Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Good Earth

I invited my mom to watch this video with me, just for some Mommy-Daughter bonding time. Two minutes into the opening credits, accompanied with the sounds of gongs a-bangin’ and zithers a-zitherin’, she gets up saying, “Honey, I really want to watch this and support you, but I can’t sit through this.” And so she leaves me for the longest 180 minutes of my life.

The film begins on "Wang Lung the Farmer's" wedding day. Wang (played by Paul Muni) is to be married to a servant woman named O-Lan (Luise Rainer) who lives and works in the city. They live out in a tumbledown shack and work in the fields together. They are very happy together, even if O-Lan barely talks. Wang Lung soon earns enough money (not sure how he does this, but whatever) to buy some more land. O-Lan gives birth to two sons, or "man-children" as they are called in the script, and a daughter, who obviously isn't loved. Then a drought strikes and Wang's plot of land dries up. They are forced to go to the city to look for work but end up begging and stealing to find food for their family. There is a riot that ends in looting at the house where O-Lan used to work at, and she gets caught up in the tides of people and then gets trampled. Then she finds a forgotten sack of jewels that give her and her family enough money to go back to their plot of land. O-Lan keeps two pearls for herself. Then the drought ends and they return to their home. Years pass and the two eldest sons (played by Roland Lui and Keye Luke) grow up and go to school. Wang Lung becomes wealthy enough to purchase the Great House (the one where O-Lan used to work and was later looted). He then goes to a local tea house and spies Lotus (played by Tilly Losch) a "sing-song" girl and promptly marries her and begins to favor her over O-Lan. Then Lotus seduces Wang's Second Son (yes, that's the character's name) and Wang throws both of them out. Soon afterwards, a swarm of locusts threaten to attack Wang Lung's fields of crops. With a plan from Elder Son and help from lots of nameless Asian extras and the wind, the crops are saved and Wang reconciles with Second Son. The film then skips forwards a few years to Elder Son's wedding night. O-Lan is sick in bed and Wang Lung realizes how foolish it was to marry Lotus. Then O-Lan dies and Wang goes outside to shout, "O-Lan! You are the earth!"

Initially, The Good Earth's intentions were to have a very respectful portrayal of China and Chinese people. The novelist, Pearl S. Buck intended for the cast to be entirely Chinese. The producer of the movie, Irving Thalberg, also wanted to have an all-Chinese cast, but he decided that American audiences were not ready for it. Oddly enough, the Chinese government threatened to not approve the film if anyone of Japanese descent was cast in the film. You can see this in the insane amounts of Asian extras and… the… who am I kidding, it didn’t end up being a very respectable movie...

Let’s talk about casting and yellowface, shall we? Cool. First off – Luise Rainer, a clearly Caucasian woman who happens to produce very Asian-looking babies is the main character and ultimately, the only one with her head screwed on straight. Rainer ended up getting an Oscar for her performance in The Good Earth the year after she won the Oscar for her performance in The Great Ziegfeld. (Two Oscars in a row! Jeepers!) There's no denying that Rainer was a spectacular actor - her facial and vocal acting are superior to anyone else in the film. However, it is how Rainer chose to portray O-Lan that really gets me. We first meet O-Lan on her wedding day to "Wang The Farmer" when she is a servant in a wealthy household in the nearby city. She is the lowliest servant and doesn't speak a single word until 20 minutes into the film. O-Lan is the subservient mother whose job description includes making babies, raising babies, cooking, cleaning, and assisting her husband in any way she can, often working in the rice paddies (which are situated on rolling hills... Did anyone check to see if that's actually how one grows rice??) and carting stuff around. She kills her newborn baby girl because there is a famine and O-Lan knows she will not be able to feed her. She constantly reminds her husband to not sell their land and she remains faithful to him, even when he takes a second wife who is a prostitute. The character of O-Lan is interesting because it does not evenly fit into one of the Asian female stereotypes. She is no dragon lady, no exotic sex appeal and not trained in martial arts. She does not fit the role of the childish and mute butterfly, bowing at the waist for every man, woman and white person that waltzes across the screen. She is depicted as being much too coarse and hardworking; however, O-Lan is the almost ideal “Oriental” wife. The only thing she lacks is sex appeal. Now this is where it gets interesting. Often times, the Asian woman will be eroticized (see later Miss Saigon, The World of Suzie Wong, Memoirs of a Geisha) to an extreme level. However, this is not the case with O-Lan. She is just portrayed as very wise, hardworking, and able to bear children without complaint. Whether this was a conscious choice of Rainer’s I have no idea. Interestingly, the film still follows the trend of desexualizing the Asian male. All of the male characters are obnoxious, gluttonous and slightly misogynistic pigs. In short, nobody is sexy in this film except for Tilly Losch's character of "Lotus the Sing Song Girl." She's so sexy she even seduces Wang the Farmer's son! (Side note: sing-song is not even a Chinese word! This term for concubines was developed in 1911 by Westerners in China...)

The role of O-Lan was originally going to go to actress Anna May Wong; however, when the male lead went to Paul Muni, anti-msfaweruuh laws decreed that Wong would not be able to portray O-Lan because the two main characters were supposed to kiss onscreen (and yet they never did in the version I watched…) and the anti-miscegenation laws under the Hays Code that was later gotten rid of. Wong was then offered the part of the "sing-song girl" and second wife to Wang the Farmer, Lotus. She turned the role down in a letter telling MGM "You're asking me - with Chinese blood - to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters." (citation) Props to Wong! Jeebus, if only there had been more like her during this "Golden Era" of Hollywood. The role of Lotus then went to Austrian-born Tilly Losch. 

Interestingly, the amount of yellowface used on O-Lan is very minimal. Again, this is the era of black and white films – the yellowing of the skin does not need to be exaggerated as much as in a color film. No prosthetics were used to slant Rainer’s eyes at all – she remains Bambi-eyed the entire film. However, prosthetics on Paul Muni’s face end up as what I wish could be laughable. At some parts, you can see the tape used to tape down his eyelids. I’m pretty sure those were not his real teeth. Losch has got almost no makeup on either - slanted eyes aside. Why is it that taping down an actor's eyelids counts as making them Asian? That implies that if we didn't have such slanty eyes, we'd look white and... more acceptable? More on this later...

Remember in Broken Blossoms how no words were said? No mixing up of the “r”s and “l”s? Welcome to the movie with talking in it. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing that both Paul Muni and Luise Rainer don’t know what a Chinese accent is. They both sound pretty Swedish or Dutch or something from Europe than anything Asian. (Isn’t generalization fun?) Losch doesn't even adopt an accent, she just draws out the vowels in all of the words she says. "Iiiiiiiiiif I pleeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaase youuuuuu?" Last time I checked, that wasn't an accent. In fact, none of the characters really had an over-exaggerated accent, it was really only the cadence of the words that passed as an accent. Interesting how the emphasis an actor will put on a word will make an "accent." I'm still unsure if this is good or bad. One stereotype that also comes into play is the notion of the laughing “Chinaman.” Indeed, Paul Muni laughs a lot. Very loud belly laughs.  Laughing because he's bathing, laughing because he's getting married, laughing because whatever he ate was delicious, laughing because of whatever. It’s a little concerning. I know a fair few Asian men (having them in your family helps), and none of them really laugh that much. Where did this stereotype of a guffawing Chinaman come from? Or was this an actually "valid" stereotype, and nowadays Asian men just don't let loose with a hearty ha-ha because they are afraid of the potential backlash? The first time I was introduced to this stereotype was when I was reading Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese, in the chapters with Chin-kee, a gross caricature of every negative stereotype you could slap on a person of Asian descent. But I digress. I'm unsure as to where this clapping and laughing portrayal of a Chinese man originated...

There's a scene where Wang is celebrating the birth of his first son and his whole extended family is, and they're singing some sort of celebratory song... that isn't even in real Chinese. Honestly, it sounds like gibberish. Methinks the director just told the actors, "Yeah, make up any noise you want, just sound uniform." Respectful representation my hat! And this is only the beginning of the numerous ching-chong slurs, even up until our time... Rosie O'Donnell, anyone?

They didn't even list Keye Luke...

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Collagin' #4


A little bit every day.

Broken Blossoms Pt. 2

I still can't really wrap my head around the insanity that is Broken Blossoms. I Googled reviews of the film and saw that Roger Ebert said this film "helped nudge a xenophobic nation toward racial tolerance." Excuse me? This film only opened the doors to the Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan and (much much later) Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon! If there was any nudging at all, it was a shove for Hollywood to monopolize yellowface and the portrayals of Asians for the next 70 years.

I wonder about the critical and public reception over Broken Blossoms as well. The novel that the movie was based on (The Chink and the Child) was actually banned from a lot of libraries based on the "scandalous" interracial relationships between the "Oriental" and the white girl, also when the presence of the Chinese (or any Asian for that matter) was hated and considered a pestilence. However, the critical reception of Burke's book was quite positive, despite the controversial subject matter. 

Everything I've found that talks about critical reception of the movie mentions the "Closet Scene," where Lillian Gish's character is hiding from her abusive father in a closet, screaming for help. Apparently, at an advanced screening, one critic had to leave the theatre after watching it and vomiting violently. Having read about the scene before I actually watched it, I was preparing myself for something awful and grotesque and capable of giving me nightmares. But no, I got a too-long, simple shot of Lillian Gish making screaming faces and turning in little circles. Hardly horrific. What's interesting to me is that I found the usage of such words as "Chink" and "Oriental" as really really horrifying. Indeed, I felt like upchucking all over the floor after seeing those words printed on the screen. It just goes to show how the notions and ideas of sensitivity have changed. When did these words become wrong, derogatory and pretty much forbidden?  I wonder if viewers back in 1919 would have been unaffected by those (now considered) derogatory words - would they have even laughed at them, or just acknowledged them as everyday phrases, a "then-modern" slang? And with the "Closet Scene?" I have watched it twice now, and I still feel unattached and almost as if I'm watching something mildly interesting on daytime TV. Granted, Lillian Gish's face is slightly unsettling - but not to the point where I'm sick to my stomach. I imagine that audiences flocked to the theatres for Lillian Gish, after seeing her in Birth of a Nation - essentially, they didn't go see the movie because they either condemned or celebrated interracial love stories. They went because of the two leading roles, occupied by white stars. I wonder if the usage of the derogatory words in the script had any affect on the people watching - if it was, was the excuse that it was Hollywood, and Hollywood could do whatever they wanted? Did this kind of film validate the awful stereotyping that Asians and Asian-Americans would continue to feel, even today? It is interesting that I am more sensitive to a few words on the screen instead of a scene of child abuse. Is this a case of hyper-sensitivity and looking for racism? Or is this just a different mindset from the intended audience? Interesting that the film itself has not changed over the past (almost) 100 years (yowza), but it's meaning and intent has warped itself as the years go by and as sensitivity evolves. 

My mentor/advisor/teacher Giselle Chow and I were also discussing the "model minority" stereotype and it's possible connection with Broken Blossoms. At first, it's quite possible to dismiss any connection between the current model minority stereotype and "The Yellow Man" in D. W. Griffith's film. The model minority stereotype didn't even really come into being until the 1960s - up until then, "Orientals" were shown to be lecherous, demonic, slanty-eyed laundrymen who killed people with hatchets and threatened to invade and infiltrate white American society. However, "The Yellow Man's" story (until he falls in love with the girl) is an interesting reflection of the most basic part of the model minority stereotype - success. Opium and loving 15 year olds aside, "The Yellow Man" has success in his economic venture - he runs a small curio shop, does well with his small business and maintains pretty good connections with his white customers. He did not rely on anyone for help or funds or anything - his moderate success is indicative of the whole "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps." Even the subservience of "The Yellow Man's" character and how he dutifully gives the right amount of change, and bows people out of his shop shows a potential model minority stereotype brewing. True, he never attends any school or scores 100,000,000 on the SAT or wins a school spelling bee - but the seed of the silent, subservient, successful Asian was most likely planted in movies like this, whether it was intentional or not. What is interesting to note is that this model minority makes the wrong move by falling in love with a white girl - and ends up paying for his mistake with his life. 

To be continued...