Archive for the 'film in general' Category

Wick-Quoting #19: Technology vs. Family

What happens when you replace superpowers with technology?  Well, first of all, it’s not really a replacement so much as it is an addition.  In Shelly Chappell’s essay, “Fantasy Motif Metaphors: Magical Powers as Exceptionality in Disney’s The Incredibles and Zizou Corder’s Lion Boy Trilogy,” we are only interested in what she has to say about The Incredibles, directed by Brad Bird.  “The motif of magical powers as exceptionality,” is what Chappell states as a fantasy motif metaphor in children’s fantasy literature, such as The Incredibles (Chappell 23).  The Incredibles is a film about a family with superpowers that takes down a non-Super (Super being the name that is used to refer to superheroes in the film) villain who uses technology to kill Supers in order to make himself a superhero.  This storyline is the epitome of exceptionality.  In the film, superpowers are rare and a natural born ability, not forced upon people.  Therefore, Syndrome, the main villain of the film, has an inferiority complex that causes him to force exceptionality upon himself through technology.  Syndrome’s efforts in becoming exceptional himself, threatens the Incredible family’s structure of life.  The mother of the Incredible family, Helen’s line, “Everyone’s special, Dash,” combined with his response, “Which is another way of saying no-one is,” tells spectators that even though this is an American family of exceptionality, they are forced to live a normal life, hiding their powers.  Syndrome disrupts this balance with an opposite mentality that even though he is without natural superpowers, he is still exceptional through the advanced technological equipment which he created.  He openly uses his technology physically in order to kill Supers (those with natural exceptionality), forcing the Incredibles to take action—disrupting their “normal” lives.  So, ultimately, it is technology which causes spectators to distance themselves and fear Syndrome.  It is technology which causes characters in superhero films to become so difficult to relate to and threaten family life.

In order to understand the negative impulses which technology brings, we must first discuss how technology impacted lives during the late 19th century in modern cities, from Ben Singer’s article.  During this time, the shock of modernity was common.  The introduction of the streetcar brought a number of concerns and horror.  According to Singer, illustrations of accidents showed not only the body before death, but the look of horror on the bystander’s faces.  These illustrations stressed both the dangers and nervous shocks of city life (Singer 83).  It seems as though technology always comes hand-in-hand with fear.  This is understandable, considering how people fear at first what they do not understand.  Similarly, Syndrome’s physical powers through his technological devices strike fear in the characters and audiences because it is something that all people are not used to.  His technology is an extension of himself, something unnatural which distances him from us as spectators.  And like the streetcars, Syndrome’s weapons cause inconveniences for the one who uses them (even being the cause of Syndrome’s own death in the end from the combination of his jet boots and the jet’s intake).  The fear of the streetcar eventually subsided as the fear of the automobile closely followed (Singer 83).  Fear eventually slips away after a certain amount of time passes, allowing people to confront and overcome the object of fear.  In Syndrome’s case, however, we as spectators are not given enough time to become familiar with and brush off his weapons.  More time is needed in order to dull our senses by hyperstimulus.  After all, we are only given approximately 115 minutes to cope with the fear of the machine.  Re-watching the film only restarts the element of fear from the beginning to the end by secondary identification with the protagonists.

Singer writes in his essay, “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and Popular Sensationalism,” that “in the modern environment, death could drop from the sky, inexplicably” (Singer 84).  We know this to be true from the example that Singer gives about the death of a little girl whose skull was pierced by a rusty steel rod, atomic bombs used in WWII, and technology shown in fantasy worlds of superpowers.  Therefore, technology constantly makes us aware of the dangers of modern life, and that at any moment it can be the cause of our sudden deaths.  This constant, unpredictable fear is directly linked with technology, meaning that a person who creates and controls technology is a person to be feared.  Syndrome, with his technology, destroys the family life of the Incredibles by giving them constant fear for their lives.  The Incredibles take action in order to rid themselves of this fear.  Therefore, technological advances interrupt normal, family life.  We, as people who live in a modern world and have a family life ourselves, can relate to the interruption that technology brings, siding us with the Incredible family and forcing us to both hate and fear the enemy.  After all, it is the television that causes family members to become quiet and uncommunicative during family dinners and the airplane which literally helps separation between family members.

Syndrome contains, as I mentioned before, an extension of himself in technological form.  For Marshall McLuhan, we must accept technological form as an extension of ourselves, as he states in “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis:”

…use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it.  To listen to radio or to read the printed page is to accept these extensions of ourselves into our personal system and to undergo the ‘closure’ or displacement of perception that follows automatically… By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms.  That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. (McLuhan 68)

So in one way or another, we all embrace technological form, whether it is through surfing the internet, listening to the radio, or playing the Nintendo Wii.  Syndrome uses his own advanced creations, which are like a mirror images, or projections of himself.  He created his technological weapons in order to carry out his goal of ruining Supers.  His weapons were made for a purpose, the same purpose which he devoted his life to for 15 years.  And as Agent Smith says in The Matrix Reloaded, “There is no escaping reason, no denying purpose, because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.”  The reason why Syndrome exists and the reason why Syndrome’s technological creations exist are one and the same.  So, like the Greek myth of Narcissus, Syndrome becomes a closed system with technology.  Narcissus is viewed to be cold and distant of others, only caring for himself (or the image of himself).  Syndrome is similar, but for him, it is technology which causes his unfortunate drift.  To “serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions” is something that should stir fear (McLuhan 68).  It is gods who are portrayed to be all-knowing, being able to control our lives.  It is thus a scary thought to not be able to have control over ourselves and having to treat objects of technology as deities above us.  Even Supers with amazing powers do not strike the same kind of fear in us, because their powers are a part of themselves—it is them.  Their exceptionality is natural, but even so, we know for a fact that Supers are no gods because we as individuals cannot make direct use of their powers.  And even when Supers save people, Supers also use people to build up their own image.  People use Supers to live a little more safely while Supers use people to serve their honor and duty and be loved by the people.  Both sides benefit.  With machines, however, only one side really benefits—the people.  Technology gives a false identity of godlike power; but it is not natural, it is manmade.

Is it really technology that makes Syndrome such an evil, unlikeable character?  The Joker, one of the most popular villains from one of the most popular superhero franchises, Batman, is a likeable character, despite him being a villain.  I remember watching The Dark Knight at the midnight showing where there were three instances of people applauding during the film.  One time was, of course, during the conclusion of the film, when the credits rolled.  The first time was when the Joker first appeared in the film during the bank robbery sequence.  The remaining time was when the Joker offered his services to the mob and left the room with bombs attached in his suit.  Two out of the three times were in direct response to the Joker’s screen time and the last time is partially also due to the Joker’s overall role in the film.  What makes the Joker such an enjoyable figure to see?  The Joker, unlike Syndrome, contains Batman’s secret desires.  Also, the Joker does not use technology to defeat his opponent, but careful planning instead, and of course, knives, which allow him to engage in a much more personal relationship with his victims.  So by just comparing the Joker and Syndrome in a technological viewpoint, what do we get?  Knives vs. zero-point energy.  One is a lot simpler than the other.  The Joker uses his knives and planning to disrupt Batman’s way of justice.  Batman’s family is untouched by the Joker (not that Bruce Wayne has a family).  Syndrome uses his technology and planning to disrupt Mr. Incredible’s family.

Green ligh... not

I never really was on your side

Not only does technology distance Syndrome from the spectator as an unlikeable character, it also distances Syndrome from his opponents.  With his zero-point energy, Syndrome is able to inflict harm on Supers while being a safe distance away.  The Joker, on the other hand, uses primitive knives, which forces him to make direct contact with his opponents in order to inflict pain and kill them.  We as viewers relate with the main protagonists (the Incredibles and Batman) through secondary identification, more so than we do with the villains due to formal techniques and story elements.  An example is a shot-reverse shot with Batman as he talks to Gordon and Harvey on a roof.  So, in a way, we are the protagonists.  We feel the distance that Syndrome puts between himself and the protagonists.  We feel the breath of the Joker on our necks as he is about to knife a defeated victim.  Therefore, our distance with technology and those that use it is also literal.

Towards the end of The Incredibles, the disruption of technology on the Incredible family is literally seen when Syndrome attempts to take Jack-Jack, the baby of the family, away to raise him as a sidekick.  Syndrome is able to undergo this act with the help of his jet boots that give him the ability to fly.  Technology threatens the family by assisting Syndrome in stealing away the baby.  This makes Syndrome an even more hated figure for trying to take a baby away from his mother.  Ultimately, it is Jack-Jack’s natural response with his newfound powers that overwhelm Syndrome and free Jack-Jack from the evil grasp.  Natural exceptionality prevails even between a baby and a grown man with his toys.

Although we push ourselves away from Syndrome due to his pure evilness by technology, Syndrome is still relatable to us spectators in certain ways.  He is not born with exceptional superpowers, so instead, he gazes upon Mr. Incredible as the fan boys inside us do when we watch Superman on the silver screen.  It is only when after his help is rejected by Mr. Incredible and that we learn that this innocent child, Buddy, becomes the unlikeable Syndrome.  His response of falling into technology to get his revenge is something which most of us wouldn’t do.  So, once Buddy got involved with machines, he becomes dislocated with the spectators as one of the evil villains.

As Chappell mentions, Buddy, or Syndrome, can only try to become exceptional by using technology to enhance his limited physical powers.  Syndrome being defeated by the Incredibles gives spectators the idea that people who are born without powers shouldn’t try to become superheroes, or they might become villains; “only those who are authentically exceptional should be allowed to express their individuality and use, rather than gain, power” (Chappell 25).  This is the opposite view that the recent film, Kick-Ass, contains.  However, the reason as to why Kick-Ass works and the characters like Hit-Girl are allowed to express their individuality even though they lack powers is because they also lack technology, of course, not counting Kick-Ass’ use of a jetpack and bazooka.  It’s no wonder Hit-Girl is one of the better characters in the film.  She being a little girl, spouting derogatory words, and lacking advanced technology is what makes her so fun to watch.

Although technology makes our lives better and brings us together online, it also causes us to be distant with one another.  Syndrome is viewed to be pure evil because of his association with technology, making him hated even more compared to more renowned villains such as the Joker.  While the Joker’s motive is to “defeat the Bats,” Syndrome’s is to destroy Super’s way of life from what it already is.  Syndrome’s reason, or irritant, is that he was not born special or exceptional.  His extension is to desire for physical power – to become a superhero and be accepted.  He does so with technology, which is viewed as cheating in the film where Supers are naturally born.  Technology is something to be feared (it can kill you in the modern world, as Singer points out), and it is something that can break the family.  The Incredibles can be read as a criticism of real-life efforts to control and redistribute exceptionality (Chappell 24).  From Syndrome’s example, it is clear that technology and redistributing it only brings misfortune.  Technology in superhero films is ultimately what causes villains like Syndrome to be unlikeable.

Works Cited

Chappell, Shelley. “Fantasy Motif Metaphors: Magical Powers as Exceptionality in Disney’s          The Incredibles and Zizou Corder’s Lion Boy Trilogy.” 2008. Print.

Macluhan, Marshall. “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis.” Understanding Media. Print

Singer, Ben. “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism.”

Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwartz. University of California, Berkeley: California, 1995. 72-99. Print

Wick-Quoting #8: Imagination Within Imagination

I wanna get private lessons


Pretty much every one of Miyazaki’s films contains imagination one way or another.  All of his films are a product of his own imagination after all; however, what about the supposed imagination of the characters within Miyazaki’s films?  Do the characters really imagine these dream-like worlds or fantasies, or are they actually part of the real world within the film?  For example, in Spirit Away, the young girl, Chihiro, is trapped in another world, distant from her own.  At first, she even mentions the possibility that it is all a dream – she even tries hitting herself on the head a couple of times with no avail.  And the film tricks you at the end, when the parents notice the car covered in twigs and leaves, as if it was sitting there for days.  Why does Miyazaki do this – making it a possibility that his characters may be imagining certain important elements and characters – in his films, which realms created by his own imagination?  Miyazaki is known for never being direct with his audiences.  An imaginative world with characters getting lost within their own little imaginative worlds shows Miyazaki’s circuitousness.  So what exactly results from this?

In films, the overall goal for directors is to immerse their audiences into the film, and connect them with the story and characters.  To do so, many different strategies are used, including relatable characters and the following of the growth of the protagonist.  Nowadays, directors rely on 3-D, the cheap and easy method, to further immerse viewers with their films.  Miyazaki’s strategy is to have his characters create an imaginative world of their own, inviting viewers to enter the world of the characters, rather than the world of Miyazaki.  It is, after all, much easier for viewers to relate with the character and her world than with the director and his world.  For starters, characters are seen on screen, while directors are hidden as puppeteers.  So, for Miyazaki to have his viewers engross in his character’s imagination rather than his own makes watching his films a much more enjoyable experience.  In Spirited Away, watching Chihiro interact with characters from her imagination is much more believable and interesting than watching Chihiro interact within another’s world, such as Miyazaki.  In this way, Miyazaki should be viewed as the creator of Chihiro, not Chihiro’s imaginative world.

Spirited Away – Young Fears

Chihiro, the young protagonist, can be easily related with young audiences, and “serves as a potential role model for today’s generation of apathetic Japanese youth” (Napier 288).  The horror of her parents being turned into pigs is something which young audiences can relate to – the fear of transformation and shape shifting.  With this act of transformation, the film is able to mix humor and horror.  Young adults constantly experience transformation in their lives – whether it has to do with ghastly puberty, or just natural steady growth of height.  Young audiences can relate with Chihiro and her world, especially because it is a world created and experienced by a young adult as shown on screen.  It would have been much different, and not as smooth in narration, if Chihiro was an older adult experiencing the trauma of watching her parents turn into pigs.  In that case, the film would eradicate all humor and settle with just horror.  That’s one of the benefits of young adults: the world which Chihiro experiences is acceptable mainly due to the fact of her age; so age has a determining factor of viewers accepting creativity and their willingness to follow it.  We as audiences succumb much more to Chihiro as a character and her imagination because she is at the acceptable age to have these sorts of wild fascinations.  An older character experiencing such imagination would only constitute as a crazy individual, belonging in a mental institution.  Chihiro’s young, imaginative world allows for comfortable, enjoyable viewing.

Now it is not certain that it is Chihiro who creates this other world or that this other world existed and Chihiro just happens to stumble into it.  But this really doesn’t change the fact of who the person in charge of the world is.  Miyazaki created Chihiro, and Chihiro could have possibly created this other world with Haku in it.  Chihiro is still the one who’s in question of imagining this world.  She is also the one experiencing it.

Spirited Away borrows from earlier works, including Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, both stories containing little girls driven by their imagination.  Alice, who experiences a wild adventure in her “dream,” and Dorothy, who enters another world after being knocked out from a tornado, have similar elements with Chihiro.  All three of them enter their world of imagination through a certain portal: a rabbit hole for Alice, a tornado for Dorothy, and a tunnel for Chihiro.

Tunnels are an important medium in Spirit Away.  Chihiro went through a tunnel, which sparked the beginning of the imaginative world.  The tunnel is key to handing over the creative power from Miyazaki, to Chihiro.  This act is necessary in order for viewers to have the mentality that it is now Chihiro’s imagination that they are experiencing.  Even though the tunnel is Chihiro’s portal into her imaginative world, it is not as apparent as Alice’s or Dorothy’s, in that Chihiro is not shown falling asleep.  This only emphasizes Miyazaki’s pleasure of confusing his audiences by not being completely clear in his storytelling.  All that is shown is Chihiro walking through the a red tunnel while clinging desperately onto her mother.  It is clear, however, that the tunnel is the link between the real and fantastic, by the different environments at the opposite ends.

Into the rabbit hole you go...

Within their worlds of imagination, they experience fears which are shared by young adults alike.  And upon conquering them, they all “wake up” to find that it could all have been just a part of their imagination, a dream.  This repetition of a young character exploring her own imagination is apparently a popular storyline in mainstream media.  Winsor McCay, a very successful animator during the early 1900s, made this plotline popular through his comic strip, Little Nemo.  In this comic strip, Nemo went to sleep in order to get to Slumberland, a world built in his dreams.  There, he battled monsters and saved princesses; but in the end of it all, he’d wake up and be scolded or comforted by one of the grownups of the household.  As history proves, having a story told through the imagination of the main character, is a successful and appeal tactic in story telling.  It is no wonder that this way of dreamlike storytelling is used again and again.

As mentioned before, immersing in a character’s imagination rather than Miyazaki’s, makes for a more enjoyable experience.  In Chihiro’s world, she comes across problems and fears that a typical young adult would have.  One of them is the illusion of disappearing from the minds of peers and family members.  This is a common problem young adults face, especially in high school, where being popular and noticeable are one of the main worries to have.  In order to prevent the fear of disappearing or being forgotten, young adults go great lengths, including dressing nicely, having intricate hair styles, and emphasizing on a certain skill.  Chihiro experiences the fear of disappearing in her imaginative world and initially refuses to eat the pill that Haku offers her.  Her fear of disappearing is evidently seen in her expression as he realizes her body becomes see-through.  With the image of horror on her face, viewers can share her fear of disappearing.  Sharing fears between characters and viewers means that a successful viewing experience is being had.

Chihiro realizes she has special powers

Another fear which is universally shared is the fear of heights.  This is a typical fear amongst humans, especially those of a young age.  Chihiro’s fear of heights is apparent in the scene when she attempts to crawl down the side stairs to Kamajii’s work area.  Chihiro’s imaginative world containing such familiar fears makes the film believable and amusing to watch, because we can relate to her fears as our own.  If we are to watch Chihiro as part of an imaginative world of Miyazaki, then we as viewers would have to cut all ties with Chihiro and her experiences, because we would have to view her and her fears as experiences of Miyazaki.  Therefore, Miyazaki acts as a barrier between his viewers and his characters and the adventures that they experience.  So Miyazaki directing his films through his character’s imagination removes himself as a wall, and allows viewers to be closer with his characters.   A good film can be partially determined by the linkage between viewers and characters: the stronger the link, the better the film.

Totoro – Childhood Memories

Totoro has the similar imagination-from-little-girls-is-socially-acceptable-and-interesting experience.    Throughout the whole film, it is unsure if Totoro is a figment of Mei and Satsuki’s imagination, or if Totoro is an actual real being who appears only before them.  Nonetheless, Totoro is coined as part of the girl’s imaginative world, as seen in the scene where the girls first meet the grandmother figure and she explains to them how she was able to see the soot spreaders when she was little.  This explanation tips off the fact that the film from that point on will be seen as part of the girls’ imagination.  Being able to see things when you’re little obviously pertains to a child’s tendency to make believe and imagine.  Imagination as a child is something everyone has done in their life, so the way Mei and Satsuki act is familiar to everyone – from their hallucination of strange creatures down to their childlike fits.  These make the film a lot more interesting, especially considering Miyazaki’s concern that the film wouldn’t be that appealing due to its lack of plot.

How long can you balance for?

The film is filled with imagination from the girls, such as the soot spreaders in the new house to the infamous cat bus.  If you look at the film as a work of Miyazaki’s imagination, you see a plain, Japanese countryside with two young girls trying to satisfy their need of motherly affection through their imagination.  When you view the film as an imaginative world of the girls, the film becomes a lot more interesting.  No one but them can see Totoro.  Totoro helps the girls cope with everyday life.  Using their imagination, Mei and Satsuki allow audiences to see the world through their eyes.  Mei and Satsuki’s imaginative encounter with Totoro shows the excitement that rain can have in the umbrella scene.  Through their imagination, the girls also show an alternative explanation of how wind is made.  Having wind made by Totoro flying about is a much more captivating explanation than saying that wind is made when there exists a difference in pressure.  Through the eyes of fascinated children, audiences see how wind is created, seeds grow, and Totoro travels.  The girls’ imagination not only makes the story more attractive, but also life in general.  Most people would be much more excited in life if they could meet Totoro themselves.

The girls’ imaginative world not only makes the film more enjoyable to watch, but also makes their lives more enjoyable to live in.  With the absence of their mother, a busy father, and a recent move of place out in the country, the girls are in a bit of a tough spot in their lives.  Therefore, it is only natural for them to resort to their imagination to make their lives more exciting (they’re children afterall).  To see children enter their own world of imagination increases the satisfaction of the film twofold.  First of all, watching little kids playing around in their own imaginative world is naturally enjoyable to watch.  People feel good watching others having fun; it’s a natural reaction.  Secondly, watching children play in their own imaginative world allows viewers to reminiscence about their own childhood, which is usually a place marker of pleasurable times and memories.  Also, recollecting old childhood memories allows viewers to link their childhood with Mei and Satsuki’s, further increasing the bond between character and viewer.

Kiki’s Delivery Service – Inclusion of Comedy

Pleasurable memories are usually associated with specific people in a person’s life.  In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki shares a lot of her memories with her black cat, Jiji.  For some reason, whether it’s Kiki’s imagination or just plain magic, Kiki is able to understand Jiji during the beginning part of the film.  As Kiki builds relations with others in town, such as with Osono, Tombo, and Ursula, she begins to lose her understanding of Jiji.  It seems as though as she becomes more mature, she loses her childlike imagination of talking to animals.  This is a bit regrettable due to the fact that Jiji, like Calicifer in Howl’s Moving Castle, is the comic relief character of the film.  He has the lines which make the film a lot less heavy to watch, such as his comment of Kiki posing nude for Ursula and his whole scene with the female cat, Lily.  Not only do viewers benefit from Jiji’s humor of entertainment, but Kiki does as well.  Because it is her imagination which allows her to hear Jiji talk, perhaps she hears him as a sarcastic, comedic character, because that is what she needs most in her life at the moment.

Kiki’s imagination allows the audience to borrow her imagination and enjoy the sequence of Jiji acting like the toy with the old dog.  If it was not for Kiki’s imagination of being able to understand Jiji, then this priceless sequence would probably not contain the same elements of humor.  Jiji the cat would fail to deliver in this situation.  Jiji the comic relief character on the other hand is perfect, with his expression of terror as the dog sniffs him out and cuddles next to him.  Also, thanks to Kiki’s imagination, we as viewers are able to accept the fact of a sweating cat, which adds all the more humor to the sequence.

Cat's can sweat? In animation they CAN!!

Just because young audiences can connect with Miyazaki’s characters easier than older audiences doesn’t mean that only young people can enjoy his characters and their world of imagination.  True, a lot of Miyazaki’s films are focused for a younger audience, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service, which is very popular among the young female viewers.  However, it’s not to say that older viewers can’t enjoy his works.  Older people were once young people as well, sharing the perks and uncertainties of what imagination could bring.  Also, Miyazaki is ultimately the one pulling the strings of the characters and their imaginative worlds, so if older audiences don’t directly connect with the characters and story, then they should still indirectly be able to tie with the film as a whole.

In Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, the characters express their own imagination to various extents.  By developing a world of their own, they are able to take some part of Miyazaki’s imaginative world and make it theirs.  It’s almost like the characters are stealing some of the spotlight.  In doing so, Miyazaki is removed as a barrier, further increasing the bond between the characters and the audience.  Being involved with the characters’ imagination rather than Miyazaki’s heightens the experience of believability and the impact that the characters have on the viewers.  In Chihiro’s case, the relation of fear, in Satsuki and Mei’s case, the recollection of childhood times, and in Kiki’s case, the inclusion of humor to prevent a lonely adventure.  It is amazing what Miyazaki as a director and storyteller can achieve.  By allowing his characters the unsure vision of an imaginative world, he is able to put emphasis on the characters of the film rather than on his storytelling.  It’s almost as if the characters are the ones controlling the plot of the story; afterall, the films are based on their imagination!

Work Cited

Napier, Susan. “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.” 12 May 2010.


Wikimedia Foundations, Inc. “Little Nemo.” 12 May 2010.


Wick-Quoting #7: Asians & Hollywood


How did the increase in digital technology (media) and film influence people’s views on immigration?  Did the views increase the general acceptance of immigrants or rather put them in a negative light?  More specifically, what message did Hollywood convey about Asian immigrants in America through the motion picture industry’s creation in 1910 up to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965?  Before the Immigration and Nationality act of 1965, Asians were generally portrayed negatively in Hollywood cinema.  Even after World War II, Asians were shown in an unfavorable light, and not until recent decades did a positive shift occur.  In Hollywood, the more recent the film, the less racism is practiced towards Asians, thus allowing Asian immigrants in nowadays to be more generally accepted and tolerated by the American public.  Even so, some current films still display Asian Americans as second class citizens, in a subtle, non-offensive way.  Underrepresentation of people of color in Hollywood studios is a major problem (Park, 1).  A key example of underrepresentation of people of color in Hollywood films is the exclusion of Asian actors of where they should actually belong; such as the recent film based on the popular Japanese Manga, Dragon Ball, where a White actor replaces the lead role, thus failing commercially and critically.  Overall, with Hollywood being one of the main influential factors in America, along with big corporations and the government, it is only natural that Hollywood has had such a large part in racial interaction in America.

Wtf is this?

Hollywood does have a role in how Asian immigrants and citizens are viewed in the United States, with more recent productions being more accepting towards Asians, causing the general public to also become more tolerant as well.  However, it is mainly the early films during the 1930s in which Asians were blasted with racial stereotypes and negative connotations, causing the public to also share prejudice views on Asian immigrants.

In his paper, “Representation of Asians in Hollywood Films: Socialcultural and Industrial Perspectives,” Ji Hoon Park states, “Hollywood has relegated Asian men to play stereotypical roles, such as frosty killers, martial artists, cunning villains, and the “sexless wimp.”  Films, according to Park, “are cultural texts constructed in specific sociohistorical contexts.  The sociocultural approach embraces the notion that in cultural representation racialized bodies are organized and constructed within specific power relations (Park, 3).”  The power relations in Hollywood are, more specifically, racial power relations.  White supremacy, although not apparent, is the main representation in Western culture and media.  This treatment makes Asians, and other minorities, to be viewed and treated as second-class citizens by not just movie audiences, but by the general public as well.

Chinese Immigrants

Chinese immigrants, the first group of Asians to reach American soil in large numbers, received a great amount of racial hatred from Caucasian Americans.  At one point, the United States went against their own constitution, which states that justice and liberty should be for all, in order to ban Chinese immigrants from America for a short period through the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.  Even though Chinese immigrants were welcomed as cheap laborers for the transcontinental railroads, they were considered as “yellow peril” coolies.  Many people feared job loss because Chinese immigrants worked for much less than the average American, and were thus hired vastly by companies.  As a result, White Americans’ hatred toward the Chinese was projected in films through the inclusion of Chinese characters as antagonists, such as Fu Manchu and the evil Mongol prince in The Thief of Bagdad.

The Villain

One of the common stereotypical roles that Asian Americans portray in Hollywood is as the villain.  From the early films in the 1920s and to current day James Bond films, along with Russian villains, Asians fit the evil mastermind quite well through the eyes of White society.  In 1924, the silent film, The Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks, was released.  This film contained a Mongol Prince as the antagonist of a White Douglas Fairbanks.  First of all, the actor who played the evil Mongol was a Japanese actor, an indication of how much people care about the differences in the Asian subpopulation.  Asians are all the same to mainstream society, as also shown by the non-Korean actors in M*A*S*H who could not even properly speak the Korean language.

The Thief of Bagdad came out at the time of the passing of the 1924 Immigration Act (or National Origins Act), which “denied admission to all aliens ineligible for citizenship, thus practically excluding all Asians except Filipinos” (Chung, 63).  The 1924 Act perfectly matched the attitude of Asians portrayed in Hollywood films such as in The Thief of Bagdad.  With Asians shown as the villains in Hollywood movies, Americans were more willing to view Asian immigrants as evil, anti-American residents.  Anti-Chinese xenophobia was on the rise at this time, with an increasing amount of Asians depicted in cinematic images as the archetypal enemy to the White race, like Dr. Fu Manchu (Chung, 63). Fu Manchu is a fictional character created by English author Sax Rohmer.  The character is an evil master criminal of Chinese descent.  He wears the Fu Manchu mustache, a mustache commonly drawn on cartoon type Chinese characters in American cartoons at the time, further implying racial stereotyping.  The picture below is a film poster for The Face of Fu Manchu.  Racial stereotyping can easily be seen by the slanted eyes and facial hair.  Fu Manchu gives the Chinese a negative light, as shown by the catchphrase on the poster.

This movie poster is filled with stereotypes. Can you find them all?


The one good thing that came out of The Thief of Bagdad in the Asian American perspective was the rise of the first Asian American to become an international star.  Anna May Wong, who portrayed a Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad, was the first Chinese American movie star.  Although she represented the Asian American population in America, she was only cast in stereotypical supporting roles, usually as a scantily-clad “dragon lady.”  This image of the Asian woman as a sex object for a White-dominant country further reduced the equality of Asians in America.  Hamamoto “asserts that the representation of Asian female bodies as objects of sexual conquest in American popular culture is a manifestation of white colonial desire known as ‘Asianphilla’ which means ‘Euroamerican expressions of fondness and attraction to Asian and Asian  American women’” (Park, 6).  Therefore, Hollywood hypersexualizes Asian women in mainstream media (Park, 6).

What does this mean for how Asians are viewed in America?  Firstly, Asian women are increasingly viewed as sex objects by White society.  Even if Asian American women do not associate themselves with the Asian actors shown in films, they are still subjected to a derogatory view as a sex object.  It is impossible for people to be respected when they’re just viewed as “meat.”


The top Asian actors of the 1930-40s carried a lot of influence in how Asians were viewed.  Philip Ahn was a key Asian idol during this time period.  Throughout his career, he was paired with Anna May Wong in films such as Daughter of Shanghai and King of Chinatown.  Their pairing in films, and drama created by the media, resulted in speculations of a romantic coupling.  After both denied an engagement, many people assumed it was because of Ahn’s sexual orientation.  The roles which he was often placed in had a lot to do with how Americans viewed Asians – “Ahn often shuttled between two extreme stereotypes of Asian male sexuality (the beastly yellow rapist and the Oriental eunuch)” (Chung, 77).  Ahn’s sexuality caused contradictions to arise within Asian American masculinity and image (Chung, 77).  His speculated sexual orientation skewed the publicity of how Koreans were viewed, causing the Korean press to strongly “rule out the queer potentiality of Ahn’s celibacy to keep their hetero-normative nationalistic imagination intact (Chung, 77).  With Asian women viewed as sex objects and Asian men viewed as homosexuals, obvious problems arose for the image of Asian Americans during the 1930s.


However, despite the many negatives spins put upon Asian stars by the media, Asian stars also brought positive images to Asian Americans.  Anna May Wong made a huge impression, proving that Asians can reach stardom as well, an event that would have never happened only twenty years before.  Even so, Hollywood’s racial prejudices prevented her from reaching her full potential; hence, she moved to Europe where there existed a higher tolerance of racial differences.  Wong believed that her skills as an actress were not being fully respected and that the roles offered to her were not challenging or help her career to grow in any way in the States. This is not to say that Asians never had roles that displayed their acting skills that were beneficial to their careers and image.  In 1936, the way Asian Americans were portrayed in Hollywood was changed ever-so-slightly to a more positive view.  Philip Ahn played the romantic lead in both Daughter of Shanghai and King of Chinatown, which was considered groundbreaking due to the fact that he not only “gets the girl” but also plays the man in power (Chung, 73).  Below is a still from Daughter of Shanghai showing Ahn and Wong.

Because of the lack of Asian stars during the time, it's no wonder that people speculated a romantic interest between them

Another example of films that portrayed Asian Americans in a positive light are the Charlie Chan mysteries about an Asian detective.  This series not only centered on an Asian lead, but also on an Asian protagonist.  The Charlie Chan mysteries branched off into multiple series including the Wong and Moto versions, featuring leads of different Asian ethnicities.  Even so, the popularity of these series, along with Ahn’s starring roles in a couple of films, was only a minor improvement to how Asian Americans were portrayed in Hollywood.  The Charlie Chan series was considered a B movie production, meaning it was second to A movies.  B movies are usually shown back-to-back along side an A movie in order to gain popularity.  Not only that, but Charlie Chan was not even played by an Asian actor, but rather, a Swedish man.  Also, Ahn continued his career in minor, stereotypical roles.

Charlie Chan was a very popular series during it’s time and only became popular after White actors took the role of Charlie Chan.  Despite its popularity, it was rife with controversy, including some critics claiming that Charlie Chan is “bovine” and “asexual,” which are a few of the typical stereotypes of Asian men.

Martial Artist

Racial stereotypes did not end with the portrayals of Wong and Ahn.  Ever since Fu Manchu, the evil kung-fu master, was portrayed in The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu in 1923, the only lead roles which Asian males were able to receive were as martial arts characters.  Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li led the way in the portrayal of Asians as martial artists in cinema.  “Sure, Jackie Chan and Jet Li save the day and are the heroes, but do they ever get the girl…?” (Ngo, 1).  This ties back into the asexual qualities of Asian males in cinema.  Why is it so important for Asians in cinema to get the girl?  It is because Asian men are viewed as asexual if they don’t.  Also, other races would get the idea that taking Asian women is the right thing to do, because that is how it’s portrayed in cinema.  Thus, having Asian martial artists really doesn’t help in the accepting of Asian in American society, because the Asian protagonists are still placed in stereotypical roles and even as heroes do not receive the same treatment that White protagonists of typical American films do.


Asian Americans are not the only ones hurt by their portrayal in Hollywood.  All the other minorities are, at some point or another, negatively viewed in various films and media.  However, “Though people of color have been marginalized in American media, Asian Americans are substantially different from African Americans in their portrayals.  While African Americans are largely victims of misrepresentation, Asian Americans suffer from both misrepresentation and invisibility in the media (Park 1).  In The Birth of a Nation, Blacks were represented as sex offenders and greedy, sly people.  This is obviously a misrepresentation which made the KKK, an organization with a violent history of racism, look glorious in the film.  Asians are misrepresented as geeks, terrible spouses, and villains.  Not only that, but Asians aren’t even represented in films which display the generic population of America.  This gives Americans the idea that Asians should not be considered citizens of the US, due to the lack of representation in films.


Asian American actors starring in films that shaped views on Asian immigration such as Battle Hymn (1957), Lost in Translation (2003), Portrait of a Hitman (1977), and Harold and Kumar are influential up to this day and continue to shape people’s views of Asian Americans.

Thus, the change in Asian American celebrities, their treatment and roles in films, as well as the plot and content of films themselves, have been changing over time and in turn, influence audience views on Asian immigration. However, films like Pearl Harbor did cause some complications with the American’s views on Chinese and Japanese immigrants.  Due to films like China Sky (1945) and China Girl (1942), many Americans started to accept Chinese immigrants more and turn their xenophobia onto the Japanese. This provided perhaps a temporary boon to the portrayal of Chinese in film as opposed to Japanese characters, but overall did not help reverse the negative portrayal of Asian Americans in the media.

Hollywood is perhaps hesitant to portray positive Asians’ images in movies that provide White audiences with portrayals of social interaction among Americans of different races. According to a report by the Committee of 100, Americans are less comfortable with Asians holding positions of power in comparison with women and other minority groups (Park 13). Thus, Hollywood, being dominated by mostly Whites, portrays a vision of Asian Americans that has played a large role in the view of Asian Americans over the years, within the history of the United States and its constant change in demographics.

Work Cited

Asian American Artistry. “Asian Pacific American: Historical Timeline Details (1920 to 1929).” 31 April 2010.


Chung, Hye Seung. Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Ethnic Performance. 31 April 2010.


Ngo, Janet. “Stereotypes of the Asian Male in Hollywood: Anything more than Martial Arts Characters?” 17 November. 1 May 2010.


Park, Ji Hoon. “Representation of Asians in Hollywood Films: Sociocultural and Industrial Perspetives.” 2008. 1 May 2010.


Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. “Anna May Wong.” 25 April 2010


Wikimedia Foundations, Inc. “The Thief of Bagdad (1924 film).” 25 April 2010


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