In the last century, movement across national and cultural lines has led to an increasing intertwining of cultural narratives. Within the arts industries, these layered, multicultural experiences prompt the question: where does one draw the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? Or perhaps: how do we tell another’s story? Can we create cross-cultural art that is both nuanced and sensitive – and what would that art look like?
For the majority of the twentieth century, our cultural myths and narratives were told by an elite few, and this lack of diversity in the screen industries led to drastically skewed narratives. In terms of the representation of East Asians within Hollywood, acts of yellowface, racial stereotypes and whitewashing were often perpetrated, and still persist today. Mickey Rooney’s now-infamous Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) is only one example of Hollywood’s refusal to allow an Asian actor to play its own – albeit orientalist – construction of that racialised identity.See Robert B Ito, ‘“A Certain Slant”: A Brief History of Hollywood Yellowface’, Bright Lights Film Journal, 2 May 2014, <http://brightlightsfilm.com/certain-slant-brief-history-hollywood-yellowface>, accessed 12 February 2018. Due to anti-miscegenation laws, Asian-American actors were refused roles as romantic counterparts to white characters; as a result, we saw Russian-born Yul Brynner play King Mongkut of Siam in The King and I (Walter Lang, 1956), and Romanian-Russian-American Sylvia Sidney as Cho-Cho San in Madame Butterfly (Marion Gering, 1932). Even after these laws were repealed during the US Civil Rights Movement, in turn allowing Asian actors to play opposite white actors, the latter were often forced into racist tropes: consider Gedde Watanabe’s appearance as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984), whose every entrance is accompanied by the sound of a gong.
Even as more Asian characters and storylines do make it onto our screens, we are still confronted with whitewashing: Emma Stone playing half-Asian Allison Ng in Aloha (Cameron Crowe, 2015); Scarlett Johansson as a whitewashed Major in Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017); Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One in Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016).
This long history of racism in film, and the inadequate contemporary landscape of representation, makes any attempt to represent the Other a project that is not without hazards. There is a discomforting dynamic at the heart of Sam Voutas’ King of Peking (2017), which can be found in his use of Chinese actors as bodies to tell a story of his own devising. King of Peking centres on Big Wong (Zhao Jun), a low-salaried, live-in janitor at a provincial movie theatre, determined to keep custody of his son, Little Wong (Wang Naixun). The film opens with Big Wong’s ex-wife demanding either her son or hefty alimony each month. Faced with the prospect of relinquishing his son, Big Wong stumbles upon a discarded DVD burner at a junk shop, and desperation leads to ingenuity: his film-pirating business begins. Mercifully, King of Peking is free of yellowface or whitewashing, and – as a Chinese-language film set in China with a largely Chinese cast and crew – broadly escapes Hollywood’s typical Othering. Yet Voutas, credited as writer and director, is still using Chinese bodies for his narrative, and the dynamics implicit in this choice demand close examination.
Voutas, a Greek-AustralianStella Tsolakidou, ‘Sam Voutas, the Greek-Australian Film Director of China’, Greek Reporter Australia, 19 January 2012, <http://au.greekreporter.com/2012/01/19/sam-voutas-the-greek-australian-film-director-of-china/>, accessed 4 February 2018. with a Victorian College of the Arts education,‘Meet Sam Voutas: Alumnus and Director of King of Peking’, The University of Melbourne website, 18 August 2017, <http://arts.unimelb.edu.au/news/meet-sam-voutas,-director-and-bachelor-of-creative-arts-alumnus>, accessed 4 February 2018. almost excessively underscores that he is not an interloper, noting his childhood in the first line of his Twitter bio: ‘Aussie raised in Asia.’Sam Voutas Twitter profile, <https://twitter.com/SamVoutas>, accessed 4 February 2018. He also highlights the ethnicity and heritage of his crew in promotional materials for King of Peking. On the Kickstarter page for the film, for instance, he writes:
Our entire film crew was raised in Beijing […] The capital has changed heaps since we ourselves were kids in this city, and this is a chance for us to capture some of the Beijing we remember from our youth.‘King of Peking: A Film About Juggling Fatherhood and Piracy’, Kickstarter, March 2015, <https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1884136390/king-of-peking-a-film-about-juggling-fatherhood-an>, accessed 4 February 2018.
The continual reference to his childhood spent in China underscores both Voutas’ acknowledgement of his whiteness and his desire for inclusion within a Chinese cultural context. Yet his formative experiences already provide a semblance of authority concerning Chinese stories. Instead of Voutas standing on the outside, looking in, this explicit aspect of his identity allows him to find himself inside, consciously swerving far from the Hollywood racisms of his predecessors. Rather than depicting the Other, Voutas avoids an Orientalising eye by instead depicting what he clearly considers part of the self: his own relationship with Beijing as a past resident.
Writing the Other
In their introduction to The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine assert:
Are we saying […] white writers can’t write black characters? That no one can write from a different racial other’s point of view? We’re saying we’d like to change the terms of that conversation […] So, not: can I write from another’s point of view? But instead: to ask why and what for, not just if and how?Beth Loffreda & Claudia Rankine, ‘Introduction’, in Rankine, Loffreda & Max King Cap (eds), The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, Fence Books, Albany, 2015, p. 17.
At a Q&A following a screening of King of Peking at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), I asked Voutas how he navigates working as a white director with a Chinese crew, and if he supports Chinese voices within the creative process. He answered that, if he does make incorrect or anachronistic directorial decisions, his crew will inform him, as ‘filmmaking is a collaborative process – with feedback. We’re trying to be a communal team.’Sam Voutas, in King of Peking post-screening Q&A, Melbourne International Film Festival, 14 August 2017. He also emphasised that he is not an ‘auteur’: most of his filmmaking is collaborative.ibid.
It is here where Edwards, Hughes and their whitewashing successors fail. At best, misrepresentation occurs due to ignorance or a failure to engage in open dialogue; at worst, it is the decision to actively refuse such dialogue. In collaborating with his crew, Voutas enters into what cultural theorist Homi Bhabha conceptualises as the ‘third space’, a site of hybridity and a place for ostensibly incommensurate cultures to meet. Bhabha notes that what is important is not the ‘two original moments from which the third emerges’, but rather the site of emergence itself.See Jonathan Rutherford, ‘The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha’, in Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1990. Thus, working from such a site of openness and hybridity is the very first step in creating art that bypasses appropriation and steps into the bounds of appreciation and exchange.
Thematising the third space
Not only does Voutas work from and within a third space, but he also underscores cultural hybridities within King of Peking, depicting how the long-reaching effects of unprecedented globalisation have impacted even small Chinese provinces. The film frames Big Wong as a ‘movie man’, obsessed with Hollywood products; he’s dubbed Little Wong the Riggs to his Murtaugh, a reference to the cops played by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987). Film references have become a way for father to connect with son, a shared point of contact. And, when their customers demand dubbed versions of Hollywood films, the Wongs decide to dub the films themselves. Dressing up as and acting out characters to create audio while the films roll, Big and Little Wong engage in direct cultural translation. Voutas uses this engagement to illuminate the inextricability of culture, how cultural artefacts become embedded in our selves. When another employee steals his DVD-burning business, Big Wong mutters angrily, ‘He’s stolen my films!’ – that is, Big Wong’s identity has merged with the films, which, though legally not ‘his’, have become constitutive of his sense of self.
Aside from the Western cultural references contained within King of Peking, Voutas makes use of a soundtrack comprising well-known European and American music that continually points to an overlapping of cultures: Johann Strauss II’s ‘The Blue Danube’, Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’, the English folk song ‘Greensleeves’, Franz Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2’, to name a few. Images of China and sounds of Europe run side by side, music pointing to yet another layer of cross-cultural dialogue.
From selfish love to selfless love
King of Peking considers the pressures and intricacies of a father-son relationship in the face of dire economic straits. When Big Wong asks Little Wong if he’d like to partner with him in a movie business, parent and child begin to shift between playgrounds and peddling, moving between the spheres of childhood and adulthood, never fully inhabiting either. Within this dream world, Big Wong titles their DVD-pirating business ‘King of Peking’ – a nod to their surname meaning ‘king’, even though they are closer to paupers – and their work becomes a game, one played as they float between identities. This liminality of self is embodied filmically in their physical relation to space; Big Wong and Little Wong are always situated adjacent to where they should be. Little Wong never watches films from a cinema seat, but instead through a window while helping with projection, or in a staff-only section of the cinema. This inability to inhabit his own sphere of childhood underscores a premature entry into an adulthood for which he is unprepared. In a similar state, Big Wong trespasses back into youth; taking Little Wong to a fun park, he jumps into the ball pit to play with his son. As a custodian arrives to berate him, we are reminded of the distance between childhood and adulthood.
When the Wongs move into the basement apartment under the cinema, Big Wong is disgruntled that his living quarters are below ground level; his manager remarks, ‘If you stand upside down, it’s upstairs.’ We see a topsyturvy world, one where ‘kings’ live underground and clean blocked toilets – where children act like adults, and adults, like children. For a time, Little Wong’s interest and intelligence make this easy; when stealing rolls of film proves too tiresome, it is his idea to hide a camcorder to record films within the cinema. The kid is smart, but what Big Wong fails to realise is that Little Wong is just that: a kid. Focused on making enough money to keep his son, Big Wong does not comprehend that this alone cannot sustain their relationship. When Little Wong accuses his father of using him, the worlds of parenting and play collide, and Big Wong finally comes to face the full extent of his actions. Not only has he been stealing films – he has been stealing time, labour and a childhood from Little Wong. Ultimately consumed by both their dream world and a fear of losing his son, Big Wong loses touch with reality and, in doing so, loses Little Wong. Big Wong’s loss is achingly portrayed by Zhao, whose gruffness and loving tenacity continually endear to the audience a character who could so easily be dismissed as callous or cruel.
It is fitting for Voutas’ work within the third space that the final scene of reconciliation finds Big Wong taking time to listen to his son, to create something with him. At the MIFF Q&A, Voutas noted that this is ‘a film that goes from selfish love to selfless love.’Voutas, op. cit. In the spirit of collaboration and cultural sensitivity, King of Peking – by providing a platform for Chinese actors and crew – also sets an example for selfless love. Though this is perhaps the best possible mode of such a ‘love’ from a white director writing a Chinese story, it also feels somewhat intermediary. It may be painful to consider, but the best expression of selfless love in a world plagued by white narratives is to instead make space for artists of colour. For now, however, Voutas sets a poignant example of how to create nuanced, sensitive, cross-cultural art.
|1||See Robert B Ito, ‘“A Certain Slant”: A Brief History of Hollywood Yellowface’, Bright Lights Film Journal, 2 May 2014, <http://brightlightsfilm.com/certain-slant-brief-history-hollywood-yellowface>, accessed 12 February 2018.|
|2||Stella Tsolakidou, ‘Sam Voutas, the Greek-Australian Film Director of China’, Greek Reporter Australia, 19 January 2012, <http://au.greekreporter.com/2012/01/19/sam-voutas-the-greek-australian-film-director-of-china/>, accessed 4 February 2018.|
|3||‘Meet Sam Voutas: Alumnus and Director of King of Peking’, The University of Melbourne website, 18 August 2017, <http://arts.unimelb.edu.au/news/meet-sam-voutas,-director-and-bachelor-of-creative-arts-alumnus>, accessed 4 February 2018.|
|4||Sam Voutas Twitter profile, <https://twitter.com/SamVoutas>, accessed 4 February 2018.|
|5||‘King of Peking: A Film About Juggling Fatherhood and Piracy’, Kickstarter, March 2015, <https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1884136390/king-of-peking-a-film-about-juggling-fatherhood-an>, accessed 4 February 2018.|
|6||Beth Loffreda & Claudia Rankine, ‘Introduction’, in Rankine, Loffreda & Max King Cap (eds), The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, Fence Books, Albany, 2015, p. 17.|
|7||Sam Voutas, in King of Peking post-screening Q&A, Melbourne International Film Festival, 14 August 2017.|
|9||See Jonathan Rutherford, ‘The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha’, in Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1990.|
|10||Voutas, op. cit.|