My filmmaker friend Ringo and I just came back from a screening of Luc Besson’s latest opus The Lady with Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis and we got into a heated debate about the movie and essentially the beauty of cinema and representing Asia. I was quite excited about the screening as I love Luc Besson, Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis… but sitting through the 127 minutes movie about the story of pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and her professor husband Michael Aris proved slightly underwhelming.
“But you gotta give it credit that it’s an Asian movie trying to be an Oscar contender,” said Ringo. “I like the movie because it’s really trying to tell an untold Asian story to the global audience.”
“I know it’s a meaningful movie,” I said, “And I adore Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis but I was just kind of not feeling the chemistry between the characters. We saw so many public speeches and glamorous moments of Aung San Suu Kyi, which were beautifully shot, but I didn’t get any insight into her as a person and why she was fighting for her country. I saw all the results of her accomplishments but didn’t see those beautiful and painful personal moments that made her who she was.”
I know I am being gay and superficial but I did not see one attractive Burmese represented in the movie. Toward the end of the movie, they were intercutting documentary TV footage of the real monks with footage of the monk extras marching to Aung’s house. The real monks in the television documentary footage appeared younger and hotter than the monk extras.
“Couldn’t we see some attractive Burmese people in the movie? Every Burmese looked so… unaesthetic… especially considering what a stylist Luc Besson was.”
“But maybe that’s the point,” said Ringo. “He wanted to portray Burma realistically. Burma was going through a very terrifying time.”
That brought me back to my memory of watching the first film that drew me to Asian cinema when I was a freshman at Berkeley. It was Thanksgiving and my dorm roommates were out of town. I rented a VHS copy of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and watched it alone in my dorm room. I was completely blown away by how Bertolucci portrayed China and the Chinese to be so beautiful, glorious and stylish. I immediately fell in love with John Lone, Vivian Wu and Joan Chen who ironically were never nominated for an Oscar that year for that very Oscar winning film.
Because of The Last Emperor, I returned to Hong Kong that Christmas and started asking my filmmaker friend Anthony what good Hong Kong films he would recommend to watch. He told me to see Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild. I hunted down the VHS and watched it.
Days of Being Wild blew me away because I had never seen Hong Kong portrayed so beautifully, stylishly and nostalgically in cinema after having grown up in Hong Kong for over sixteen years of my life.
If there were a Birth of a Nation for Asians, it would have to be The Year of the Dragon which drew worldwide protests against the movie for its negative representation of Chinese Americans in New York Chinatown. I was back in Hong Kong and heard John Lone being interviewed on radio and arguing against the protesters, “But if you visit Chinatown in New York, it’s really that dirty and gross. It’s the reality.”
I understand what Michael Cimino was going for with The Year of the Dragon. He was essentially remaking Deer Hunter in America. It’s the war against the other within America. It’s the Vietnam War in America. But unfortunately that concept of the war against the other also erases the Asian Americans cinematically in the film. My main protest against the movie would be that he cast every Asian gangster and extra as unattractive as possible so that when they get shot or killed the audience will not have any sympathy for them.
Seriously, have you seen any attractive Viet Cong in American movies?
It’s the politics of aesthetics, and cinema is about beauty and aesthetics. And really, it’s the filmmaker and the artist’s job to find beauty in the subject matter and the characters that s/he is portraying.
Danny Boyle found beauty and humor even when these Indian kids were wallowing in turd in Slumdog Milionaire and Mira Nair captured the beauty of India even in the slums of underprivileged kids in Salaam Bombay. In cinema, I think we have to find that beauty, or perhaps that compelling perspective, otherwise it can easily become drab or unengaging.