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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Last Drift King

It's not like I'm a connaisseur of fast cars or leggy women. I sure didn't know how to drift or even what drifting was until the previews for this movie came out. Nonetheless, like virtually every politicized Asian American talking head, I went out to see 3Fast3Furious -- err, I mean, Fast and the Furious 3: Tokyo Drift -- for one reason and one reason alone: Justin Lin. Justin Lin quickly turned heads in 2003 with his indie film Better Luck Tomorrow which took the Asian American community and independent movie circuits by storm. I remember attending ECAASU2002, where I first heard about BLT (as the movie is affectionately known in Asian American circles) and this witty young director who had nearly bankrupted himself making it. I ended up seeing the film three times in theatres, now own the DVD, and an autographed soundtrack. Sure, the film wasn't without its flaws (re: Stephanie's character, or lack thereof), but Justin Lin proved to the Asian American community and the independent movie circles that a smart movie can be made starring an entirely Asian American cast -- and that movie would sell. Since BLT, the Asian American community has been waiting with bated breath for Justin Lin to do it again. After Annapolis (not only did I not even know Lin had directed this, but I missed its run in theatres and the new release wall at Hollywood Video entirely), Lin made headlines when he inexplicably agreed to do 3Fast3Furious. A Fast and the Furious franchise? Set in Japan and focusing on the world of underground racing amidst yakuza and Japanese schoolgirls? Had Lin lost his mind? Had the glamour and appeal of Hollywood glitterati gone to his head? Had the man, Heaven forbid, sold out? I watched the preview and shuddered, but, I was also morbidly curious; if this was going to be Justin Lin's speeding Porche Spyder, I was going to be there to rubberneck. So, not without a certain amount of trepidation, yesterday I went to see 3Fast3Furious (matinee showing, student price). And, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. *warning, spoilers* The film isn't without it's problems. Lucas Black as the "charismatic as a brickwall" protagonist, Sean Boswell, is about as dull as they really get. Sporting an inexplicable Southern drawl (electroman pointed out that this is Black's natural form of speech, but neither of Sean's parents in the film speak with an accent, so it ends up creating a dissonance in the viewer's mind), the film is basically the same, re-done storyline that we saw in The Last Samurai and the Karate Kid: White boy is troubled, White boy meets Asian mentor, White boy becomes immersed in Asian culture, White boy falls in love with two-dimensional Asian girl, White boy becomes master of Asian culture and becomes touted as said master when he beats previously reigning Asian champion in a dastardly duel to the death, White boy gets Asian girl, White boy lives happily ever after. And of course, no Fast and the Furious franchise would be complete without a fast-talkin', shuckin' n' jivin', happy-go-lucky Black sidekick/comic relief here portrayed by BowWow (still looking ever-so-'Lil) as the ineptly named 'Twink', who, disappointingly, spends his time selling stolen goods and trying to mack on Asian women. We follow Sean's story as he is "exiled" from America by a mother tired of the messes Sean gets himself into with his love of street racing. Rather than go to juvie (is it really so good to be White?), Sean is sent to live with his father, an Army man stationed in Tokyo, Japan. There, Sean discovers the world of drifting, and discovers that he sucks at it. He also develops a thing for Neela (newcomer Nathalie Kelley), girlfriend to DK, aka the Drift King, the best drifter there ever was and nephew to the scariest Yakuza man there ever was (okay, not really) and sporter of the second worst haircut there ever was (surpassed only by his second-in-command, the quintessential emasculated Asian man, Pinkie (Koji Kataoka)). Fortunately, Sean is taken under the wing of Ken Watanabe playing a retired kung-fu master named Mr. Miyagi -- err, I mean -- a laidback, wise, semi-retired drifter named Han (exceptionally played by Sung Kang, possibly reprising his same character in Better Luck Tomorrow), an ex-patriated Asian American escaping the law of America by settling in Japan. In Tokyo, Han runs the largest garage there ever was (chock full of half-naked Japanese women, because, who can fix cars without them?) and shakes up local businesses for money for DK and the yakuza. Han is a lonely character who seems to have found himself lonely at the top, and wishes to share the seat with his friend and mentee Sean, eventually taking him on as a wheelman and student of life. In exchange, Han teaches Sean to drift, and eventually, the student surpasses the master when Sean - no surprise - beats DK in a dastardly duel of drifting (in a car that I could only describe as the Reverse-Twinkie-mobile) and becomes the new reigning DK. He also gets the DK arm accessory, Neela -- and all the White boys in the audience felt gratified. So, why was I pleasantly surprised? Because, as horrible as this film sounds, Justin Lin managed to make what would have been a travesty of film into something watchable and, dare I say, entertaining. Ultimately, this film lives up to the metaphor of drifting: though it's a car swerving dangerously, Lin manages to wrestle it into a controlled spin. Prior to the release of this film, Justin Lin did some interviews in which he described the making of 3Fast3Furious. It turns out that before Lin became attached to the project, the film was going to be Lost in Translation meets some really fast cars. When Lin was approached, he signed on only under the condition that he would take all the racist crap out and "make the movie he wanted". 3Fast3Furious was the compromise. Initially, Lin wanted to make Black's character an Asian American. He says he canvassed the field across the nation and the world and ended up choosing Black for reasons unknown. Next, it was Lin who actually wrote the character of Han into the script, insisting that Sung Kang play the role. Han's character, according to the article, ended up being a favourite amongst focus groups, and he truly made the movie enjoyable for me. I can applaud these efforts by Lin, although I wish he had ultimately cast someone -- nay, anyone else -- in the role of Sean. Lin's third dictum was that the role of Neela would not be played by a generic Japanese woman. Instead, Lin cast Nathalie Kelley whose character was, I think, intended to be either Asian Indian or biracially Asian Indian and possibly White (electroman and I debated as to whether her absentee father was intended to be an American serviceman, sort of as a reference to the number of American servicemen who impregnated Asian women and left to return home to their White families). Whether Lin chose Kelley because she truly did audition the best, or because Asian Indian was the compromise they reached when Lin said "no Japanese girl" and the producers said "yes exotic girl", although it's nice that the White protagonist doesn't conquer both Japanese driving and Japanese women, it's not a far cry to match White male Sean with a woman who is still, for all intents and purposes, Asian. In fact, the entire character of Neela is troublesome; her only purpose is to stir up pedophilic thoughts in her schoolgirl outfit and attach herself to the reigning DK -- and the political message sent when the Asian girl flees from the abusive Asian man into the arms of the gentle, loving, ever-so-much-more-masculine White man is everpresent. I think Lin is really shaping up to be the Asian American filmmaker to watch. Although, like other saavy filmmakers of colour (for example, Spike Lee), Lin seems to have a problem with misogyny in their films (Lin seems to focus too heavily on the Asian American male experience, to the detriment of the Asian/Asian American female characters). After all, the first Asian female character seen in 3Fast3Furious is a Japanese prostitute with oral herpes, lipstick freshly smudged after an encounter with Sean's father. Other Japanese women are either comedic caricatures of Japanese schoolteachers or sexy bombshells whose entire purpose is to be the starting piston at the underground races. Still, Lin is doing an exceptional job in making sure Asians are at least partially well-represented in Hollywood. Lin also follows in the footsteps of a director like Spike Lee by using his "sellout films" to cast lesser known actors from within the community to boost their careers; Spike helped out Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and a host of other Black actors make their names, and in 3Fast3Furious, not only did Lin push for the casting of Sung Kang, but also cast Jason Tobin from BLT in the film as minor character, Earl. Lin has shown that he's not merely an independent filmmaker, but a director capable of producing a high-selling blockbuster (3Fast3Furious took in $23 million this week, third under Cars and Nacho Libre). He's made his "sellout movie"; let's hope that he follows in the mold of predecessor John Singleton (director of 2Fast2Furious) and use the clout earned by Tokyo Drift to write his own ticket and make an actual good movie (or at least, that was Singleton's intention -- he has yet to actually said movie, and no, Luke Cage will not count). In a previous debate on this blog, the question was posed as to how best Asians could approach the issue of misrepresentation in mainstream media: should we canvas White Hollywood to change its treatment of our community or should we invest in making our own media? I think Lin demonstrates that it's quite possible to interject ourselves into traditionally White Hollywood and affect some change from within. Still, we cannot expect the perfect final product; 3Fast3Furious is still a far cry from BLT, and ultimately, if we're expecting the film we want, we will have to make it ourselves. Cross-Posted: Asian Pacific Americans for Progress

13 Comments:

Anonymous Sickofhypocrites said...

"Lin seems to have a problem with misogyny in their films (Lin seems to focus too heavily on the Asian American male experience, to the detriment of the Asian/Asian American female characters)"

Hold on, lemme get this straight: he's "having a problem with misogyny" because he's focusing on Asian American men? Considering no one else is, and everyone and their mother is casting Asian American women in "normal" roles, I'd call that "balancing the scales," rather than hyperbolizing it like you are. Then again, you're a misandrist, an auto-racist and a hypocrite with an agenda, so it's not really a surprise you'd go off the deep end with such hyperbole, now, is it?

6/22/2006 01:47:00 AM  
Anonymous nonwhiteperson said...

BLT has one female role and it was a stereotypical female role. Tokyo Drift has stereotypical, degrading female roles.

Mainstream Hollywood sells whatever bodies they can sell in the capitalist marketplace. Both Asian men and women have taken whatever roles they could get including stereotypically degrading ones.

What movies have been made by Asian women? Saving Face and there were no degrading male roles in it so women have outclassed the men.

6/22/2006 03:16:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

"Then again, you're a misandrist, an auto-racist and a hypocrite with an agenda, so it's not really a surprise you'd go off the deep end with such hyperbole, now, is it? - Sick of Hypocrites

That's horseshit. Period. It's not hyperbole to notice a director with misogynist tendencies; many of the Black male pop culture critics who love Spike Lee's films criticize his misogynist tendencies, like his 'Wannabes v. Jigaboos' musical number in School Daze, where the entire female cast wore skin-tight spandex inexplicably. You can appreciate a director while you express concern for the sexist excess; it's called logic.

Justin Lin's movies involving Asian characters so far have not portrayed Asian women in the most even-handed light, usually relegating them to spoils of war fought over by conflicting men. There is nothing auto-racist about noticing that, and real Asian men concerned with their media portrayals would not support films that "support" Asian male masculinity by stepping on the other half of their community. That's sexist!

Further, who the hell are you to come here and bomb-throw words like misandrist and auto-racist? How dare you? Asian men comfortable with their masculinity do not attack others for pointing out sexism in pop culture; if this is your sad little way to reclaim your chick-pea testicles, Sick of Hypocrites, it's rather pathetic.

Lastly, I'm done with the crying and whining that no one focuses on Asian American men. I'm done. I quite simply do not care. I refuse to believe that a reasonable Asian American man upset that Hollywood mischaracterizes him would take those frustrations out on his own community; when I see the Wayans Brothers coon for box office nirvana, I don't seek out Black women to curse out.

It's funny, Sick of Hypocrites, that you're not more sick of your stupidity.

6/22/2006 09:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Adam said...

Way to be James, way to be.

I can understand that you are fed up with the whining Asian American men that complain that they are under and misrepresented in todays media, but the same would hold true for me and black men. It's a two way street.

I respect you standing up for your girl, but don't you think statements like this, "Lastly, I'm done with the crying and whining that no one focuses on Asian American men. I'm done. I quite simply do not care." just breed apathy and minority division? If other minorities don't care about each others' mischaracterization, who will, white people?

Don't get me wrong, I don't agree with what Sick of Hypocrites wrote.

I would just hate to lose as elequent and reasoned a voice as yours in the fight against media misrepresentation of ALL minority groups and women.

6/22/2006 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Sickofhypocrites, I think you need to explain yourself. First of all -- did you read the post in its entirety?

Secondly, you're just going to have to defend your accusations. You can't toss out charges of auto-racism and misandry without dealing with one single, simple point: How is it misandrist for an Asian American feminist to demand that Asian American men not debase AA women in the struggle to improve representation of AA men? How is it auto-racist to point out sexism in the Asian American community?

The only way such a perspective could hold any weight is if one were to imagine that either a) the only way to point out weaknesses within a community is to hate it (in which case, SOH is basically reenacting McCarthyism in which any American who didn't vocally side with the government was deemed unpatriotic, ignoring the fact that some of those persecuted as Communists were the most loyal of Americans worried that the lack of free speech and American actions at home and overseas were degrading the fundamental ideals of America) or b) the only role for Asian American women in Asian American politics is to shut up, repopulate the community, and let the men do the talking (in which case, SOH is indeed perpetuating the idea that the only Asian American community he could appreciate is a misogynistic one).

I think the Asian American male experience needs representation -- I don't agree with James; I think we need to hear from the AA male identity, and I think Lin is a step towards that goal. Let's just not pretend that he's doing Asian American women a favour by his representations. Spike Lee faces the same criticisms from scholarly academics of the African American experience, and no one denies that regardless of Lee's misogyny, he's still not one of the most influential and powerful filmmakers of all time who has done incredible things for the Black community.

I merely caution Lin to be aware of his track record. And I wonder why some Asian American men like SOH seem to need to tear down Asian American women in order to reclaim their own virility. There's no need to do that. What is it about Asian American feminism that SOH finds so threatening?

Adam, I think James speaks out of frustration that people like SOH come to this blog, throw accusations around, and demand attention to their issues with no discussion as to why we should care. Not that we need to understand the AAM experience in order to validate it, but I don't think it's justified for SOH to come here and call me racist because I'm not kowtowing to him and his politics. SOH doesn't care about me or my issues - at one point do we invoke the Golden Rule?

6/22/2006 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Point of clarification: no, Lin is not being misogynistic by focusing on Asian American men, he is being misogynistic by doing so to the detriment of Asian American women. In other words, in his track record of two films featuring any AAs at all, all the women have had small (if any) speaking roles and are relegated to sexual objects, props, or accessories. Either give us three-dimensional roles or accept that AA feminists will not appreciate always being shown as the unthinking prize for AAM to fight over.

"...everyone and their mother is casting Asian American women in "normal" roles"

... yeah... which would those be exactly? I want an answer here.

6/22/2006 12:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...

I disagree with you. While some people compared Justin Lin to Spike Lee focusing solely on their race, I think the approach they have is different. I tend to think Spike Lee has a stronger (or maybe more blatant) social message than Lin does, who tends to stick messages in at opportune moments (eg Roger Fan's basketball photo scene with Parry Shen.).

I have a problem on blaming TD's misogyny solely on Justin Lin. Remember this is a Hollywood film, and Justin Lin only has 1 indie success and 1 Hollywood flop to date. In other words, he doesn't have that much power to influence the film. The audience for TD (like the first two movies) isn't Asian Americans; it was meant for the majority viewers (aka young white males) and everybody else is a peripheral factor. Case in point: Justin Lin had said in the interview that the studio people wanted somebody "exotic" for the female lead and they weren't going to compromise on it, and I'm pretty sure if Justin had argued the point they would have let him go (as another extreme example, Will Smith talked about not being able to cast a white woman as the lead in Hitch.). Hollywood is still a big suckup to white people, and to ignore their contribution to the misogyny of Hollywood (and therefore to this film) is wrong.

That being said, I'm not comfortable with the portrayals in TD, and BLT too, and I think Justin could have done a better job (even though I don't think he's a film genius in the sense he's coming up with the next big things). Compromise was the order of the day in TD; it wasn't in BLT. As for Asian women film creations, Alice Wu's Saving Face's portrayals were actually good (if I remember the reviews correctly). As for what SoH said, I don't think that's true. A lot of the non-star roles that Asian-American women get are still prostitutes and prostitute-like, especially on the big screen.

James, I think you're overstating the importance of whiny armchair activists like the ones on model minority; listening to their whines gives them power that they shouldn't have (in this case, representation of the Asian American community.)

6/22/2006 02:12:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

Adam, thank you for your compliment. I think that minority division already exists, and that it's not always improper. I don't expect non-Black people to agree with me on all issues, just like I don't expect Black people to adhere to my worldview. I'm becoming desensitized to the Asian male emasculation in Hollywood argument because I think that altering media representation requires innovative content - unless Asian men concerned with emasculation in Hollywood films are writing and submitting scripts where that does not happen, I can't see where the complaints help.

New Asian American directors and producers assist this, which is why I supported Justin Lin's new flick even though I'm no Fast and the Furious fan. But too often online, the Asian male complaints devolve into the kind of useless whining displayed by Sick of Hypocrites, and deserve criticism. But I always say that Asian American men fed up with stereotypical Hollywood emasculation wouldn't decry speech from Asian American women. They'd disagree with what they disagree with, but they wouldn't ask AA females to quiet themselves like so many of the psychotic online crazies from places like modelminority.com. Sick of Hypocrites reminded me of the modelminority morons, and I treated him accordingly.

Further, media mischaracterization becomes relevant to me when it has a real-world effect, like the stereotypical hyper-aggressive Black female in movies and TV, the Omarosa character, that stereotypes Black women in the workplace to the point where minor interpersonal slights characterize the Black woman as overbearing and unapproachable. That I can see as a problem. I admit, I know less about how Hollywood mischaracterization of Asian American men as effeminate, asexual, and deferential actively impede Asian American male progress. I assume that it wouldn't help, but I don't know, and MM.com crazies don't make me eager to learn more.

On the other hand, Hollywood stereotypes of blond White women as stupid and comically foolish mean absolutely nothing to me, because I have enough information and experience to know that those mischaracterizations do not impede blond White female progress. In general, if pop culture perceptions are worth talking about, we need to ground these discussions in some reality, and while the oft-bandied idea persists that Hollywood Asian male emasculation negatively affects Asian male dating choice, it's kind of difficult to consider such an effect worth the vitriol that some Asian American men, usually online at MM.com, promote to combat the stereotypes.

Jay, you're right on giving the MM.com crazies too much airtime. I should let the trolls starve.

6/22/2006 02:53:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Jay, I agree that the misogyny in TD wasn't all Justin Lin's fault, but he can't be divorced from the blame. At the very least, I wish he would've addressed the problem in the same interview I linked in the post where he talked about searching far and wide for an Asian American male protagonist. I apologize if it came off like I was giving the Hollywood producers a free pass in all this -- I recognize that Lin was fighting an uphill battle with Hollywood institutionalized sexism and racism.

Although there may not be room for more fleshed out Asian American females in his current movies, I'd be more reassured if Lin addressed that he's at least thinking about the problem offscreen.

Saving Face was a pretty decent portrayal all-round. I have nothing negative to say about that movie at all.

6/22/2006 04:36:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

(PS - I guess I thought that Hollywood producers being misogynistic was pretty much already a given. ^_^)

6/22/2006 04:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Adam said...

Thanks for your thoughts James. You bring up a lot of great points and present many ideas that I have to mull over in my head before I can write a worthy response.

MM.com is a black hole of negativity and delusion. The "people" for the most part are truly crazy there.

Since I'm at work, I have to cut off the reply here, but I'll write more when I have time. Man, I think I have to start my own blog.

6/23/2006 02:31:00 PM  
Anonymous nonwhiteperson said...

Media mischaracterization becomes relevant to me when it has a real-world effect, like the stereotypical hyper-aggressive Black female in movies and TV, the Omarosa character, that stereotypes Black women in the workplace to the point where minor interpersonal slights characterize the Black woman as overbearing and unapproachable. That I can see as a problem. I admit, I know less about how Hollywood mischaracterization of Asian American men as effeminate, asexual, and deferential actively impede Asian American male progress.

James, the preoccupation of media misrepresentation is definitely about sex because Asian men are second only to white men or tied with white men in socio-economic status (SES which is comprised of one's education, income, family background and assets). SES is usually the predictor of happiness in life although each race and gender is a different case and you can't compare apples and oranges. The 2005 Census says that Asian men are second only to white men in income level. These stats are for those ages 25 and over with a college degree or more working year round.

White men 100%
Asian men 92%
Hispanic men 77%
Black men 76%
Asian women 74%
White women 70%
Black women 62%
Hispanic women 61%

Asian men and white men are tied for first among those 25 and over with a high school diploma or less working year round.

White men 100%
Asian men 100%
Asian women 77%
White women 73%
Black men 68%
Hispanic men 61%
Black women 61%
Hispanic women 52%

http://www.rachelstavern.com/?p=35

http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/dinctabs.html

6/29/2006 02:24:00 PM  
Anonymous nonwhiteperson said...

The disparity of income between men of women is greatest among whites, followed by Asian men and women, then Hispanic men and women and finally Black men and women. For example, for whites 25 and over with a college degree or more working year round, there is a 30% disparity in income between men and women and a 27% disparity in income for whites 25 and over with a high school diploma or less working year round.

White 30% 27%
Asian 18% 33%
Hispanic 16% 9%
Black 14% 7%

6/29/2006 02:33:00 PM  

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