Yellow Peril by Tze Ming Mok

Exploitation Flicks

Are there any Chinese people left in Auckland who have not been approached for 'research' purposes for a script-development being backed by Owngoal Productions [not real name], to be written and directed by Guy White [not real name], a film known only as Chowick? [real name. REAL NAME.]

I was 'researched' this year for the 'Chowick' project just after 春节, on Lantern Festival weekend, although Mr White didn't tell me the name of the project at the time. He never did. I found out later by looking it up on the internet. If I had known, if he had been upfront about this, would I have agreed to meet him? It's too late now.

How the hell could the Film Commission possibly give $15,000 to a non-Chinese writer/director, for a project called 'Chowick'? The Film Commission is based in Wellington, but is that enough to excuse such ignorance? Would they fund a Pakeha writer/director who had never heard of fried bread, to write a film set in Ruatoria called 'Hori-town'?

I'm not saying that non-Asian directors can't portray Asian characters and Asian cultural themes, while avoiding being exploitative, dehumanising or Orientalist. An example of a non-Asian director doing this particularly well momentarily escapes me. But by way of bizarre inverse example, one of the most classic pieces of Orientalist claptrap film-making I've ever seen was written and directed by Hong Kong-born Chinese-American Wayne Wang. I am talking about Chinese Box, another good reason to put Jeremy Irons out of his misery - 'Alas! Hong Kong is like a beautiful, mysterious woman, for example, Gong Li playing yet another high-class prostitute! I understand her not, and never will, for it is impossible! Oh woe. Whatever can a colonial do?'

Yeah, some people just live there buddy.

The problem with Guy White is that from the get-go, he knew nothing. He understood it not. Oh woe. Did we help him? Did Owngoal's endless round of 'research' make a dent? When I met him, he was resistant, defensive, even recalcitrant when his ideas were questioned. You see, he has had an interracial relationship (not with a Chinese) - and this gives him a ghetto-pass. Oh yes, and he used to live in Howick. In 1985. He'd not heard of Pearl Tea until the very week we spoke.

The arrangement for the meeting hadn't started well. A PA from Owngoal had contacted me, saying Mr White had read my essay, and wanted to meet me to talk about being Chinese in New Zealand, to help develop the Chinese character in his film - a 16-year old Taiwanese immigrant schoolgirl who lives in Howick. I replied saying that had no idea how I could help him, considering that, as seems quite clear in my essay, I'm not 16, nor Taiwanese, nor an immigrant, nor from Howick.

But I met him anyway, at 菜林楠 foodcourt. Mr White had a strangely guarded, almost reptilian, unmoving manner. He gave me no sense of human warmth, and wasn't interested in communicating his motives, his angle, his take. I had to dig it out of him. Meanwhile, he subjected me to the most intense feeling of commercial objectification and exploitation I've ever personally experienced. I really did feel like he was slicing me up under a microscope, looking for cells to sell.

I asked him, as the film was being pitched as the 'Romeo and Juliet' of the Eastern Suburbs, whether there would be equal screen-time for the Pakeha and Taiwanese leads and their warring families.

Apparently not. The film was to be primarily from the perspective of the white protagonist, because Mr White felt he couldn't tell a story from the perspective of The Other character, i.e. the female Taiwanese sixteen-year-old love interest. (Heaven forbid that a teenage Taiwanese migrant boy would hook up with a teenage Pakeha girl. Oh woe.)

I put it to him that Juliet got half of her play, and Shakespeare was neither a girl, nor Italian. I also said to him that I thought a mark of a good filmmaker is that you can tell anyone's story, that you can find universal human experiences anywhere. And that therefore his approach was unjustifiable, given that he was using the Asian theme as the main drawcard of his film. Basically I was asking, what the hell kind of a director are you?

He got antsy. 'I'm an auteur' he said, it was all about his personal vision, and political considerations weren't going to sway him from his narrative path. Perhaps the word he was looking for was 'autistic'. He admitted that his 'vision' was of a teenage white-boy-centred narrative of self-discovery and redemption. To my ears, he sounded very much in danger of using the exotic denizens of the Eastern Suburbs as the market attraction, the point-of-difference in his film concept, and yet relegating that exoticised world to the role of a dramatic backdrop. While trying to avoid saying 'fuck you asshole, how dare you?' yet pointing out the problems of this approach as politely and accommodatingly and as truthfully as possible, I seemed to put the wind up him. During our conversation, he shifted ...well ...shiftily, from saying a third of the cast would be Chinese, to no... nearly half! No, half! A full half of the characters would be Chinese!

He also tried to put it to me that I was the first person out of dozens whom he'd interviewed, who had voiced these kinds of concerns about his project. But I think he was lying. Either that, or totally oblivious. Probably a mixture of the two. He did display a complete lack of knowledge of Chinese cultural interactions, for example by not even trying to pay for my lunch at the beginning, despite the purpose of the meeting being to pump me for cultural insights. So I doubt that he would have been able to sense, while interacting with Chinese people more subtle and verbally guarded than I (i.e. all other Chinese people in the country, if not the world) that they were finding him weird and exploitative.

Either that, or he had just been interviewing sixteen-year-old schoolgirls with not much background in critical theory or cultural studies.

His line of questioning was very personal, somewhat robotic, and at times just dippy.
'Do you have Asian friends?'
Yes. (Easy enough)
'Where did you meet your Asian friends?'
(I didn't know what to say here. Uh... Kung Fu class? Opium dens? Margaritas? The Secret Asian Kid Hangout? The answer of course, is I've met my 'Asian' friends whereever I've met all my other friends, because uh, Auckland is like that. We're everywhere.)
'What do you talk about with your Asian friends?'
(My deadpan response) 'We make fun of white people.'
He didn't blink. 'What jokes do you tell?'

I didn't quite understand. If it does ever come down to 'making fun of white people', it's really just a matter of telling each other about the ridiculous cultural interactions we might have had that day. This one for example.

I also had to tell him that despite his interest in the subject, I didn't want to list undesirable attributes of Chinese guys to explain why many Chinese girls date white. I'm not interested in stabbing my bros in the back. But I mentioned to Mr White that a subject that comes up fairly frequently when talking to my 'Asian' girlfriends, is gross old white guys with Asian fetishes coming on to us. Mr White, fortyish, got rather defensive about this.

He later got a slightly gooey look in his eye when he told me he'd just discovered that there was such a thing as Pearl Tea that week, because his new 16-year-old female Taiwanese research-subject took him to the Lantern Festival. He said he's been talking to a lot of teenage Taiwanese girls. Naturally, this was a source of much amusement later when I was making fun of him with my 'Asian' friends. It only struck me then, that the reason he asked 'what jokes do you tell?' was that white people tell 'Asian' jokes in private, so therefore Asian people must tell 'white' jokes in private. I don't know any white jokes. I don't know any Asian jokes either. People don't tell them when I'm around.

'Good luck,' I said as I took my leave.
'I'll need it,' he admitted, sounding weary.

But I meant it. On one hand, it's tempting to take these fools down, to tell them to not even try. On the other hand - well, good on them for trying. Or something. Understanding has to start somewhere. In this vein, right wing conservative gay Maori blogger Craig Ranapia linked to my Banana conference post, while acknowledging that:

Tse Ming Mok is probably not going to thank me for this... Personally, I find it oddly conforting that the 'Yellow Peril' seem awfully familiar - a messy, complex pack of human being[s] who don't have the questions sorted, let alone the answers.

No, no - thanks, really. Thanks for spelling my name wrong. But yes, it's true. I am a human being, and so are other Chinese people. I suppose it's good that he finds that... conforting. Though I am rather ...disconfited that he wasn't aware of this previously.

Would you pay Craig Ranapia $15,000 to wander food courts and cultural festivals, learning that he doesn't know enough to make a film about Chinese people? I heard the other month that Owngoal were trying to hedge against Guy White's 'auteurism' by looking for a Taiwanese writer to help him along. If they're serious about it, maybe this film will not turn out crap. Maybe they'll even change the name before I have to start up some serious bitchslap-action. But ultimately, I'm hoping that this project does not become 'the first' New Zealand feature film to go into the Eastern Suburbs. Maybe the one being co-written by Lynda Chanwai-Earle will beat it to the punch. I'm also about to crack into my preview copy of buddy Roseanne Liang's documentary, Banana in a Nutshell, first feature-length work by a New Zealand Chinese to appear in the International Film Festival. There are real and better alternatives to this flaky Yellow Fever in the film-world - actual Chinese film-makers telling their own stories. Hopefully the Film Commission and other funding bodies will wake up to this.

But (sigh) where is New Zealand's Justin Lin? The whole 'Chinese conservative family conflict' story is so overdone. Can we get a Chinese film made with no parents in it, please? I've heard it's been done in Hong Kong.

No dis on my folks. In fact, quite the reverse. If your mum and dad weren't traditional conservative repressed Chinese parents, you don't feel the need to watch the Joy Luck Club over and over in different forms.

By the way: Happy Birthday Aung San Suu Kyi. Me and mum won't go back to Burma until you say it's okay.