Afterthoughts to "Forget Bill, Kill Tom"

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by Julia Oh

To read the original article "Forget Bill, Kill Tom," click here

In response to my "Forget Bill, Kill Tom" article from January, a few Asians have commented that I had no claim in criticizing a movie that I had not seen, or that my views were not valid because I had not seen the film. Others have suggested that while the movie may seem offensive and/or insulting, it actually "wasn't that bad."

In retrospect I realize that a few explanatory sentences added to "Kill Tom" would have filled in the gaps, and subsequently diverted certain criticisms and misunderstandings. This was a shortcoming on my behalf, if not a consequence of my haste in writing the article. Hence, I am writing this postscript in order that I not mislead those who read the article, and to clarify my stance in regards to the points which were raised.

Firstly, the opinion that one can criticize a movie only if one has seen it leaves me with several thoughts. For instance, how would a boycott ever work? If every Asian person has to pay money to watch a degrading film before criticizing it, then how would Asians ever exercise their economic clout to fight injustice? If one knows absolutely nothing about a movie and forms an opinion on it (either positive or negative), this is obviously foolish. However, there are always certain facts about a movie that one can glean, either from previews, trailers, reviews, or through conversations with those who have seen it, which can serve as a basis for opinions. While I understand those who argue that I might be more convincing had I seen TLS, I would still argue that not watching the movie does not automatically negate my point of view. In fact, many people who saw TLS also happen to agree with my criticism. Furthermore, those who state that a person only has the right to criticize a movie after seeing it are using faulty logic. This is like saying a person can only speak out against rape if they have been raped, or that a person can only take a view on the Holocaust or the Cultural Revolution if he or she has experienced it first-hand. While it may lend the speaker more weight or sympathy having experienced such events first-hand, it does not negate or make invalid the opinion of those who have not. As I stated in the original "Kill Tom" article, I don't need to eat shit to know that it tastes bad. I don't need to be a victim of the Holocaust to know that it was traumatic, and I certainly don't need to sit through TLS to know that it offends me.

Secondly, my criticism was not in regards to the movie per se, but was more so in regards to the social dynamics displayed in the movie, and how such dynamics could be interpreted in the context of modern society. If the critique was actually a review of TLS, I would have elaborated on the acting, the costumes, the action, and on minute details about the interaction between characters. But, as I neither saw the movie nor cared to critique it from an artistic or historical perspective, I based my article on these undisputed and unequivocal facts:

A white man goes to Japan, becomes a Samurai, is paired romantically with a Japanese woman whose husband he previously killed, is dressed by the Japanese woman in her dead husband's clothes, lectures other Japanese on what it means to be Japanese, and emerges as the lone survivor of a Samurai revolt after leading the rest to their slaughter.

Again, these are facts I learned from reviews and critiques about TLS, and through a direct conversation I had with a fellow Asian who saw TLS.

To those who claim that TLS wasn't "that bad", because the acting by the Japanese actors was good, or because the Japanese characters were portrayed three-dimensionally, or because the movie casted well respected Japanese actors (as opposed to random B actors), or because there were some poignant scenes in the movie, I must honestly say that I do not care. Those things do not make me feel less offended, because it does not change all of the facts listed prior. Over and over again, it seems that people overlook the greatest and most blatant offense of all: that TLS was a movie in which a white male is cast as a leading Samurai. If Asians are not good enough to play Asian roles, what good are they for? And would audiences be equally forgiving if an Asian man was cast as the leading knight in a movie about the War of the Roses? Or how about if Chow Yun Fat was cast to play William Wallace in Braveheart? Does anyone believe that white people would be so quick to defend such revisionism bordering on comedy?

While I agree that using Asian actors in highly marketed movies and giving them humane characteristics (as opposed to stereotypical mono-dimensional traits) is a great thing in and of itself, if this happens within an offensive and/or belittling context, I see very little reason to be proud. As Asians and Asian Americans, I do not believe we have the luxury to isolate politics from art, especially if it is art that is defined and created by white people about Asians history/politics (as was the case with TLS). Using Tom Cruise to play a leading Samurai in TLS (not to mention the movie's success at the box office) is just another brandishing reminder that we are living under a white hegemony.

It seems that decades of Charlie Chan, Suzie Wong, Long Duk Dong, American Samurai and Rising Sun have done so much to disturb the psyche of Asians and Asian Americans, that it has resulted in many to desperately applaud the less overt affronts with their last breath. The defenses of TLS that have been voiced by Asians are commonly filled with the "at least"s. "At least Ken Watanabe's talent was exposed", "at least Tom Cruise's character spoke negatively about the slaughtering of Native Americans (which he supposedly took part in)", "at least all Tom Cruise and Koyuki do is kiss", "at least Hollywood made a movie about Asian history", and so on.

How long are Asians and Asian Americans going to be happy with the "at least"s?