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The sacrificial Asian in Australian film

Olivia Khoo on Japanese Story

Olivia Khoo is a Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of New South Wales.

Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima, Japanese Story Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima, Japanese Story
Despite shifting cultural and political sentiments over Australia’s relationship with Asia, cinematic reflections of the state of play have barely gone beyond deploying entrenched stereotypes. Sue Brooks’ recent Japanese Story joins an array of prominent Australian films from the last 3 decades in which Asian characters are ‘sacrificed’ for the sake of the white protagonists’ emotional fulfillment.

Believe me, I wanted to like Japanese Story. The idea of exploring the relationship between a white Australian woman and a Japanese man in the harsh Australian outback seemed rich with possibility, if not entirely new (Clara Law attempted something similar with The Goddess of 1967 in 2000). However, the film does very little to shift prevailing cultural stereotypes about the Japanese. The character Hiro (Gotaro Tsunashima) functions merely as a cipher for Sandy’s (Toni Collette) own process of self-discovery, and he is conveniently eliminated once he has served his purpose. The film continues a long tradition in Australian cinema whereby Asian characters are denied autonomy as characters.

Japanese Story elicits audience identification with Sandy; we are invited to join her emotional journey and to experience our own ‘Japanese story.’ However, the fact that this journey is predicated on an affective relationship with 2 stereotypes seriously undercuts this cause.

Imagine, if you will, a Japanese film called Australian Story about a Japanese girl stuck with a boorish Australian in the middle of the Okinawan countryside. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to call Brooks’ film Australian Story, since it uses an ‘Asian’ element—a stereotypical Japanese businessman and tourist—to define Australian self-identity. ‘Journey films’, where a character attempts to find him or herself by meeting an ‘Other’ along the way, can only be as interesting as that ‘Other’ is allowed to be. In this sense the shallow, fetishised representation offered by the character of Hiro does not aid what we might understand to be Sandy’s journey of self-discovery.

Throughout most of the film, Hiro’s only line is a conciliatory “Hai” (“yes”), unless he is commenting on how much space there is in Australia. At moments where the film attempts to be self-reflexive, by deriding Sandy’s attempts at cultural or linguistic translation, it again falls into old traps. When Sandy is told that she has to accompany Hiro into the desert, she implores her best friend for advice: “So, tell me about the Japs.” Unbelievable as her total ignorance may seem in a contemporary, educated Australian woman living in a major metropolitan city in Australia (and working as a geologist in the Japanese-dominated mining industry), Sandy endeavours to find out more about “the Japs” through her intimate engagement with one of them.

I found the first sex scene in Japanese Story completely unerotic, and worse, almost laughable. Hiro lies naked (presumably) under the bed sheets while Sandy puts on his pants and gets on top of him. The scene is yet another example of the Australian cinema’s feminisation of the Asian man, so painfully obvious that I began to wonder whether I was missing some more complex form of gender play.

Many critics have drawn parallels between Japanese Story and Clara Law’s The Goddess of 1967, and indeed structurally they are very similar. In Law’s film, Rose Byrne plays a blind Australian girl who convinces an eccentric Japanese man to travel across the country with her in search of her father. He agrees because he wants to buy the 1967 Citroen DS in the girl’s possession, which is his reason for travelling to Australia. Again, the sex scene between the 2 characters is rendered as a site of ‘connection’, with Byrne ‘on top.’ Cross-cultural exchange and understanding is made to be heterosexually resolvable, but only through a reconfiguration of gender relations applied to a hierarchy of race.

One recuperative scene in Japanese Story shows Sandy’s attempt to haul Hiro’s body into the back of the truck before driving back into town. Only then is the materiality of his body, as something physical and palpable, portrayed. For once, he becomes a ‘real’ body, not just a fetishised representation, and we are made to feel the weight of that implication. Too bad he has to be dead for that to happen. At the end of the film, we see Sandy crying in the airport lounge as she watches a casket-shaped package being loaded onto the plane; Hiro is being returned to Japan like a faulty item or a bad import that was never welcome in the first place. The film speaks of a utopian vision for Asian-Australian relations, where Asia is ‘in’ Australia, but Asians are not of Australia.

Of course, this treatment of the Asian ‘Other’ is hardly a new phenomenon in Australian cinema. In Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Mel Gibson plays Guy Hamilton, a journalist covering the dying days of Sukarno’s rule in Indonesia during 1965. His cameraman is Billy Kwan (described as “a Chinese-Australian dwarf with a giant-sized heart”), played by American Linda Hunt. Kwan is one of the most pernicious portrayals of an Asian character in Australian cinema, particularly in the use of a white woman to represent an Asian man. Naturally, after teaching Hamilton some lessons about commitment, an ‘aberration’ such as Billy must be killed off, before Hamilton returns home to a white(r) Australia.

A decade after Weir’s film, Stephen Wallace’s Turtle Beach (1992) engages with the enduring antipodean concern with refugees and detention centres, but it again does this safely off-shore, in Malaysia. Joan Chen plays Minou, a Vietnamese woman married to an Australian ambassador. She befriends a journalist from Sydney, Judith Wilkes (Greta Scacchi). After watching Minou sacrifice herself for her children on Turtle Beach, Wilkes is able to return to Australia with a better understanding of motherhood and an affirmed sense of Asian women as self-sacrificing creatures.

More recently, Craig Lahiff’s Heaven’s Burning (1997) gives us a strong character in Midori (Youki Kudoh), although she too is sacrificed at the end of the film. So many of these films seem unable to offer any workable vision for the future of Asian/Australian relations, besides a (metaphoric) death that eliminates the figure of difference. Disappointingly, Japanese Story also takes the easy way out, implying that even today any other kind of relationship is untenable. Asian characters are simply not allowed to ‘live’ in the sense of being fully-formed, autonomous characters.

Counter-representations are beginning to emerge as Asian-Australian filmmakers begin making films about their own experiences, attending more to the specificities of what it means to be ‘Asian’ and the constituencies that comprise it. For example, there is Clara Law’s Floating Life (1996), Tony Ayres’ documentaries Sadness (1999) and China Dolls (1997) and most recently, Khoa Do’s remarkable The Finished People. At a time of rampant fear and panic, and increased border control against the threat of ‘foreign invaders’, the release of more ‘Australian stories’—of all kinds—is not only welcome but vital.

Olivia Khoo is a Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of New South Wales.

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 15

© Olivia Khoo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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