Hollywood runs up the stars and stereotypes
IN one of the most memorable scenes from the new Hollywood thriller, Rising Sun, Los Angeles cops surround a mansion, ready to smash their way in through the french windows and arrest a suspected murderer.
Inside they spy the suspect, a suave Japanese gangster, in the midst of cavorting with two Southern bimbos, lasciviously pouring sake (pre-warmed, no doubt) on to a pair of breasts and licking it off.
One of the cops outside, played by hardy perennial Harvey Keitel - if he has ever played anything else, let me know - is less than amused. The Yakuza, he complains to colleague Wesley Snipes, ''is plundering our natural resources''.
However you look at it, it's not a bad line, and if anything won the loudest roar of laughter during the movie.
Earlier that afternoon, I had been covering a Congressional hearing on US trade issues. As the congressmen rambled on, there was one recurring theme - the injustice of a situation whereby American high-tech firms are barely let through Tokyo customs, while Japanese companies clean up in the United States to their heart's content.
It was an ironic coincidence, so much so that one wondered whether author Michael Crichton had been moonlighting on some speech-writing on Capitol Hill.
FOR this indeed is the theme of the film culled from his blockbuster book; the Japs are invading, and they're stealing our women as well as our jobs.
This is not a new theme - American politicians, academics and gas pump attendants have been saying as much since they realised Japanese hi-fi was better-made and better value than everyone else's.
And as the US trade deficit with Japan reaches nearly US$50 billion, the oft-repeated lament has become something of a truism.
It says much for the power of celluloid that what has often been accepted as routine Japan-bashing from the lips of a talking head suddenly becomes a hot controversy when the same message is fictionalised on screen.
Not even that much was heard from the pressure groups when Crichton's book was published last year, but the release of the film last week was greeted both by a demonstration outside a New York cinema, and scores of column inches quoting offended Asian-Americans.
Margaret Fung of the Asian American Defence Fund said the movie was ''full of stereotypes depicting Asians as evil and manipulative.'' And Diana Lin of Asian Americans for Equality: ''In general the movie adds to anti-Asian sentiment, especially at a time of the Golden Venture incident. It fuels that kind of resentment.'' The film-going public's response was unambivalent: the movie topped the box office on its release, grossing US$15 million over its first weekend.
The pressure groups had vainly pressured the producer to insert a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, assuring no racial slight was intended. It is not hard to see why they were turned down. The movie is unashamedly racist from start to finish, jam-packed with cliches about inscrutable, unscrupulous orientals who eternally lose face if you don't let them win on the golf course and in the boardroom.
THE detective played by Sean Connery is an old Japan hand who spouts the kind of ''don't lose your temper with them'' pearls of wisdom that have not surfaced since the days of Noble House and the ill-fated TV series Yellowthread Street.
The Japanese all wear dark glasses and bow with the inherent politeness of Jeffrey Dahmer. Then there's ''Japanese'' love interest Tia Carrere, whose entry in the Hollywood casting handbook must surely list her under ''exotic, versatile Oriental''. Lasttime she surfaced on screen in Wayne's World, she was Cantonese.
Aside from all this, Rising Sun is a very effective, amusing, exciting thriller. But like so many of its box office predecessors in the era of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Van Damme, it is closer to high farce than high art. Stereotype is not an accident- it is its very raison d'etre.
Of course, the argument about whether racial stereotypes are to be tolerated or condemned is an eternal one, not least in today's race-paranoid America. The Asian community's anger has reached fellow sympathisers - not least the New York Times, whose scathing demolition of the movie was headlined ''a tale of zen and xenophobia in Los Angeles''.
However, many of the film's detractors have not even seen it, including Diana Lin, who admitted to me as such. Some might call that an assault on the film-maker's freedom of expression.
Had they seen the film, they would have noticed a serious attempt on the part of director Philip Kaufman to tone down the rather stronger anti-Japanese sentiment of the book, and the ironic counterpoint of another kind of racial tension, between Conneryand his black sidekick Snipes.
These changes, according to Hollywood gossip, were met less than enthusiastically by Crichton, who co-wrote the screenplay.
The row, a replay of those surrounding other ''incorrect'' portrayals of Asians, such as the musical Miss Saigon and the truly dismal Chinatown movie Year of the Dragon, will disappear as quickly as it came, and whether white (and black) America's awareness of immigrant Asians will be adversely affected is impossible to say.
The sad fact is that for the 15 million people who queued to see Rising Sun last weekend, barely 1,500 might have watched the masterpieces of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, or Kurosawa - not only far superior films, but ones with Asians displaying true talent in their own context. But that, as they say, is show business.