[Summary: Are films and shows colour blind at last?]
I was intrigued by the recent furore over the casting of Chinese actors in Memoirs of a Geisha. The argument went something like this: the story is about a geisha in Japan and a geisha is a particularly Japanese construct so the actors should be Japanese. Our very own Malaysian superstar, Michelle Yeoh was grilled in many interviews about this. Her response, quoted in many publications, was that no-one complains when Americans play Germans or Brits play Italians. Indeed, Meryl Streep has played just about every Caucasion nationality under the sun. Though, to be fair to those who criticised Geisha, Meryl never has tried to play an Oriental. (Fortunately, the custom of white actors "blacking" up to play black or other non-white characters is now very much unacceptable.)
A website that's been around for awhile came to prominence during this controversy. Set up by Dyske Suematsu, an Asian-American, it asks: do all Japanese, Chinese and Koreans look the same - as some Westerners might say. You can do an online quiz and see your results instantaneously. I thought I would be pretty good at telling each of these groups apart but scored only about half! It's fun and challenges one to really look at one's preconceptions about racial stereotypes. Have a look at it at www.alllooksame.com.
Looking beyond stereotypes in the movies, it has been heartening to see Oriental actors taking on more and more mainstream roles where the emphasis has not been on kung-fu high kicks or hard-done-by bound-feet woman. Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan have been significant in raising the profile of Chinese actors on the international screen. But Chow Yan-Fat has taken things to the next level, playing in thrillers where he's more comfortable wielding a gun than high-kicking (The Replacement Killer) and in romantic movies as the male lead (Anna and the King). He is tall for a Chinese man and that probably helps get him into the A-list! Ling in the Ally MacBeal series, as played by Lucy Liu, is fascinating and charismatic for being tough, sexy, and smart - not for being Chinese. The role had been written as a minor part without race in mind and when Liu auditioned, she was so good, they hired her long term and expanded the character.
In Under a Tuscan Sun, we notice Sandra Oh as the heroine's best friend - it's great to see an Oriental in a regular role in a regular drama where all the characters could just as easily be Caucasian. And oh yes, her character is also lesbian. The beauty of this subtle film is that it just takes all that in its stride and what shines through is the friendship between the characters. On her website www.sandraoh.com, the Canadian actress is quoted as saying, "If there's another f@*#^*g show or movie about New York and everyone's white, I'm gonna f*#@!*g die. That is so unacceptable."
On the UK stage recently, a young Chinese lad, Matthew Koon made history as the first Chinese Billy Elliot. An Asian and a black boy have also got the lead role in this musical, based on the film. The director of the show is quoted as saying that it was important to him to be colour blind in casting for the role - what mattered was the talent of the boys. In Malaysia, of course, stage productions of Western dramsa have always had a mix of races in the cast, reflecting the ethnic mix of the country so this news may not be such a big deal in that context. But in the UK, I feel that this is a huge leap forward for a Britain moving towards an acceptance of itself as a multi-cultural country.
And to really befuddle us all, the recent movie TransAmerica has a woman, Felicity Huffman, playing a man who wants to be a woman. In a now infamous scene, the actress wears prosthetic male genitals in her role as the man who would rather not have those genitals. Now how confusing is that?
But all this just goes to show that we really all look the same - Caucasian or Asian/ Oriental; male or female. What looks the same under all the stereotyping and outward accessories of gender is a common humanity and these films and shows challenge us to go beyond first impressions to look at the person before us. So in years to come, when my hair goes completely white, I shall not wear purple - as the poem goes - but I shall become blonde and no-one had better dare say that I look weird.
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