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The behind-the-scenes genre has been popular recently, from Entourage to Studio 60 and the Sunset Strip to 30 Rock. APA takes a look at how Asian Americans are playing with the format and adding a unique perspective in works such as Justin Lin's Finishing the Game and David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face.
There's a scene in David Henry Hwang's latest play Yellow Face where the main character, a playwright, is speaking to his rival/former protégée, and he says: "Marcus, I'm a writer. In the end, everything's always all about me."
They say, "Write what you know" -- and what do writers know more about than themselves? This not only involves one's personal experiences (of the "everyone can relate to these universal human emotions" variety), but logically bleeds into stories about professional conflicts and challenges as well.
Self-reflective stories about writers, actors, directors, and "the biz" have always been around, from films like Sunset Blvd, 8 1/2, and Singing in the Rain to more recent faire, such as The Player, Celebrity, Bowfinger, and Adaptation. With the advent of DVD commentaries and the rise of interest in reality television and escalated obsession with celebrity gossip, it makes sense that people would be interested in the creative behind-the-scenes process now more than ever. Whether audiences are actually watching it is debatable (looking at the high-profile ratings disappointments of On the Lot and Studio 60 and the Sunset Strip), but the industry has definitely been catering to the intrigue (Entourage, 30 Rock, For Your Consideration).
But how often do you see the "making of the art" glamorized through the lens of Asian Americans (or any minority, for that matter) working in show business? Hence, it's fascinating to see recent works by Asian Americans such as Yellow Face, Finishing the Game, and American Zombie that take the mock-documentary style and turn the cameras on themselves.
Traditionally, behind-the-scenes stories have been about exposing the industry -- allowing the audience to feel smarter and appear "in" on the inside joke -- while simultaneously further re-mythologizing it -- retaining the mystery and allure even as they reveal that it's all an act. For example, in DVD special features, producers pick and choose what to show the audience to spin a heroic narrative about how great the cast and crew is,and how fun or inspiring it was to make the film.
When one is working in fiction, the idea is often similar: the Entourage guys (arguably) have their own share of difficulties and challenges, but ultimately it's about the fairy tale. In Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night, the underrated sports new show was consistently being meddled with by the suits at the network, putting them in danger of cancellation -- but who didn't love the characters, their passion, their teamwork, and their mischief? They are the underdog heroes, and even as Sports Night (the ABC show) got canceled in real life, Sports Night (the show within the show) is saved by a knight in shining armor in the form of an owner of a holding company that recognizes their talent, wants to buy out their station, and keep their show on-air.
When we're dealing with Asian American examples, there's a wrench thrown in the "re-mythologizing" because, unfortunately, at the moment, it's not relatable to have a story about an Asian American version of Vinnie Chase (Entourage) livin' the life and man-whoring himself around Hollywood. There has never even been a real life Samantha Li (Studio 60 and the Sunset Strip) in any of our Saturday night sketch comedy shows. At the same time, making everyone live happily ever in an industry that is still slowly learning how to make use of Asian American talent can easily come across as a campy, unconvincing attempt to sugar-coat reality.
What we do have are Asian American artists that are tackling the "behind-the-scenes" genre story from a more unique and creative angle. We have David Henry Hwang writing himself into his own play, showing us the shenanigans that one can get themselves into when Asian American spokesperson duties go awry. We have Justin Lin staging a mass audition to be a Bruce Lee stand-in in his new film Finishing the Game. We have Grace Lee satirizing her persona as documentarian in the "ethnographic" mockumentary American Zombie. We have four Asian American theater groups (Lodestone, OPM, Cold Tofu, and 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors) that recently created the joint production TeleMongol, spoofing the mediocre programming at an Asian American television station.
It's not that there isn't a similar type of re-glamorizing going on, but it's interesting to see how different issues (not limited to racial ones) naturally and necessarily emerge in these Asian American examples. It becomes less about glamorizing the industry, and more about rallying around the community, highlighting the struggles, giving credit to the efforts, but at the same time, embracing the ridiculousness and beating people to the punch by poking fun at ourselves.
One challenge of the behind-the-scenes genre, when it is so obviously self reflexive, is the danger of coming across as self-important and preachy. Take Studio 60 and the Sunset Strip: if you can manage to turn an audience away with too many intellectual debates between Matthew Perry and Sarah Paulson about religion and politics -- two major influences in American society today -- you can only imagine how much people want to hear about Asian Americans and their complaints about media representation.
What's impressive about David Henry Hwang's Yellow Face is how he manages to aggressively drill in all the information that the audience needs to know while still cultivating a gripping emotional involvement in the story. Nothing about that play is about subtlety -- he not only has his playwright protagonist ranting maniacally about his Asian identity half the time he's onstage, but Hwang has the balls to name the guy after himself -- and somehow it works. It succeeds because the pompous filibustering complements the character in a story that is ultimately about failure, pride, betrayal, and his spastic reactions to a vulnerable, ever-changing sense of identity. The entanglement of vastly ambitious subject matter that ranges from colorblind casting issues to governmental anti-China paranoia is so adeptly juggled, that even with his blatant self-indulgence, it's hard not to surrender to the fact that he's David Henry Hwang, and you're not.
Contrarily, Justin Lin's Finishing the Game is all about subtlety, namely the undercurrent of Asian American male repression and anxiety that is always there but rarely explicitly expressed. The film is inspired by the legend behind Game of Death, Bruce Lee's passion project for which he had only shot a couple of scenes before his premature death in 1973. Wanting to cash out on Lee's fame, a snarky studio decided to complete the film for him, by casting an Asian male to pretend to be Bruce Lee. Unfortunately, the desperation and wild hope of an Asian actor competing for a tiny, slightly degrading part in Hollywood is still something that still hits close to home almost thirty years later. The film sneaks this type of commentary into the film while focusing and basking in the absurdity of the audition process. The only time any preaching occurs is when it's ironically coming from the Caucasian-looking male looking ridiculous as he spouts out his indignation over his (half) Asian suppression. However, just watching Roger Fan cockily wipe oil over himself as the C-list actor explains the regiment involved in keeping his all-star body in shape drives the point home just as effectively.
It's not just that it's natural for entertainers to write about the entertainment industry because it's what they know; it's also that it's economical and practical. And especially for filmmakers that don't necessarily have the grandiose funding that Hollywood offers, the genre allows them to resourcefully turn what's available into something artistic. This is especially the case with American Zombie, which is a film that looks great because it looks low budget (and probably is). That it's shot on video is economical, but ultimately is the ideal aesthetic for the behind-the-scenes genre. In addition, she is also able to use a lot of real locations (her The Grace Lee Project offices, for instance) that may not be very glamorous, but are available to her, since the movie is about her.
In terms of story structure, TeleMongol was able to capitalize on the fact that the theater companies could simply adopt their sketches and characters from previous productions because the behind-the-scenes format they chose lends itself well to the sketch format. Each sketch is presented as a "promo" for a TV pitch (with names such as Brokeback Gold Mountain, Asian Surreal Life, and Kim Jong-Il's Very North Korean Holiday Hour), and it's interspersed with scenes of television studio executives fighting about what will sell for their audience. This also plays into the exposing and re-mythologizing, because in the end, the audience gets that the industry oppresses Asian Americans, but also that Asian Americans have the talent and intelligence (and comedic chops) to critique the industry even as they are being exploited by it.
Similarly, Lodestone's recent play The Mikado Project is about an Asian American theater company that tries to remake Gilbert and Sullivan's yellow-face play The Mikado in a way that Asians would find authentic. David Henry Hwang famously does this for works of art that he thinks deserve an updated, culturally-sensitive touch (M Butterfly instead of Madame Butterfly and his re-imagined Flower Drum Song). However, similarly to Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, where the writer writes himself into the madness, the play The Mikado Project became more about the fictional Asian American theater company's struggles with revamping the play than the play itself. It was ultimately a platform for the writers to talk about the issues that come with running an Asian American theater company.
In the end, it's still about telling our own stories in a variety of ways -- understanding the structure of what works for each genre while using our different perspectives and cultural nuances as an asset to the storytelling. It's not just that we can use the genre as a vehicle for getting across ethnic issues, but this particular type of re-mythologizing rewrites Asian Americans as a central and valid part of the industry. With all the obstacles that come with trailblazing while using a minority voice, there's a pressure and necessity to be that much better, that much more intelligent and creative, in order to stand out and be noticed. But at the same time, just being free to joke around and present stories in a comedic way shows that Asian Americans are comfortable enough on stage and on screen to be funny and silly. There are still hits and misses, of course, but it's nice to see the clever ways that Asian American artists are stepping up to the plate.
APA interview: The Mikado Project
Date Posted: 6/29/2007