Posts tagged ‘sean penn’

81st Academy Awards: Slumdog Takes It

slumdog-millionaire-12

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

Crazy as this may seem, tonight I was rooting for a movie I have yet to see. And when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture I was jumping-out-of-my-seat happy. Identity politics at its worst? Maybe—but for me it was the joy of seeing Bollywood invade Hollywood, and Asians in the inner circle at last. (My heart was broken a couple years ago when Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash, not only because Brokeback was a much superior film but because I feared that homophobia as well as racism might’ve contributed to its defeat.)

The night started with a series of small wins for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and I fretted that it might be business as usual on Oscar night again, with the bland, big-budget, eurocentric Hollywood product taking the evening’s prizes. But at some point in the evening Slumdog started to pick up some awards and I started to feel a bit more hopeful. Then when composer A.R. Rahman won for Best Score and gave his acceptance speech in English and Tamil, followed shortly by Slumdog’s Danny Boyle taking Best Director (plus the film’s five other subsequent awards), I sensed the tide was turning. And, though it had nothing to do directly with Slumdog, when Sean Penn won an upset Best Actor victory against favorite Mickey Rourke, and gave a shout-out to our “elegant’ new President as well as calling shame on those who supported Prop. 8, I knew there was a paradigm shift in the making. Slumdog won the big prize immediately afterwards and the evening was complete.

Dev Patel & Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

Dev Patel & Freida Pinto looking pretty, Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

So tonight was a great win for Asian cinema, even though Slumdog is directed by an Englishman and strictly speaking, isn’t a Bollywood product. But its subject matter, stars, themes, and aesthetic are decidedly South Asian and the fact that the Academy chose to honor it over Brad Pitt’s conventionally Hollywood star vehicle seems somehow significant to me. Dare I say that it reminds me of Barack Obama and the barriers he’s shattered with his election? Some might argue that equating the Best Picture Oscar with the election of the U.S. President is a bit of stretch, but I’m in the business of cultural criticism and I think Slumdog’s victory is pretty relevant. It was thrilling to see the huge Slumdog contingent, British, Indian, and everything in between, up on the stage at the Academy Awards, which is the primary symbol and celebration of Hollywood’s cultural hegemony. So, yeah, I need to watch Slumdog soon, but because of its big win tonight, I feel like I’ve already seen what I need to see. In some small way, tonight the margins have moved a bit closer to the center.

The Slumdog crew at the Oscars, 2009

The Slumdog crew at the Oscars, 2009

UPDATE: Breaking it down, via The Inspired Economist–a good, measured discussion of Slumdog, including a mention of the the film’s “poverty porn.”

February 23, 2009 at 6:12 am 11 comments

Where is the love? The Asian guy in Milk

Kelvin Yu as Michael Wong is not in this picture, Milk, 2008

Kelvin Yu as Michael Wong is not in this picture, Milk, 2008

Don’t get me wrong—I really liked Milk, the new Sean Penn biopic about San Francisco’s own gay martyr and political icon. As someone who was (just barely) old enough to remember the actual events portrayed as they happened (or do I just remember watching The Times of Harvey Milk?), I thought the movie did a great job depicting the sexy, exhilarating place that was the 1970s Castro district as well as the political intrigue of San Francisco’s City Hall. Gus Van Sant’s not afraid of lots of gratuitous boy-kissing and as far as I’m concerned there can never be enough shots of James Franco’s bare ass. As a Bay Area native, the real-life San Francisco locations resonated for me and the final scene of the candlelight procession brought this heartless beyotch to tears.

But a little fly in the ointment, as usual, was the depiction of the film’s Asian American character, Michael Wong, who was one of Harvey’s inner circle. Apparently the real-life Wong’s extensive diaries from the time were an invaluable resource for the filmmakers, but those expecting a breakthrough Asian American male role in this film will be disappointed. Kelvin Yu as Wong is little more than a flower vase, pretty much relegated to window dressing despite the fact that he’s supposed to be one of Harvey Milk’s closest advisors. Throughout the film Milk affectionately calls Wong “Lotus Blossom,” which is cute but a little too close to the usual emasculated Asian male epithets for my liking. Kelvin Yu claims that the character is “biting, caustic, acidically comedic and intelligent,” but too few of those characteristics come through in the final cut. Instead we see Wong on the sidelines supporting Milk, with precious few actual interactions between the two. There are also makeout scenes galore for most of the characters major and minor, but Wong doesn’t seem to rate a kiss from anyone, male or female.

Some of this may stem from lingering issues resulting from the infamous casting call for the character, which described Wong as “asexual” and “the ultimate dork. Very, very nerdy.” Kelvin Yu states that Gus Van Sant eventually decided against portraying Wong as sexless and dorky, and apparently the real-life Wong has given the depiction his stamp of approval, but in the finished product Wong is still bland and mostly invisible.

Dork or not? Kelvin Yu

Dork or not? Kelvin Yu

It doesn’t help that the good-looking Yu was made homely, with Ugly Betty glasses and an unflattering haircut (although this is apparently is true to the real Wong’s actual appearance at the time).

I’m trying to overcome the tendency to nit-pick any Asian American portrayals I see in Hollywood movies but it’s a hard habit to break, especially when those images are still few and far between. Here’s hoping John Cho fares better in Star Trek—

UPDATE: For a longer take on the film in general, see Sunny Vergara’ s nice little dissection.

January 14, 2009 at 1:18 am 7 comments


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