On the representation of Asian American immigrants in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing.
I saw “Downsizing" at Telluride and was so upset that I shook with rage and cried for most of the film. This was the first night of the festival. I didn’t feel comfortable mingling or talking to anyone for the rest of the week, because the lack of outrage after the screening seemed to me to indicate that the festival programmers and attendees were either oblivious to the racist content of the film, or they didn’t care. Either attitude to me felt unapologetically racist. The selection of films this year, too, was lacking in diversity; like the attendees, they were (and I can think of no polite way to put this) super white. Frankly, I could count the Asians and other POC spotted at the festival on both hands. Some people were struggling to breathe because of the mountain air, I was struggling to breathe because I felt rage. All week.
As a microcosm of the film scene, Telluride Film Festival blatantly demonstrated the thing many people love to say, but no one has yet to really change: the US film industry is run by old, out-of-touch, straight white men and wealthy white women. POC who happen to be included are tokenized. I only attended this year because I had hoped that Telluride’s championing of Barry Jenkins and “Moonlight” last year would mean a festival programmed with an eye toward diversity. I was proven wrong. But I digress. Back to “Downsizing”…
I'll be honest--I'm a handicapped half-Asian daughter of immigrants and I wanted to love Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). I found aspects of the character to be extremely relatable (her resilience, for instance), and her story is very similar to the stories of members of my family. My mom is a Filipina immigrant in her 70s whose family’s life was damaged by US colonial efforts in the PI and the military invasion of the Japanese during WWII, my father is a Slovak immigrant in his 80s who also remembers life during war time—his family home was commandeered by soldiers, his sister was raped, his brothers fled… Many family members on both sides have war horror stories. We are people who know persecution. When my parents each came to the US, they came to this country with nothing, like Ngoc Lan. And they took any job available when they first came, like Ngoc Lan. My dad was a janitor for decades in the US despite being a university literature professor in Europe. My mom, like Ngoc Lan, is disabled, devoutly religious, extremely caring & giving toward her community. There were so many good things about Chau's character, but the way the film plays out, and the outrageousness of some of her dialogue/delivery left me feeling sour about the character and the film.
Embodied in Ngoc Lan were tactics non-Asian people commonly use to be racist towards Asian Americans--mimicry of their heavy accents, butchered ESL sentence construction, "love you long-time" type innuendo, etc. These hurtful traits are prevalent in abundance in Alexander Payne’s film. “Downsizing" also sets up detrimental model minority myths that work in conjunction with negative Asian American immigrant stereotypes:
• We will take any kind of work. Ngoc Lan is a housecleaner/maid.
• We are hardworking.
• We are are subservient (see above).
• ...Except when we are bossy, pushy, and manipulative. Payne makes these seem like oh-so-Asian/foreign ways; Ngoc Lan’s behavior is noticeably different from the white American/European characters, she’s Othered throughout the entire film.
• We can’t be trusted. Ngoc Lan is first depicted as a thief, rifling through her employer’s medicine cabinet; this is eventually explained/excused and her pharmaceutical Robin Hood-ery is shown to be that—an act of charity & compassion for her dying roommate.
• We’re self-sacrificing to the point of near martyrdom. Ngoc Lan is a political refugee; she’s also extremely religious, though, like many Asians, she practices the religion of her colonizers (similar the devotion to Roman Catholicism by many Filipinos/Filipino Americans), Ngoc Lan’s faith fuels her tireless community service efforts.
• We WILL love you long time/we’re all just looking for our white Savior. I mean, there’s that whole “what kind of fuck was it” conversation. UGHHHHHHHHHHHH.
• We all live in the ghetto. "Downsizing" juxtaposes a primarily immigrant/ethnic/foreign ghetto with more monied/privileged primarily white downsized communities.
• We Asian women are magical creatures who will transform your life and broaden your closed/tiny-minded white American male perspective with our Eastern wisdom and feminine wiles. Ngoc Lan is the catalyst that inspires change in Paul (Matt Damon). Her name translates roughly to Jade Orchid or Precious Flower. If that isn't reaching towards the Lotus Blossom/Cherry Blossom stereotype of Asian female sexuality somehow being of vital essence to the white man, then I need my hapa card revoked, because *GAG*.
When we examine racist attitudes toward Asian Americans in film, or Asians in American films, we find a horrible legacy of our Asian-ness being used against us--starting with with Sessue Hayakawa in DeMille’s "The Cheat” (1915), continuing through to the recent surge of resentment toward of Kelly Marie Tran (simply for being an Asian woman in the Star Wars universe) and Charlyne Yi’s harassment by David Cross (his incredibly racist “ching chong, ching chong” karate rant and “Rashomon” non-apology). The limited opportunities for Asian Americans in Hollywood, the frequent playing up of our Otherness in roles that are offered, and the white male insistence of the interchangeability of our ethnic identities despite cultural differences across the Asian diaspora [like Korean Daniel Day Kim being cast as a Japanese-American in the “Hellboy” reboot, Filipina Lea Salonga cast as Vietnamese in “Miss Saigon,” the pan-Asian casts of “All-American Girl,” “Flower Drum Song,” “Fresh off the Boat”—in which each show/film is supposed to be representing a very specific, unique Asian American experience, but none are cast with fidelity to that actual experience (i.e. not every one in the principle cast of “All American Girl” was Korean, though the show was supposed to be about Korean American comedienne Margaret Cho’s family & personal experiences)] has been precedent in Hollywood for so long, that my tolerance for stereotyped representation has worn thin. I’m not the only one who is fed up. Asian Americans have been talking and writing about this VERY publicly from Phillip Kan Gotanda’s seminal 90’s play “Yankee Dawg You Die” to the recent “Indians on TV” episode of “Master of None.” Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Nancy Wang Yuen, and Celine Parreñas Shimizu are a few scholars who have explored the subject through a more critical lens these past few decades. Angry Asian Man cuts through racist bullshit every day.
For as white as his movies are, I should be thankful that Alexander Payne had the decency not to resort to Yellowface, but again, some of Ngoc Lan's dialogue and general character construction borders on that type of negative representation.
I have to wonder why this white male director felt like he had the capacity and the right to tell an Asian American immigrant’s story, and why producers gave him that chance. Did anyone read the script? And no one along the way found it problematic? All Payne did was reinforce the “ching chong chink” stereotypes that are often used as a bullying tactic to hurt us and our loved ones daily. I mean, I’m quoting almost verbatim the words that were recently hurled at Kelly Marie Tran and Charlyne Yi (and that are itemized as common insults towards Asian Americans in “Yankee Dawg You Die").
We Asians Americans have been so desperate for representation. I have been desperate for representation. I want to see a strong Asian American woman onscreen who is NOT defined by her Asian-ness, I want to see a strong disabled woman onscreen whose disability IS NOT used as some gag or as a plot point for a White Male Savior character. In Ngoc Lan, there are so many wonderful things being represented—she IS strong, she is wise, she’s selfless…But to reiterate, these are already part of the Asian American model minority myth, and ultimately the other traits surrounding the character are an embodiment of a number of common ways Asians are harassed about being Asian to this day. My mom, who, again, is in her 70s, still cries about racist microaggressions she is subject to on a daily basis. Presenting a character that reinforces and inspires negative attitudes and antiquated beliefs about Asian American immigrants does nothing to help us.
I have watched Hong Chau speak about the character, her decision to play Ngoc Lan the way that she did, the fact that Ngoc Lan was meant to be a tribute to her parents, who themselves were Vietnamese political refuges. I want to be respectful, I want to accept this explanation. But the fact that this is a movie written and directed by a white male who created a rather tone-deaf character just leaves me screaming. It isn’t his story, he didn’t have the right, and on top of that he doesn’t seem to have any understanding about how damaging such a racist character can be to a community who wants not just representation but respect.
I WANT TO SEE HONG CHAU WRITE AND DIRECT A MOVIE OF HER OWN. I WANT MORE ASIAN AMERICAN WOMEN TO BE ABLE TO TELL THEIR STORIES. I DON’T WANT OPPORTUNITIES TO SHARE OUR HISTORY AND OUR CULTURE TO ARISE SOLELY AS FOOTNOTES IN THE STORIES OF WHITE MEN.
I’m so tired. I know I can’t expect an industry in the clutches of straight white men to depict Asians/Asian Americans in a way that is truly representative, respectful, and meaningful to them. That’s why, as I’ve moved into becoming a producer, I have funded films written and directed by Asian Americans, starring Asian Americans. I can only hope that my generosity towards helping these authentic voices is recognized at film festivals in the coming year—by having these films for and by POC included in the programming. I want to see more films with Asian American stories by Asian Americans in your line-ups. I want to see more diversity, period. Telluride, I’m talking to you. “Downsizing" should never have played at your festival in September. Its inclusion in your lineup only reinforces the fact that as an industry you all turn a blind eye to casual racism, and tells POC that the only way they can expect representation is through Othering/tokenization.
We don’t need any more FOB stereotypes, we don’t need any more Suzie Wong caricatures. We need more opportunities for Asian Americans in film and media.
-d.uskert (Dec. 2017)