Yellow Fever

Sunny Chae as the Chinese prostitute in Deconstructing Harry

Woody Allen’s movies see the world through nostalgia-tinted lenses. Sometimes this has positive consequences, as when they delve into the annals of history: Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Shadows and Fog, Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet and Lowdown. Each of these films recreates the past (as well as its attendant cinematic/theatrical traditions) with affection and detail; in each case, Allen’s nostalgia and encyclopedic knowledge are assets. But more often, especially when his films are set in the present, this nostalgia is blinkering. It’s embarrassing. And, when it’s coupled with the solipsism that pervades Allen’s films, the consequences are disastrous.

For example, I’ve noticed a strain of really noxious, nostalgia-inflected Orientalism in Allen’s films from the ’90s.* Granted, Allen’s not the only filmmaker who indulges in this. American pop culture has exoticized Asia, using Asians as villains or comic relief, since its inception. But I’ve been struck by how consistent these examples are—how these three films from the same director, made across seven years, convey precisely the same racist mindset. The films and offending scenes are as follows:

  • During a montage of Halloween performances by little white kids in Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You (1996), three of those kids—dressed in stereotypical Chinese robes and conical hats, but mercifully free of yellowface makeup—sing a few bars from the jazz standard “Chinatown, My Chinatown.” (This is followed by more white kids performing “Chiquita Banana,” complete with maracas.)
  • In one of the vignettes that form the spine of Deconstructing Harry (1997), a young Woody Allen stand-in named Harvey (Tobey Maguire) is advised by a friend to spend $50 on a Chinese prostitute (pictured above). She’s “schooled by tradition in the art of pleasing men,” says the friend, and a narrator (voiced by Allen himself) later describes her as Harvey’s “oriental passport to paradise.” The woman, played by Sunny Chae, has four short lines. All of them mention Harvey.
  • The final and biggest example is from Alice (1990). Discontented bourgeois wife Alice Tate (Mia Farrow) is, like Harvey, advised by a friend to visit the herbalist Dr. Yang (Keye Luke) at his office in New York’s Chinatown.* There, Yang dispenses hypnosis, magic herbs, and fortune-cookie wisdom in broken English. Although he has hints of personality—sage, enigmatic, stern yet supportive—he’s still strictly a plot device, existing only to facilitate Alice’s self-discovery.

So what do these scenes and characters have in common? 1) They’re reductive, drawing their notions of “Chinese identity” entirely from stereotype; 2) the stereotypes they nostalgically employ are based in decades-old racist imagery; and 3) they represent Chinese people and culture as tools, adding color to and/or fueling the plots of white stories. (Another commonality: cringe-worthy musical cues. You know the kind.) Everyone Says I Love You is alone among the three in that no Chinese actor is ever actually onscreen—as far as the film’s concerned, China could be a made-up country, fabricated by jazz musicians for the sake of entertainment.

In the other films, however, Allen trots out real, tangible people to act out stereotypical roles. On the basis of their accents and epicanthic folds, he identifies Chae and Luke as alien, exotic, mysterious. In Deconstructing Harry, these traits are fetishized. The prostitute’s “oriental” eroticism not only makes her an especially satisfying lay, but also amplifies Harvey’s postcoital guilt. This is that solipsism at play: the prostitute is only a projection, a one-note fantasy that Harvey desires just as he loathes himself for that desire. Of course the prostitute doesn’t get an identity or any desires of her own, because this is Harvey’s story.

It’s much the same with Dr. Yang. His screen time may be greater, but the character (and by extension, all of China) is still an appendage to Alice’s white self-absorption. Like similar stock characters—the “sassy gay friend,” the “magical negro”—his inner life is negligible and his outer behavior is devoted to helping the heroine. Alice, meanwhile, gets to have neuroses and adventures. She gets the semblance of a full, real life. Granted, caricature can be a powerful tool in comedy, and it’s pivotal to many of Allen’s best jokes. But this isn’t merely caricature. It’s racial cartooning, with some very clear, off-putting implications.

Furthermore, it’s bad writing. It lazily condenses a whole continent into a vague construction informed by badly dated pop culture. It lacks even the most tenuous relationship to reality. I go to fiction (yes, including Woody Allen’s) searching for some kind of truth, and these Orientalist cartoons do not ring true. Hell, they’re contradicted by my own experiences of having real Asian-American friends, ones with multiple traits per person, whose lives do not revolve around servicing my sexual or emotional needs. I love many of Woody Allen’s movies and I even love his nostalgia. But sometimes, he serves as an aggressive reminder that you can’t learn everything about the world from jazz and old movies.

*This is my obligatory note that yes, it can be tempting to draw biographical parallels between this Orientalism and Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, but I have absolutely no interest in doing that.

**Chinatown, that enclave of exoticism tucked inside the American metropolis. Cf. the title and climax of Allen’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, if you dare.


Filed under Cinema

2 responses to “Yellow Fever

  1. What if my Asian-American friends have multi-layered personalities AND they serve my sexual needs? AM I LIVING THE DREAM?

    Just kidding, obviously. Interesting post, of these I’ve only seen EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU and admittedly I don’t remember that musical number (it’s been a while). Of course this sort of trope is common in a lot of films and continues today, but it’s always sad to recognize something like this in a filmmaker as respected and lauded as Allen. Considering his movies tend to be very white-people-focused I guess it’s no surprise to anyone though.

    • Yeah, mercifully the musical number is very brief, and the same is the case for other examples throughout Woody Allen’s career; not everything’s as protracted in its racism as Alice. I’m definitely not the first person to suggest that his movies might be a little myopic, even self-serving. And, as I said at the outset, I love a lot of them despite their myopia. It’s fascinating to see how an artist’s selfishness and ability to get at deep truths (which Allen often does) perform this little push-pull maneuver across his filmography. Racism, misogyny, sometimes straight-up sociopathy… they’re all scattered around his movies, and I guess this huge “mixed bag” quality makes them especially fun to write about.

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