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Where EAST meets the Northwest

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #32 (August 7, 2007), page 11.

Straightforward doc offers perspective of Asian-American men on cinematic portrayal

The Slanted Screen

Produced and directed by Jeff Adachi

By Toni Tabora-Roberts

Though itís ground thatís been covered before in a variety of other venues, The Slanted Screen effectively brings to light some compelling perspectives on the depiction of Asian men in cinema. Directed by Jeff Adachi, a.k.a. San Franciscoís public defender, the film is narrated by actor Daniel Dae Kim (from TVís "Lost") and features an interesting range of interviews, including late Oscar- nominated actor Mako, Hollywood producer Terence Chang, veteran playwright Frank Chin, comedian Bobby Lee, and director Justin Lin, as well as comments from casting director Heidi Levitt, and Lois Salisbury, former director of Children Now.

The film opens from a relative high point for Asian men on film, highlighting the career of early screen star Sessue Hayakawa. Hayakawa starred in over 80 films in both Japan and the U.S. Though he had a lot of success ó he was the first Asian nominated for an Academy Award, for his role as a sympathetic enemy commander in The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) ó he was also often typecast in roles as the exotic lover or wily villain.

Movie star James Shigeta had great luck in his early career, garnering multi- dimensional roles in various films. About his character in Crimson Kimono (1959) Shigeta laughs, "Well, he wound up with the girl." He went on to star in the hit musical Flower Drum Song (1961), the first American film with an all-Asian cast.

Unfortunately, most other actors had no such luck. Late actor Mako, who was the second Asian American ever nominated for an Academy Award, reveals a lot of frustration with the stereotypical roles available for Asian-American actors as well as anger at the "yellow-face" that was rampant in Hollywood. Mako recalls producersí saying, "If we put a yellow man on the tube, audiences would turn off the set in five minutes," to justify their casting of Caucasian David Carradine in the lead role as the half-Chinese Shaolin priest in the TV series "Kung Fu."

The film goes on to explore the de-sexualization of Asian-American men on screen. The nerdy, heavily accented character Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles (1984) haunts many young actors and Asian-American men. Comedian Bobby Lee ("Mad TV") joked that every Asian guy was called Long Duk Dong in high school. "That meant youíre not going to get any girls."

The de-sexualization of Asian men led many to embrace more heroic and strong images, such as those created by the legendary Bruce Lee. Actor/director Phillip Rhee felt inspired by Bruce Leeís ass-kicking characters. "Weíre able to walk down the street with our heads up. Heís still a legend."

Others, including Frank Chin, felt that Bruce Leeís characters were just another stereotype. Actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa countered, "If Iím going to choose between a wimpy business man and a bad guy, Iím going to play a bad guy, because I got balls. I want kids to grow up knowing Asian men got balls."

The film offers some solutions and a sense of hope with a new generation of filmmakers such as Justin Lin, Eric Byler, and Gene Cajayon. Casting director Heidi Levitt suggests that what is needed is "more Asian writers, more well-defined Asian-American roles." Actor Tzi Ma encourages actors to pursue roles beyond just those pegged for Asian actors. "You have to go out there and say I want to be seen for an acting role, of any kind."

All in all, this is a compelling documentary that shows an array of rarely seen film clips and interesting commentary from a range of voices, including the last onscreen interview with the late actor Mako.

The Slanted Screen will air Tuesday, August 14 at 11:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting. For more information, or to verify show times, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <www.opb.org>. To learn more about the film, visit <www.slantedscreen.com>.