Friday, May 2, 2008

Terminal USA

I did not react well to Terminal USA. I thought it managed the impressive feat of being preposterous yet somehow still pretentious. And I wonder if my initial reaction to the film is due to the fact that this campy-John-Waterseqsue movie has an Asian cast. What does it mean to take this genre and give it an Asian/Asian American twist?

As a viewer (an Asian American in an Asian American media class), I felt forced into asking the question, "What is Jon Moritsugu saying about Asian-America?" I wasn't enjoying the movie because I felt like I had to read into every moment. I think that is the pitfall of any highly stylized (down to the lighting) highly exaggerated film--every decision is called into question. Without realism to fall back on, the filmmaker seems more responsible for the choices he/she makes.

I wonder if this is horribly unfair of me--I believe it is. Should I view this as I had viewed "Better Luck Tomorrow" or "The Wedding Banquet?" Just as a story that happens to involve Asian/Asian-Americans? Or am I justified in feeling like this movie puts too much emphasis on being "Asian?"

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Another view of the Asian American

The two pieces we watched for this week were "weird" to say the least. First, we have a transgendered pop star's pornographic music video in addition to an independent film focused on a Japanese American family scattered with aliens, burning crosses, and cheerleaders.

Further reading informed me that JJ Chinois is actually Lynne Chan, a transgendered woman who uses this persona to convey messages about Asian America. Chan uses the analogy of his transition as a queer individual from the suburbs to New York City with his parents migration to the United states from Hong Kong.

Throughout the video, the parallel clips between JJ Chinois and Bruce Lee often confused and disoriented me. What was Chan trying to convey with these images? Scenes of the female jumping rope seemed almost pornagraphic to me, and the first question the leaped to my mind was, who is the audience of this piece? Does Chan want us to assume the male gaze? However, a better understanding for Chan's alter ego comes from the readings. To know that there is a representation for the spectrum of Asian American male bodies, not just the two extremes, comforts me. However, the fact that it takes a transgendered pop star to make this point, seems a little uneasy to me.

I agree with the idea that Terminal USA was more of a performative piece than a commentary on Asian American families, however, many issues about Asian Americans do arise throughout the movie. For instance, the father gets upset by the fact he is called a chink, when rather he is Japanese. The racial slur does not bother him, rather it seems the confusion of Asian Americans is upsetting to him. There is also the sexualization of the Asian American females. The daughter is a hypersexual cheerleader, submissive to her "lawyer" by performing fellatio. Although the film seemed to engage us visually, it nonetheless provided a satire on the Asian American family, a family who tries to assimilate into the normal American family stereotype. However, it quickly becomes evident that this "perfect American family" mold is nonrealistic and, in actually, dysfunctional.

These pieces are important because they show the diversity of Asian American media. Unfortunately, because of the nature and audiences of these pieces, its message reaches few. How can the images of Asian Americans be changed when the very few are getting the message? Instead, the same Asian American stereotypes are conveyed, restricting us to the "dragon lady" and "Bruce Lee" characters. When is it that we will finally get another view of the Asian American?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Terminal USA & JJ Chinois

First off, does anyone know where I can get the music from JJ Chinois's music video? Many of the posters already hit on many of the points I had in mind; one thing that just kept sticking out to me was this idea of how a certain method of performance can greatly affect how we as the viewers interpret a concept. Alien Encounters addressed the issue of remodeling an old icon into something completely new; Mimi Nguyen mentioned how JJ Chinois was able to take a relatively subdued aspect of Bruce Lee's persona- his sexual identity- and craft it into something that not only could be recognized as " hey that's Bruce Lee!" but also something incredibly new. Given that we were assigned Terminal USA along with the music video, I wonder if this idea of performance found in JJ Chinois's work can be applied to Terminal USA. Is the film saying anything by adding an over-the-top element to the Asian stereotypes? Does it remodel the old or rather just mock the stereotypes given? I agree with Alexa that these two films share a similar theme with the other assigned films in that they too try to go against the tropes that around socially bound to "Asian American." However, I suppose the main point of contrast lies in the focus of the films. The past films we saw dealt with how individuals who interact in a functional society deal with the dichotic concepts of heritage and assimilation. In these two films, it is as though this social interaction is filtered through and all that is left are the concepts to be molded. It is an interesting strategy and I hope to be able to see more Asian American underground films in the future.

Response to Underground Films

Today in class, I was really surprised to see such adverse reactions to this week's films. An argument that came up numerous times today was that both films were performative rather than provide commentary on the Asian American experience. While I would agree the films may have been a little difficult to watch due to their lack of a conventional narrative structure, I liked the fact that the films were so over-the-top. I don't see why performativity and commentary have to be mutually exclusive. I felt like these films were no different from Better Luck Tomorrow, Mississippi Masala, Wedding Banquet, etc in that complicated my notions of what it means to be Asian American by complicating (and perhaps destroying) the model minority figure. I really enjoyed Terminal U.S.A. in particular, in that it presented us with such extreme forms of Asian stereotypes (the studious brother, the cheerleader sister, the Japanese punk, etc) they could only be interpreted as artifice. Last semester I took a class on the films of Andy Warhol and within the class we read an article where Warhol says something the the effect that he enjoys using drag queens within his films because they are "more real". By looking at them you know exactly what they are: they are not pretending to be a woman, but simply a man who dresses like a woman. This is the same type of strange logic which lead Warhol to embrace camp, especially with his use of bad actors because simply they are "more real" in that you know that they are acting. I think this could be applied to Terminal U.S.A. the performances within the film are so terrible that they come off as fictional constructions, which in turn can be read that these stereotypes of Asian Americans are also merely social constructions. This is why I feel like the film is no different from all of the other films we have seen in this class which challenge notions of Asian American identity. Similar to the other films these underground films can also be read as a refusal of the model minority identity, they just do so in a different matter.

Under Construction

"JJ Chinois" explores the notion of identity as something we construct—both consciously and unconsciously. Both films derive their shock value, I think, by confronting the audience with characters’ whose identities violate or challenge the categories with which we are most comfortable or have been lead to believe are most “normal.” We not only construct our own sense of self but we project identities upon others. For example, we might fit people into categories based on notions of race, gender, or class; or we might project our fantasies onto others we barely know by imagining what their lives and personalities must be like.

In the film, Lynne Chan explores the process of constructing an identity for herself that frees her from gender norms but at the same time is based on appropriation of an iconic identity, the screen performances of Bruce Lee. JJ Chinois is, perhaps, the ultimate identity in that he is completely a fabrication. We try to “know” him by piecing together the visual clues Chan gives us and the factoids that she supplies both in the film and one the Web site, but in the end, anything we learn is less about JJ Chinois and more about who we are and what sort of preconceptions we hold about Asians, gender, stardom, queer identities, etc. I think both film makers want to underscore the fact that individuals, such as gays and Asians in the US, who don’t fit into the rigid categories imposed by the dominant society have the challenge of trying an identity that feels authentic while knowing that their very existence will be perceived by others as a challenge or violation of “norms.”

This brings me back to my thoughts about “Better Luck Tomorrow” in which each character is struggling to create a sense of self that feels authentic.

That was really weird...

I’m not sure what to make of the two films we watched this week. JJ Chinois and Terminal USA were probably two of the weirder films I have seen in a very long time. Something that struck me the most while watching Terminal USA was the portrayal of Marvin, the nerdy brother who secretly enjoyed erotic Skinhead male pornography. When Marvin is caught masturbating to male porn by his father, his father does not receive the news very well. He makes some comment that Marvin has become the “pervert in the back room” and that Marvin is now even stranger than Kazumi. The mother and father can accept Kazumi’s bizarre behavior and his unusual girlfriend Eight Ball much more readily than they can accept Marvin’s homosexuality. The parents’ reactions to Marvin’s sexual orientation is not surprising based on what we have previously learned about how Asians view homosexuality. Interestingly, in the film, Marvin’s sexual desire is a Skinhead, which is the epitome of anti-minority, white supremacy.

The parents’ reactions to Marvin’s sexuality remind me a lot of the film The Wedding Banquet that we watched earlier in the semester. Again when the Asian male character finally reveals that he is gay, the parents are quick to judge him and automatically want to know if this inclination could be reversed quickly.

P.S.- I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking on IMDB, it says that the same person played both Kazumi and Marvin. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I totally did not make this connection during the film.

Two "Bad Asian" filmmakers

After watching the JJ Chinois video a few times and reading Nguyen’s analysis, I think that Lynne Chan was aiming to reappropriate the construction of Bruce Lee’s masculinity and forefront his “ambi-sexuality.” In spite of all the fun facts we are given about the JJ Chinois (e.g. he’s a Taurus and puts ketchup on everything), there is actually very little we know about Chan’s celebrity creation. By the superimposed shot of a hand playing a keyboard and overall use of a rock star image and associated objects (the floating circle containing glove, sunglasses, underwear, cock ring, etc.), I assumed that he was some sort of musician. The way that Chan cuts between the Bruce Lee I Love You video and JJ Chinois’ makes apparent that she is trying to draw a parallel between the two personas; she often cuts to JJ Chinois in the same posture as the actor playing Bruce Lee in the previous video. However, there is also a marked difference between the highly sexual nature of the Bruce Lee I Love You video and JJ Chinois’ persona in Chan’s video. In fact, because Bruce Lee was always portrayed in his movies as “puritan,” ascetic, and asexual, the BLILY video demonstrates that his sexuality, masculinity, and desirability was created by his fans and viewers rather than by any inherent portrayal of these attributes. In addition, the ambiguity of many of the animated texts such as “I sure feel unconformable being in this situation with you.” And “Please make me clean.” questions the presence (or absence) of sexual undertones that might be interpreted from the images presented by Chan’s video.

As for the Terminal USA, I just had this revelation about the title which probably refers to the grandfather's terminal illness, which is being protracted by what seemed like a life-support device. I agree with everyone else that this is one of the most bizarre (and genious) films I have ever watched. I agree with Kenji that this film reminded me of American Beauty, with regard to its dysfunctional characters placed into a stereotypical suburban family situation, but of course Terminal USA took this to the extreme, portraying every kind of dysfunctional and magnifying it to the nth degree. In an interview with Moritsugu, the interviewer mentioned that he had been labeled as a "transgressive" filmmaker, making me wonder what exactly makes Terminal USA transgressive? I think that beyond the breakdown perfect American family facade, the casting of Asian Americans (who are, importantly, the "model minority") into these roles forces the audience the racialized terms in which we understand what is or is not transgressive.