Wednesday

July 8, 2009: Fucking Orientals...

For those of you who do not know, the popular (and completely amazing) Nickelodeon cartoon show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, is being made into a live-action trilogy. This project will be directed by M. Night Shyamalan (of The Sixth Sense fame). There has been a major controversy about the film's casting with 3 of the 4 principle actors being Caucasian instead of Asian (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire was re-cast as Prince Zuko; Patel is of Indian descent). 

For a while I didn't think that the casting seemed to be too offensive. Jackson Rathbone is cast as Sokka, and I can completely see the "Sokka" in Rathbone; he has that goofy charm about him. Unfortunately, Rathbone is also stark pale (maybe from his role as a vampire in the Twilight movies), and does not have the Inuit-esque features cartoon-Sokka has (and similarly the Waterbending people or the two poles). 

Playing Sokka's younger sister, Katara, is another Caucasian actor, Nicola Peltz. She has long brown hair and piercing blue eyes. That's about all she has going for her in terms of looking the part. Shame...

I think what got be emotionally invested and involved in this battle is over the casting of Aang (the Avatar...as in the main character). Noah Ringer, a young Caucasian child actor, will play the part of the Nomadic Airbending Avatar. Paramount released a statement saying that the casting for The Last Airbender was strictly based on finding the best "actor." After Ringer was cast as Aang, the film's director and producers sent the young actor off for intensive acting lessons.... clearly in this case the "best actor" was not selected for the part. Ringer's martial arts skills have been praised and after watching an online video of them I am not impressed. He doesn't move teh way the original cartoon-Aang does. Actually, youtube Perris Aquino and there you will find his audition tape for the role of Aang. Watch this martial arts skills and his expressions and tell me that is not Aang...

With all the well-known and solid Asian actors, especially the younger ones, how could Paramount not look to those people first? Aaron Yoo, Leonardo Nam, Kristin Kreuk would have been a better choice for Katara and she is atleast half-Korean, Daniel Henney (coming off of X-men Origins: Wolverine fame, and another half-Korean actor), Zoe Weizenbaum (she played Young Pumpkin in Memoirs of a Geisha), Dante Basco, etc.

Okay, okay. I'm ranting I know. Well, here's another bit to get hot-and-bothered by. Prince Zuko, the antagonist of the cartoon series and movie was originally supposed to be played by Jesse McCartney....yes....the pop singer (who's song "How DO You Sleep?" I am currently listening to...). After such an outcry of the apparent "white-washing" of the film, and due to McCartney's tour dates, the role was re-cast and Dev Patel joined the project. Dev Patel, the only Asian actor in the 4 principle actors, plays the villain. This sends a message to young viewers that the bad guys are the one who look like Patel. Similarly, the casting director Deedee Ricketts is now envisioning the entire Fire Nation as Indian, Middle Easter, etc. ethnicities. In a press release looking for extras she says:

"Dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire...If you're Korean, wear a kimono. If you're from Belgium, wear lederhosen... We're trying to create these four different nations so we're looking for different skin tones, and features, and bone structures...It doesn't mean you're at a disadvantage if you didn't come in a big African thing. But guys, even if you came with a scarf today, put it over your head so you'll look like a Ukrainian villager or whatever." 
- Casting director Deedee Ricketts advising prospective extras. 

What an idiot!
"If you're Korean, wear a kimono." Kimonos are Japanese and any dumb-fuck knows this...

I wonder what if the role of Zuko had been played by Dante Basco (who voices the cartoon character). Basco is of Filippino descent but looks stereotypically East-Asian. What if he had been the only Asian actor cast as a principle? Then the face of the film's enemy would look similar to mine, to that of the shooter at Virginia Tech, to that of the man that held-up that bank in Rochester...

Paramount and the film's producers insist that the world of The Last Airbender is multi-racial and multi-ethnic. Yes, the cartoon is. The Waterbending tribes of the North and South Poles are on Inuit/Eskimo ethnicity. The Airbending Nomads carry out Buddhist and Tao traditions seen in China. The Earthbending people's cities resemble the solid and grand architecture of East Asian cultures (the capital city, Ba Sing Se, was inspired by China's Meridian Gate in the Forbidden City). The Firebending nation also comes from East Asian cultures. Every aspect of the TV series is stylistically East Asian. The only exceptions are the Sun Temple (where Aang and Zuko go to learn the root of Firebending from Asian-looking dragons) which is guarded by the Sun People who resemble the Aztec and Mayan cultures of Central and South America; and the introduction of the character of The Guru in season 3. This character spoke with an Indian accent and looked Indian. He taught Aang the importance of Chakras (and Indian-associated idea). So really then, Paramount should be looking to cultures of Indian, East Asia, and Maya/Aztec...right?

As an Asian American person I feel upset and saddened when the only film characters that look like me are either a) doing Kung Fu, or b) working at a dry-cleaning store. As a young screenplay writer, I can only hope that one day my material (if used) will not turn into something so reprehensible. 

I guess what I'm saying is that Paramount had an opportunity to correct a small wrong in the world. Instead they chose internalized racism, which will consequently spread to the younger generations and prevail and prevail...

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