Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Monday Movie "Lost in Translation".
I was browbeat a decade ago for calling it a "White Film". Here I am explaining myself.

Written in: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Mood: Randy is being analytical, analyzing a film, storytelling, and the global politics of race and ethnicity.
Audience: White People.

Previous Post: Last Thoughts Before Going To Bed: On Citizenship


I offended people when I said this in 2003, but I still feel this way: Lost in Translation in so many ways, is a "White Film". And I don't mean that in a pulling the race card kind of way - I in fact love this movie so much. Both Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson play their parts very well. But a large part of the story IS a white dude lost in the otherness of the Orient, no other way to describe it. If you were to focus on that alone, then it is a very specific genre that has little to no crossover archetypal appeal.

Now if "crossover archetypal appeal" makes no sense, then it's probably because


...because I just made it up on the spot. What I mean by that is that unlike archetypes like, saaaay... the secret agent action man (James Bond, Indiana Jones), the kid who saves the day (Marty McFly, Kevin in Home Alone), geeks or unpopular kids who break out of their shell go on an adventure (Weird Science, Goonies, Stand by Me, Cameron in Ferris Bueller's Day Off), teen raunch/romp (American Pie, Superbad), coming of age (anything with Molly Ringwald from the 80's), the complex/conflicted main character with both villainous and heroic characteristics (Don Draper, Walter White, Tony Soprano), superheroes, supervillains, mythology... all of these have an equivalent in every culture.  What they go through is quite universal: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Machine, Man vs. Supernatural, Man vs. Fate. Even period and culture specific pieces can be boiled down to a struggle disguised as a history lesson (Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth and Elizabeth: Golden Age portrays being a leader in trying times and keeping the personal from the political). Exporting them unchanged is quite common and actually more appealing, since even as a kid growing up overseas, I could see through any sort of pandering. 

But if the story is about a white westerner lost in Asian culture (Man vs. The Unfamiliar?), then you'd have to reverse roles and locations for it to be fully relatable.

But wait there's more! Role reversal just doesn't translate the same way.

Being an Asian in America is different from being a white American in Asia. A newly landed Asian in any major metropolis in North America is commonplace or just not that big of a deal anymore. In Hawaii, and parts of cities like Vancouver, Richmond, LA, and San Francisco, Asians might just actually be the majority. Bottomline: In the metropolises of North America, I don't get stared at, I'm not a novelty, and where many tens of thousands of others like me have been before, then there is a support group I can seek guidance from. I just wouldn't feel so isolated - and I didn't feel that way when I was new.

Then there too is the case of status. This is the part where I sometimes invite some accusations of pulling the race card - which I don't understand. Is this not common knowledge? Is it unknown to most westerners that being a westerner is a high status thing in parts of pop-culture ridden Asia? Bill Murray's character after all was a big American superstar endorsing a Japanese made Whisky - something which Steven Segal has done for Rhum in the Philippines, and Arnold Schwarzenegger has done for an energy drink in Japan (or actually, many other Hollywood celebrities have done so many other similar gigs in Japan). Over here, I've seen Manny Pacquiao and Psy endorse pistachios, but its not the norm yet. Besides, the status and admiration we give Manny and Psy is still from a more powerful position: "Good on them for succeeding here!" and not "Wow! Things are cooler overseas! Let's invite someone who can embody that foreign coolness and bring some coolness here!". I've seen so many of Manny's boxing matches, and I cringe everytime they mention his rags to riches success, the praise for his ever improving English, and how can such a humble man attain the heights of political power, what with him being now a Congressman in the Philippines - all very oh so patronizing in so many ways (more on that in another post).

And about that status thing: My own theory - and some cursory reading - leads me to believe that it comes from a long line of Western incursions into the orient. Start off with good old fashioned colonialism, graduate to globalization in the form of Hollywood and Multinational corporations, and then round it off with tourists, travelers, backpackers and many other well meaning visitors and you have a region whose primary experience with white visitors is from people with always something to offer, be it power, money, or "coolness". 

At its most flattering, be a young white person in Rural Philippines and they'd think you're in the Peace Corps - educated, has money, very idealistic, willing to learn the culture, and change the world for the better. At its most unflattering, be an old white man in the touristy areas and they'd think you're shopping for young girls (or boys) - but you're probably still educated, has money, and probably a Republican with strong opinions against Obama and a love for guns. And even if that's unflattering for you, then it might just blow your mind that they may not mean it negatively when they assume those things of you - you possess more things which give you status, is the bottomline. Should you experience discrimination or racism in there - and I'm not denying you won't, because YOU WILL - it's still because of your perceived position of power and status. In gist, you are this big and powerful foreign invader and you are being taken down a notch. Contrast that with the opposite - that is: being a minority of a perceived lower class, caliber and breeding - and you can understand the difference. Sometimes, you don't even necessarily have to be 'white', because in places where there is a big diaspora (eg. Where I'm from), people who were born or who grew up elsewhere just have that extra edge in status.

"But you're not from Japan, Randy!" you may say, "That place is as foreign to you, as it is to any white guy who's traveling outside North America for the first time! Don't tell me you won't equally be weirded out by those same things they found weird in the movie."

I'm glad you asked that, imaginary person who is conveniently advancing my exposition. I certainly would be just as - if not more - culture shocked than either Bob or Charlotte. 

But let us then confound the issue even further: A White visitor to some parts of Asia would likely not be treated the same way as a visitor from some other Asian country. Asians don't always get along. It just might be easier (or at least benign) being white, than it is to be another kind of Asian in some countries over there. Bottomline: I'm probably not going to get treated as a Bob Harris (Bill Murray) or as any other white guy for that matter. Whether that's good or bad depends on the region/country/place/circumstance.

All that said, "Lost in Translation" is a great film, and I like LOVE it. Since it is written from that unique perspective of being white overseas, I can't not see that. You can't expect me, someone who's a graduate of Development Studies, has studied the global politics of race, ethnicity, status, and cultural exchange, to not pay attention to that part of the story. Especially now that I'm personally immersed and preoccupied with learning how to tell a good story, I now tend to deconstruct everything I see. What makes it good, what makes it bad. What I understood, what I didn't. And the biggest part of this "how to be a better writer/storyteller" mental exercise: What I would change if I were writing/directing it! And if that were the case, then it would be oh so drastically changed because my personal story differs from Sofia Coppola's.

At its core, the story of "stranger in a strange land" can indeed have crossover appeal - and indeed those general themes of Lost in Translation aren't lost on me. If anything, the bigger themes of mid-life crisis (for Bob), worrying about 'what next?' in a relationship (for Charlotte), and bonding over it all despite their differences is what makes it so cool for me. These aspects of that film are very UNIVERSAL and were what I focused on and I certainly appreciated it all, even during first viewing. 

Next Post: Earthquake in Bohol

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