the case now. So we have to continue to ensure that each new generation knows the history of struggle that has created the opportunities they now enjoy.

EC: Which leads me to ask the obvious, of course. Why did you not speak to the experience of Asian-American women? The Celluloid Closet did this for lesbians. The Bronze Screen did this for Latinas. What was particular to your experience that you felt compelled to narrow the focus down to one gender with hardly a mention of the efforts of Asian-American actresses?

JA: There's a film by Debbie Gee called Slaying the Dragon, produced in the 1980's, that dealt specifically with Asian American women. I set out to make a film about Asian American men. I think that it's important to recognize that Asian American men have been treated differently than Asian American women. It's not to say that Asian American women have had an easier time—they haven't. In many ways, they have had to fight harder to transcend the "dragon lady," or "submissive" stereotype that still exists today. But that's the subject of another film.

EC: My last, and hopefully final, "yellowface" role was of a Japanese-American in a Chinese playwright's script, The Nanjing Race. As I've written, I accepted the role under pressure of a director friend who could not find an Asian-American actor to accept the part. Though hard for me to understand at the time, I could believe it because the character was queer and the production was being mounted by a reputably queer theater group, The New Conservatory Theater. Robert Wu, a Chinese-American actor from the Bay Area, agreed to play a Chinese character seduced by a traveling Japanese-American. The tension between China and Japan was inflected through this homoerotic dynamic. Robert, however, who excelled in the role and won much acclaim among Bay Area critics, was straight, and confided to me that it had taken much soul searching on his part to get involved with the project. Certain friends felt it could hazard his career. His take was that the role was so good and the opportunities for such a good role so rare that he really had no choice but to accept it. Of course I'm delighted he did because his performance made the production succeed. But it made me wonder, of course, about the role, my role, that no Asian-American would accept. Since Asian-American actors have frequently been desexualized and demasculinized in cinema, do you think queer roles prove dangerous because they double the equation and, in fact, double the shadow?

JA: Acting is acting. Should Ang Lee have chosen homosexual actors to play the leads in Brokeback Mountain? Not necessarily. A [play] like The Nanjing Race, is no different. Who is best for the role and can represent the character with the most integrity and honesty? It's not all about genetic make-up. But there are many people who could play a particular role—it's about having an open mind as to who you will consider casting for the role.

EC: Continuing on that theme: One of your childhood favorites was George Takei of Star Trek fame. Recently Takei has come out as "gay" and has also received some criticism from the queer press for not doing so sooner when it might have made a real difference and when it was not on the coat tails of what some might term a currently-popular "gay" chic. My take is it would probably have destroyed his fledgling career had he done so and that each man owes himself a little discretion, to paraphrase Freud. Any thoughts on whether Asian and Queer can succeed as a unified personality on screen? Or behind the camera, such as with Araki?

JA: Coming out is a personal decision. I've always believed this. It took a lot of courage for George to do what he did. Is it right for everyone? No. Everyone is entitled to make their own decision. As for whether it matters, the answer is no. Look at Quentin Lee's recent offering, Ethan Mao, about a gay Asian man who is kicked out of his house because he's gay and then kidnaps his family on Thanksgiving? Yet it is an important film because it tells the story in a way that it's just about people in conflict with one another. The fact that he is gay is not the central story line.

EC: Returning to reminisces of my actor friend Robert Wu, I remember him comforting me about playing a morally bankrupt character who no one could really like; in other words, a villain. I explained that my entire theatrical career had been a sequence of bad guys. Robert, hungry for a career in Los Angeles, said I should count my blessings. That if I were typecast as a villain it would only mean I would always have a job. It really bothered me that he said that. But, of course, just having a job isn't totally what acting is about, is it? Is being a villain ever the same as being a star? And by giving in to such typecasting as an actor, are you not perpetuating ethnic stereotypes? What determines the difference? When can an Asian-American actor play the villain and not have it be a slur against his own ethnicity?

JA: In our film, Mako, who has appeared in over 90 films, says that he will not take stereotypic roles and gives the same advice to actors. At the same time, you have to eat and survive and act. So sometimes you have to do the role that you don't want to do. You might be criticized by the Asian community, and that's the dilemma. But you have to be true to yourself, and that's what Mako recommends.

EC: Finally, there's no way that you can make a documentary of this sort and include everyone. Off the top of my head, I was very surprised not to see B.D. Wong represented. Or John Lone. And when you were discussing how ethnicity in and of itself represents what is villainous and yet attractive about the Other, I was surprised you did not mention Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages of a Virgin's Diary where the Count was personified erotically at his most Asian. Are there personages you regret not including? Personages you wish others would pick up the cue and profile?

JA: B.D. Wong and John Lone are great actors. We had a scene with John Lone in our film originally but it didn't work. I would have loved to include B.D. Wong, but couldn't afford to shoot in New York. The film I made was not meant as a historical landscape of every Asian actor—it was intended to give people a representation of actors of different times and generations and what they had to go through. I do regret not interviewing Pat Morita before he passed last November. He would have been a wonderful person to include.

EC: Thank you so much for taking the time to consider these questions. I look forward to the panel discussion after your first screening and at the Q&A after your second. Enjoy the festival!