A few months ago in honor of the series finale of the TV show Lost, Offender David and I paid tribute to the characters of Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun (Yunjin Kim) by imagining them as the leads of some of the most romantic films of the past (see post here). One of my choices was the 1942 classic Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and I wanted to expand on that idea here.
If you’ve never seen Casablanca (and if you haven’t, I strongly suggest you do so immediately), it’s the story of American ex-pat Rick (Bogart) who runs a bar in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during the height of World War II. Rick’s a loner who doesn’t seem to care about anyone but himself. That is until the day when she walks into his gin joint—his former love Ilsa (Bergman)—the woman who broke his heart when she left him without any explanation. She’s arrived with her husband who is an Allied resistance leader and Rick is the only one who can obtain the transit papers they need to escape to America before the Nazis close in on them. Rick is forced to choose between the woman he still loves (and who still loves him) and the greater cause.
The idea I proposed for the “Asian Casablanca” in my previous blog was to keep the World War II setting but move the action to Shanghai, which may have been the most global, cosmopolitan city in Asia during this time. Rick is now a Korean ex-pat running a bar in the city. Ilsa is his former love also from Korea who walks into Rick’s gin joint with her husband—a Korean resistance fighter on the run from the Japanese Imperial Army (Korea was under Japanese colonial rule). They need the transit papers that only Rick can get in order to escape to America to join the Korean American community there working to win freedom for Korea.
I still stand by my idea, but there is one thing I would now change: I would make the two leads Asian American, not Asian. Here’s how my new story would work: There were already a handful of Koreans in the United States in the 19th Century, but the first real wave of immigrants came at the dawn of the 20th Century. Some of them came to find work, but many were also fleeing from Japanese oppression. Rick’s parents could have been a part of that first wave and he was born in the U.S. shortly afterwards. He grows up and meets fellow Korean American Ilsa and the two fall in love before she abruptly leaves him one day.
Heartbroken, Rick moves to Shanghai where a friend has asked him to run a bar (The Cafe American, in a nod to the original). Rick’s friend and partner, the piano-playing Sam (as in “Play it again, Sam”—a line actually never uttered in the film) could still be African American as in the original. A little known fact about Shanghai during this period was how welcoming the community was toward African American musicians because they loved jazz so much. Black musicians in America were treated like second-class citizens, but in Shanghai, they were celebrities—money, mansions, girls—the world was at their beck and call. Unfortunately, when the Japanese occupation began, the Imperial Army targeted these musicians—they broke the fingers of piano players, smashed the mouths of horn players and did other awful things to them so they couldn’t perform anymore.
It’s on the eve of the Japanese occupation when Ilsa and her husband enter Rick’s bar. As in the original Casablanca, Rick learns that during the time he was with Ilsa, she was already “secretly” married, in this case to the aforementioned Korean resistance fighter. She left Rick to join her husband because she had received news he had been captured in Korea by the Japanese. She is able to help her husband escape to Shanghai but now they need Rick’s help to make it back to America.
I can’t recall who said it, but I remember reading a quote years ago from an African American writer who stated that there was no better genre than the love story to fully show blacks as three-dimensional human characters because love was the one thing that everyone could relate to or identify with. With that in mind, when it comes to American movies, we have yet to produce the great Asian American love story–a film with two Asian Americans as the romantic leads that would allow them to exist as those three-dimensional human characters. And no, the bromance of Harold and Kumar doesn’t count.
And what constitutes a great love story? For me, most of the truly great love stories aren’t really about love. They’re actually about sacrifice and loss. Whether it’s Romeo and Juliet or Titanic, what makes these stories resonate so deeply with audiences is that love and sacrifice and loss are all intertwined together into one complex tapestry of emotions.
That’s certainly true of Casablanca and that’s what I believe makes it the greatest cinematic love story ever produced. If Rick had decided to run off with Ilsa at the end of the film, I don’t think it would have been the classic it is today. It’s because Rick makes the ultimate sacrifice to give up the woman he loves for the right reasons that makes the film extremely moving. At its heart, Casablanca is all about sacrifice and loss. And with our rocky immigrant history and dark marks like the internment of Japanese American in WWII, those are two things Asian Americans should know intimately.
(Photoshop courtesy of Offender David)