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Wednesday 21 March 2018

Wash this space: 'I'm sorry for participating in a shoot that wasn't culturally senstive'

New Hollywood films suggest whitewashing, a non-PC norm last century, is still rampant as Caucasians are being cast in traditionally Asian roles
Embracing her inner cyborg: Scarlett Johannson as Major in Ghost in the Shell
Embracing her inner cyborg: Scarlett Johannson as Major in Ghost in the Shell
The charactor in the 1995 film, based on the Manga novel animated Major in Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow
Orphan hero: Finn Jones in Iron Fist

Gillian Tsoi

Growing up, I loved musicals, and one of my favourites was The King and I - the 1956 adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's play about an English widow who moves to Siam (now Thailand) to work as a teacher for the family of King Mongkut.

I was enthralled by the Technicolor extravaganza - the romantic storyline, the classic tunes, the beautiful, elaborate dresses worn by stunning leading lady Deborah Kerr. I watched the movie over and over again. I could sing the tunes off by heart, and so could my dad, who introduced me to the film. He's from Hong Kong.

Reminiscing now, I realise that I always had a vague sense that something wasn't quite right about the movie - something didn't fit. And if I think about it a little harder, I realise that even as an eight-year-old kid, I was probably aware that that 'something' was Yul Brynner, who played the stern, but ultimately warm-hearted, Siamese king.

Brynner is a Russian-born Swiss actor. And white.

The King and I was a runaway success, both commercially and critically. It was nominated for nine Oscars and won five of those - including the Best Actor accolade, which went to Brynner. And there's no doubt that he played the role brilliantly, but there's also no doubt that an Asian actor could have done the job just as well. Would it have been more appropriate to cast someone of the correct ethnicity? I say yes. Would the film have been just as popular if this was the case? Maybe.

I remember my dad looked on at this 'whitewashing' with mild amusement - like it was such a silly thing for the producers to do. And I think his amusement was owed to the fact that the movie was made in the non-politically correct Fifties, when racism was more accepted.

But, here's the thing: this whitewashing is still rampant in Hollywood today. And in the 21st century, that's no laughing matter.

A study conducted by the University of Southern California, between 2007 and 2015, found that during that time, there was a mere 3.9pc increase in the number of Asian characters in Hollywood's most popular films. And another study from the same university revealed Asian actors accounted for only 5.1pc of speaking or named roles in 2014. This under-representation of Asian actors on screen is very much in the spotlight this week with the release of Ghost in the Shell, the multimillion dollar adaptation of sci-fi Manga sensation, Mobile Armored Riot Police, written and illustrated by Masamune Shirow.

In its initial form, the 'cyberpunk' story is very much an Eastern affair - set in a Hong Kong-esque metropolis, the female protagonist, a cyborg named Major Motoko Kusanagi, was originally written as Asian and traditionally played by Asian actors. But, in Tinseltown's most recent version, the heroine is played by Scarlett Johannson.

The backlash against this controversial casting decision was exacerbated by the revelation that instead of hiring actual Asian actors, Paramount Pictures experimented with CGI to make white cast members appear more Asian.

"A test was done related to a specific scene for a background actor which was ultimately discarded," the studio admitted. Defending her role, Johannson said this week: "I would never attempt to play a person of a different race... any question that comes up of my casting will hopefully be answered by audiences when they see the film." I haven't seen the movie, but when I laid eyes on part-Danish American actor Johannson doing her best impression of an Asian person on the billboard, the Asian half of my heart sank a little. Like Yul Brynner, she just doesn't quite fit.

There are numerous Hollywood examples of this whitewashing theme: another Manga creation, the forthcoming series Death Note (set for release in August) was originally created by Tsugumi Ohba. It tells the story of a student who finds a supernatural notebook which gives him the power to kill anyone.

For the updated Netflix version, the name of said hero, 'Light Yagami', has been changed to 'Light Turner', and the role has been filled by Fault In Our Stars actor, Nat Wolff, who is very much non-Asian.

The whitewashing of Death Note has spurred an online petition which has already amassed 12,000 signatures.

Meanwhile, another Netflix production, Iron Fist, came under fire on its release earlier this month for its white-saviour overtures. Based on a Marvel comic book, the series focuses on orphan hero, Danny Rand, a white protagonist who masters martial arts while being raised by monks in a mystical Asian city.

Rand was written as white, and Game of Thrones actor Finn Jones was cast in the leading role. However, many believe it would have been more appropriate if the character was rewritten as Asian-American in its modern incarnation.

Speaking of Iron Fist critics, the comic's co-creator Roy Thomas said he had "little patience for the backlash" and tries "not to think about it too much".

"It's just an adventure story. Don't these people have something better to do than to worry about the fact that Iron Fist isn't Oriental, or whatever word? I know Oriental isn't the right word now, either," he has said.

Asian-American actor, Jessica Henwick, who plays Colleen Wing in Iron Fist, put it perfectly in a reactionary tweet: "Oriental is a term used to describe rugs, not people." FYI, Iron Fist is the worst performing Netflix and Marvel collaboration so far.

The Great Wall - an action movie about a European warrior in China during the Song Dynasty - was another production lambasted for its 'white saviour' subtext.

Actor Constance Wu (star of Fresh Off the Boat) criticised the casting of Matt Damon in the leading role, tweeting: "We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that a only (sic) white man can save the world."

Damon insisted the part was always intended for a European actor and the cast felt "wounded" by the criticisms and referred to the white-washing controversy surrounding the film as a "f**king bummer".

The fact that The Great Wall bombed did nothing to raise his spirits, I'm sure.

Sadly, Hollywood's whitewashing is being paralleled in the fashion industry: model Karlie Kloss recently apologised for posing as a geisha in US Vogue's 'diversity issue'.

"These images appropriate a culture that is not my own and I am truly sorry for participating in a shoot that was not culturally sensitive," Kloss (24) tweeted.

The question must be asked: what message is the lack of cultural diversity on screen, and in the wider media, sending out to young Asian people today?

Not white enough, not good enough, is the answer.

I have no doubt that this ubiquitous whitewashing and cultural appropriation is leaving young Asian people virtually devoid of role models in mainstream movies; I have no doubt it's leaving them somewhat 'wounded'.

And in my opinion, that is the real 'f**king bummer' in all of this.

Irish Independent

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