Hollywood’s Asian Punching Bags: Why There Shouldn’t Be a ‘Safe’ Minority to Joke About

#NOTYOURASIANPUNCHLINE

Chris Rock trotted out a bunch of Asian kids during the Oscars, while Ali G compared Asians to Minions. Emma Stone played an Asian character in a film. Where does it end?

Let’s take it back to 2014. Let’s talk about #CancelColbert.

A few things: The Colbert Report shouldn’t have been canceled (unless it was to promote him to hosting The Late Show, which did in fact happen). Stephen Colbert isn’t a racist—or, rather, not any more of an overt, malicious racist than I am, or anyone else is. #CancelColbert was a terrible hashtag idea and showed terrible judgment.

Chris Rock shouldn’t be “canceled,” or whatever that means in this context, either. It would be great to see him back at the Oscars next year. He is and always has been one of the world’s finest stand-up comedians. He likely isn’t racist, or anti-Asian—or, rather, not any more of an overt, malicious anti-Asian than I am, or anyone else is. #CancelChrisRock would be a terrible hashtag idea and would show terrible judgment.

But there is, in fact, a real issue here.

“Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever” was not Stephen Colbert literally saying “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” He was brutally—and correctly—mocking Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s incredible hubris in thinking that there was nothing offensive about starting a foundation for Native Americans that still had “Redskins” in the name.

Also, the whole point of Chris Rock’s joke about bringing the “PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants” onstage at the Oscars wasn’t about the stereotype that Asian kids are all math whizzes or that the only Asians in Hollywood work in corporate. It was about the fact that we all got offended over it, and then he zinged us with the punchline: “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”

Get it? It’s not really a joke about Asians, it’s a joke about “outrage culture,” and about the relative unimportance of outrage over racism in media when we’re complicit in evils like the exploitation of child labor. It’s a joke that required bringing three real children onstage to use as mute props, who will now always have a story about how they were the butt of ironic racial humor at the 88th Academy Awards, but hey, omelettes, eggs, etc.

Just like Sacha Baron Cohen, whose whole shtick is to bury everything he does under enough layers of irony and costume pieces to render it harmless, did a bait-and-switch joke about industrious little yellow guys with tiny penises that, yes, turned out to be about the Minions, and was, yes, a “meta” joke about how everyone at last night’s Oscars was on edge about race and how the outrageously politically incorrect character Ali G was totally “ironically” failing to respect that.

Get it? All these jokes aren’t actually jokes about a specific racial stereotype. They’re meta jokes—they’re jokes about how politically and socially fraught it is to talk about race! They’re jokes about racist jokes, kind of like how Seinfeld was a sitcom about “nothing” in that it was essentially a sitcom about being on a sitcom!

And such jokes, with predictable, tiresome regularity, end up using Asian-Americans as their “example” race to make their “ironic” racist jokes about. This includes Seinfeld, by the way, which regularly mined Chinese stereotypes as its preferred vehicle for making its white characters confront uncomfortable self-judgment about whether they were racist. Indeed it includes most “edgy” humor.

Or take South Park. Take the famous “Red Man’s Greed” episode: for all its boastful pride in breaking all boundaries of common decency, the show does in fact acknowledge its own edgy high-wire act trying to do a metaphor about Native Americans and colonialism with a role reversal (“Chief Runs-With-Premise”) but when the tension rises a little too high they break the ice with an outrageously, shockingly, “ironically” offensive bit with a gaggle of ching-chong speaking SARS-infected Chinamen used as a biological weapon (as a reference to real-life smallpox blankets).

Get it? It’s funny because it’s a surprise bit of context-free racism that has nothing to do with the episode’s premise and therefore jolts you into a guilty laugh. And when they needed to pick a bit of context-free ironic racism-for-racism’s-sake to shock us with, they picked… a joke about Asians.

It gets tiring, everyone. It gets tiring to be treated as a kind of abstract hypothetical all the time, as a “safe” way to discuss racism in the abstract. It’s especially tiring when for quite a few Asian-Americans it isn’t abstract at all, when we have stories of Asian-Americans shot dead or beaten to death because of our being stereotyped as strange, different, other.

It’s annoying that, for instance, we all get why the fact that President Obama is biracial wouldn’t make it OK for Daniel Day-Lewis to play him in a feature film, but a major studio still puts out a film with a multiracial Asian and Hawaiian character played by Emma Stone. It’s downright upsetting that with the Marvel Cinematic Universe talking up racial diversity with the upcoming Luke Cage Netflix series and Black Panther film, Marvel saw fit to completely ignore the viral campaign to have kung fu-themed superhero Iron Fist be played by an Asian actor, without even making a token effort to address why people might be upset about the history of having a white guy be the kung fu hero in every kung fu movie that comes out of Hollywood.

But let’s pause for a second, because this is the point in the angry op-ed where the Asian-American writer tends to step in it.

The biggest way Asian-Americans step in it when we try to talk about Asian-American “invisibility” is to claim that black people being less “safe” to joke about is some kind of privilege or advantage black people have over us. Master of None did it with their joke about how we don’t have an “Al Sharpton” to force people to apologize to. The Twitterati on Oscars night did it with their complaints about how Chris Rock was obligated to mention bias against Latinos and Asians in his monologue, leading to the viral #NotYourMule backlash.

Just like the people who had the most right to be upset about the #CancelColbert fiasco, in my opinion, weren’t Stephen Colbert or his staff—since his show was, in actual fact, never in anything remotely resembling any danger of being canceled—but Native American protesters seeing one badly judged one-liner eclipse the issue that one-liner was addressing, namely that the nation’s capital’s football team has been named after an outright racial slur for the better part of a century.

The reason the Colbert joke worked is because there isn’t, in real life, a “Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation” because there isn’t, in real life, an NFL team called the “Chinks”—our country would have to have a very different history for that to be the case. The reason Chris Rock’s monologue was about black representation and not Asian representation is that #OscarsSoWhite trended in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter—and while the American people do also need reminding Asian lives matter, they don’t need that reminder to the same absurd, horrifying, tragic degree.

I’m going to plant my flag on this, because it needs to be planted: No, it is not black people’s job to advocate for anyone else just because they’re more visible, as though their visibility is some kind of unearned gift. No, it’s not an enviable advantage to “have an Al Sharpton.”

Al Sharpton, for better or for worse, holds the position he does because slavery was the great shame of our nation in the first two centuries of its existence and Jim Crow the great shame of the third. Black people can’t be “invisible” in culture the way Asian people can because American culture was constructed from the beginning to put down and dehumanize black people in order to justify a slave economy. Blackface isn’t the same as other forms of dress-up precisely because blackface was once actually required of white performers—pretending to be black was the universal cultural symbol for clowning, comedy, and affected melodrama.

So yes, the third rail of racial politics is quite a bit higher-voltage when we’re dealing with anti-blackness than discrimination against people who look like me. That’s justified. “How bad” racism is for any individual is an unanswerable question; it was certainly as bad as it could get for Vincent Chin or Yoshihiro Hattori, who lost their lives. But on the level of society as a whole, yes, people who look like me have it quite a bit easier than people who look like Chris Rock.

So yes, when Chris Rock makes fun of people who look like me as being awkward dorks who are good at math, that’s frustrating, sometimes enraging, and ends up being a serious barrier to people who look like me being able to get the same opportunities as our white counterparts. But it’s not the same as being stereotyped as an evil, superhumanly powerful monster such that I’d be liable to be shot dead by a cop despite being unarmed and have a jury defend the cop’s decision to do so. Chris Rock isn’t “lucky” people are generally more sensitive to racism toward him, especially because that sensitivity often doesn’t stop them from just going ahead and being racist anyway.

Guess what, though: That doesn’t make it OK for Chris Rock to joke about Asians.

No, it’s not his job to fight for Asians. The point of the #NotYourMule hashtag is that telling black people they have some kind of obligation to stand up for us is treating black visibility as though it’s some kind of unearned privilege as opposed to a burden in its own right, any temporary advantages it may give more than paid for by a lifetime of marginalization and abuse.

But going along with the idea that the “Asian joke” is in some sense acceptable, that because it’s “more OK” to say “Ching Chong Ding Dong” than to say the N-word that you should go ahead and do it to make your point, doesn’t help. If it helps anyone, it helps guilty-feeling white people by normalizing the idea that “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” (a song which also uses anti-Asian racism as its “safe” example of racism to poke fun at, while we’re keeping score). With Rock’s joke, that was explicit—the whole point of his joke was essentially giving his almost-entirely-white audience permission to laugh at racism sometimes—because it was meant tongue-in-cheek, because there are bigger problems in the world, because it’s all just entertainment anyway and who cares.

In all the examples I’ve given of meta jokes about hypothetical stereotypes that just so happen to also be actual jokes about actual Asian stereotypes, the only joke I think was remotely funny enough to be worth making was Colbert’s—and even then, Colbert’s joke was trafficking in comforting his audience rather than confronting them. It’s the kind of “irony” that only works because it presumes the audience already all knows that racism is bad and therefore we’re all Good People who can joke about racism through an ironic lens and freely “play with” racist tropes because we know none of us really mean it.

Emma Stone stars in Columbia Pictuers' "Aloha," also starring Bradley Cooper and Rachel McAdams.
Emma Stone stars in Columbia Pictuers’ “Aloha,” also starring Bradley Cooper and Rachel McAdams.
Neal Preston/Columbia Pictures
Emma Stone in ‘Aloha.’

“Playing with” racism is playing with fire. Dave Chappelle got that. He was willing to say that if he was going to be “ironically” racist he would be fully 100 percent committed (to the degree of dressing up as a blackface minstrel) ironically racist. When he realized that wasn’t working—that, underneath all the layers and layers of irony, some people in his audience were just accepting his permission to straight-up laugh at minstrelsy—rather than try to tweak or save that one bit, he ended the whole show.

Playing into the idea that differing degrees of severity of racism mean that some are “OK” or “acceptable” ends up enabling those people who are looking for their racism hall pass. The white dude who’s deeply internalized the “rules” that you can’t say the N-word or wear blackface on Halloween but who picks up the message that “playing with” anti-Asian stereotypes is on some level “more OK”—that guy isn’t coming from any complex understanding of racial hierarchies, he’s just checking to see what he can get away with. And if he comes to understand that sometimes you can get away with being shitty to Asian people he’ll find ways to low-key “play with” anti-black stereotypes that just aren’t as obvious as saying the N-word or wearing blackface. (I would argue that Ali G falls into this category.)

I don’t argue for an anti-racism that goes beyond “black and white” out of simple self-interest as a non-black person, though sure, that’s part of it. I argue for it because an anti-racism that only really notices and stigmatizes egregious racism like the N-word is a shallow, fake anti-racism that will at some point fail everyone, including and especially black people.

There shouldn’t be any “safe” targets for racism, even “mild racism.” The problem by no means harms all of us equally or in the same way, but dehumanizing people and turning them into flat cartoons based on their skin is the problem and there shouldn’t be some level of it we find tolerable.

Asian invisibility and black hypervisibility, the “model minority” Asian nerd stereotype and the underclass black “thug” stereotype—these aren’t two separate problems competing for attention. They’re two symptoms of the same root problem, which is an overarching cultural system that puts people into boxes and robs them of humanity for the sake of convenience.

It’s convenient to have Asians as a “safe” ethnic minority, one perceived as outside the system of horrible racial conflict we see on the news every day, so that you can “play with” racist humor without getting immediately jumped on. I get how convenient that can be, as someone who tries to write jokes myself. Sacha Baron Cohen (whose whole career I’m still deeply ambivalent about) found something even more convenient than Asians, an ethnicity most Americans and Brits knew nothing about that he could just make shit up about, getting plaudits for exposing racism and hypocrisy among white people while getting away with “ironically” being massively shitty to the real, actual people living in the real, actual country of Kazakhstan.

Well, there are more important things in the world than the convenience of comedians. Find a better way to make the joke or just don’t make it. You’re right, Chris Rock, Asians weren’t put into the world to be cheap labor. We weren’t put here to be cheap punchlines, either.

by Arthur Chu

Why Were The Oscars Created

In the late 1920s, MGM bigwig Louis B. Mayer(above) got antsy when studio construction unions began forming in Hollywood. These guilds came with expensive labor agreements, which were proving cost-prohibitive for the film studio. He was also annoyed because he wanted some MGM set designers to build his Santa Monica beach house, but because of the recently signed union contracts, his “outside project” would be very expensive. Mayer got around that by hiring just a few of the studio’s skilled artisans and outsourcing the cheap labor. But the situation was an eyeopener for Mayer, who figured soon Hollywood’s directors, actors, and writers would unionize, too.

As a result, Mayer and a couple of buddies created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). In effect, this organization would hopefully stave off any more unionization efforts in Hollywood. Shortly after this meeting, Mayer convened with 36 actors, directors, writers, technicians, and producers in a fancy hotel and told them that if they signed on as “Academy members,” working conditions would improve and they’d be a part of an elite organization. Not wanting to miss out on such an opportunity, the Hollywood folks — including new president Douglas Fairbanks and the only female, Mary Pickford — signed on.

The doling out of Awards, which most of the world will celebrate on TV tonight, were actually an afterthought of this newly organized union. While many industry folk committed to the AMPAS, they were seeing few events planned to legitimize them or showcase Hollywood’s talent. Enter the first awards ceremony in 1929, honoring films released from August 1, 1927 through July 31, 1928. In the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 250 well-dressed people dined on fish and chicken while Douglas Fairbanks made a short speech and divvied out golden statues to his colleagues. The event was apparently a rather quiet one, virtually free of the media.

We know that a nervous studio head created the AMPAS to curb union formations in Hollywood and to exert more control over his employees. But what about the awards ceremony? Was it established for an underhanded purpose as well? Yeah, it apparently was.

In Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Scott Eyman quotes a rather smug-sounding Mayer on the Oscars:

I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. […] If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.

Keep that gem in mind as you watch the Oscars tonight.

by Kelli Marshall

Bill Murray’s Best Quotes on Acting and Fame

The truth is, anybody that becomes famous is an ass for a year and a half. You’ve got to give them a year and a half, two years. They are getting so much smoke blown, and their whole world gets so turned upside down, their responses become distorted. I give everybody a year or two to pull it together because, when it first happens, I know how it is.

There aren’t many downsides to being rich, other than paying taxes and having relatives asking for money. But being famous, that’s a 24 hour job right there.

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I’m over the Oscar thing. I feel that if you really want an Oscar, you’re in trouble. It’s like wanting to be married – you’ll take anybody. If you want the Oscar really badly, it becomes a naked desire and ambition. It becomes very unattractive. I’ve seen it.

You know the theory of cell irritability?. If you take an amoeba cell and poke it a thousand times, it will change and then re-form into its original shape. And then, the thousandth time you poke this amoeba, the cell will completely collapse and become nothing. That’s kind of what it’s like being famous. People say hi, how are you doing, and after the thousandth time, you just get angry; you really pop.

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There’s definitely a lot of trash that comes with the prize of being famous. It’s a nice gift, but there’s a lot of wrapping and paper and junk to cut through. Back then, when a movie came out and people saw you on the street, their reaction was so supercharged that it was scary. It would frighten other people. It used to really rattle me. I mean, everybody would love to have their clothes torn off by a mob of girls, but being screamed at is different.

[On Awards Speeches] Why would you get up there and bore people? I never have figured that out. These people are supposedly in the entertainment industry, and they finally get up there to that podium and they become the most boring people in the world.

Whenever I think of the high salaries we are paid as film actors, I think it is for the travel, the time away, and any trouble you get into through being well known. It’s not for the acting, that’s for sure.

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[On Quick Change] We couldn’t get anyone we liked to direct the movie. We asked Jonathan Demme, and he said no. We asked Ron Howard, because Ron had made something that I thought was funny (Parenthood) …and he said he didn’t know who to root for in the script. He lost me at that moment. I’ve never gone back to him since.

When you did the job, you thought you were just trying to amuse your friends who are all on the job. I’m just trying to make the sound guy laugh, the script supervisor. A movie like ‘Caddyshack’, I can walk on a golf course and some guy will be screaming entire scenes at me and expecting me to do it word for word with him. It’s like, ‘Fella, I did that once. I improvised that scene. I don’t remember how it goes’. But I’m charmed by it. I’m not like, ‘Hey, knock it off’. It’s kind of cool.

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Awards are meaningless to me, and I have nothing but disdain for anyone who actively campaigns to get one.

There’s only a couple times when fame is ever helpful. Sometimes you can get into a restaurant where the kitchen is just closing. Sometimes you can avoid a traffic violation. But the only time it really matters is in the emergency room with your kids. That’s when you want to be noticed, because it’s very easy to get forgotten in an ER. It’s the only time when I would ever say, “Thank God. Thank God.” There’s no other time.

I live to go down with those guys that have no fuckin’ chance. It’s like that Tim Robbins movie I did. [Cradle with Rock] … So I see the script, and he goes, “Whaddya think?” And I said, “It doesn’t have a chance. It doesn’t have a chance in hell, Tim! [laughs] But you know what? I gotta like you for trying.” Those are my people, you know? The ones who are going to crash and burn.

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My first movie, I got nominated for a Canadian Oscar–for Meatballs. For MEATBALLS. And who am I up against? George C. Scott. So he wins the award and I stand up and go, ‘That’s it–let’s get the hell outta here.’

“So I’m tellin’ this story to someone I’m sittin’ next to, and when Sean Penn wins, I think they’re goin’ to a commercial. I say, ‘That’s it–I’m outta here,’ and I start to get up, and Billy Crystal sees me and he’s like, ‘Whoa, Bill, sit down.’ He thinks it’s serious. I was just screwin’ around, and he thought it was real–because I’m such an effective actor, I guess.”

 by Dustin Rowles

The Best Quotes From Bill Murray’s Hour-Long Charlie Rose Interview

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Bill Murray, the king of curtness and demigod of deadpan, sat for an hour-long interview on Charlie Rose on Tuesday night. Just as Murray broke out of his social shell, Rose seemed to have literally broken out of the subterranean interrogation chamber in which his show usually takes place. Typically, the celebrity is intimidated by the dark claustrophobia of Rose’s dungeon into telling all, but here, in a room that appeared to be bathed in daylight, the liberated Charlie Rose and lighthearted Murray were comfortable enough with each other to seem like old friends, no holds barred on dad jokes. In the interview, we learned about Murray’s newfangled thirst for a comedic role, the joys of acting in a Clooney movie (even if reviews indicate there aren’t many in watching one), and the intricacies of whispering in Scarlett Johansson’s ear. Here are a few highlights.

In which Bill Murray reveals this wicked way of seducing directors with pasta and salad: “George told me the story of the [Monuments Men] a year before, while eatin’ pasta and salad, and I thought, ‘Oh, God, this sounds so good.’ But then, I thought, ‘I wish George would have asked me to be in that movie, it sounds so good,’ and then, nine months later, he said, ‘Are you busy?’ And I said, ‘I’m busy, but I’m not that busy!”

 

In which Murray, rebel that he is, sexily uses “balderdash” in its nonexistent verb form while describing the atmosphere on Clooney’s sets: “George comes to work in a great mood every day. It’s the lightest set I’ve ever been on, really. I usually feel like I’m the one that keeps things light, I’m always trying to calm people down and loosen them up, but George was just hilarious all the time. You put all these people in one place — we have all these tall tales and stories and lies to tell — you’d shoot a scene and then you’d stop and you’d just balderdash for 25 minutes and just laugh, and really you’d laugh until you hurt. It was really fun, it was like the old West.”

In which Murray embarrasses Matt Damon: “[Clooney]’s famous for playing a lot of pranks, and he had one good one on Matt Damon, was going to renew his vows with his wife and he was working out all the time so he’d look like he did when he first got married or something, and George told the seamstresses on the film to take in his pants a quarter of an inch every two weeks. So he’d go away and he’d come back and he’d put the pants on, and all of us knew, but we were all dead-faced and deadpan, looking at him, and you’d see the look on his face [Murray twists his face into a puzzled expression].”

In which Bill Murray observes Berlin social patterns: “The nightlife is the night-and-day life! They really go hard. The Germans we were working with were like, [does exaggerated German accent] ‘Yes, we’re going to dance night’ and it lasts 41 hours. They go out and it lasts for a day-and-a-half.”

Responding to Rose’s concern about Clooney acting in, directing, and co-writing The Monuments Men: “That could be a hazard, you could think that that would be a problem, and with another actor, you’re right, that might be. But what George does in this movie is selfless. He’s doing the brunt work, he’s telling the facts. Those aren’t huge emotional moments that he’s got; it’s selfless service stuff. We have all the merry-go-round stuff, we have all the great stuff, and he’s doing the service work.”

Charlie Rose becomes Bill Murray’s worried mother, observing, “Your life isn’t a carefully thought out, well-planned life.” Murray’s reply: “What a nice way of saying that. I’ve never heard anyone be so compassionate towards me. I live a little bit on the seat of my pants, I try to be alert and available. I try to be available for life to happen to me. We’re in this life, and if you’re not available, the sort of ordinary time goes past and you didn’t live it. But if you’re available, life gets huge. You’re really living it.”

In which Bill Murray becomes a self-help guru: “Yes to life!”

On naturalism: “It’s fun to watch someone like John Goodman, and yet it takes work. People say ‘he’s not acting, he’s being himself.’ Well it’s hard to be yourself, it’s the hardest job there is.”

On the reason’s he’s not currently removing your kidney stones: “I wanted to be a doctor once upon a time, but it turns out you’ve got to study, and that wasn’t going to happen. I had no idea what I was going to do. I had trouble holding jobs because they want you to be on time. That wasn’t going to work. Working in the theater, you didn’t have to get to work until 9 o’clock at night.”

On the key to being funny: “It seems like at Second City we didn’t call ourselves comedians, we were ‘actors.’ Being funny, you’ve got to be able to play straight, which sounds like a paradox, but it’s not. So, if you can play straight to play funny, playing straight isn’t a big thing at all. I started making comedies because I came out of SNL and those were the things I’d get asked to do. Now I get all kinds of straight parts, and people say, ‘Oh, you’ve made a change in your life,’ and I go ‘no, this is what I get asked to do.’ Lately, people ask me to do straight things, or straight things that have a little bit of humor to them.”

In which Murray, reprising his role as self-help-guru, subtly proselytizes the teachings of The Secret: “Sometimes I feel like I want to do something really funny. I feel like I’m going to do something funny, soon. And usually when I think that way, it comes. Like, I had a wish that I could do a movie that was sort of romantic. And then Sofia Coppola asked me to do this Lost in Translation, which was about love, and even though I wasn’t in love with Scarlett Johansson, she was in love and struggling and I was in love and struggling.”

Describing what he would have said if he’d gotten the Oscar for Best Actor for Lost in Translation: “I was going to say, when I heard I was nominated with — and I’d name the other [nominees] — I thought I had a pretty good chance. And I just thought no one had ever given that speech.”

Discussing his discomfort with Wes Anderson’s hyper-hipster dress code: “Wes’s movies keep getting better, but wait until you see this next one, this Grand Budapest Hotel, this is like a Time Square billboard dropped on your head. It’s amazing. He’s just great fun. We’ve become great friends and I really love him. He has his own fashion sense, that’s for sure, and he tries to dress everyone in the movies like himself, which is really cruel… Your pants cuffs never reach your shoes.”

Sharing an anecdote about a surprisingly sweet drunk-dial: “You gotta wish big. I’d like to see what I could do. I got a drunken phone call from a friend of my sister, and she called me in the middle of the night, and I was like, ‘oh boy,’ — you ever get someone calling you when they’re not their best? And she was really lovely and really charming, and she said, ‘you have no idea how much you can do, Bill. You can do so much.’ And I’d never had anyone talk like that. And it’s funny — it was a drunken phone call in the middle of the night, and I listened to her for 40 minutes or so, while I was falling asleep, but it was like it came from the other side. It was a voice that was intoxicated, like those visionaries speaking to you in the night and coming into your dreams, and I hope to remember that — that encouragement.”

In which Murray reveals the last, unspoken line of Lost in Translation: “I told the truth once and they didn’t believe me, so I just said ‘to hell with it, I’m not telling anyone.’ I whispered in her ear, but the moment happened, and I was wired — they had microphones — and Sofia and Ava Cabrera the script supervisor had this moment where they just looked at her and said, ‘He doesn’t have to say anything. You don’t have to hear anything.’ And I had the same feeling from 60 yards away. I went, ‘It doesn’t matter what the hell I say in her ear. This will be a wonderful mystery.’”

 

by Moze Halperin

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Top 10 Films You Should See

Hirokazu Koreeda is a master of cinema. One of Japan’s foremost auteurs, Koreeda is not interested in creating heroes to star in melodramatic blockbusters. Instead, he excels at capturing the lyrical and poetic elements in everyday life. Often praised for his humanist approach to cinema, Koreeda is consistently willing to provide a platform for traumatized characters, to whom the audience can relate. Here are ten Koreeda movies any film lover should see.

August Without Him (1994)

After studying Literature at Waseda University in Tokyo, Koreeda embarked on a career making documentaries for Japanese television. His background, therefore, has hugely shaped his approach to film-making. Most of Koreeda’s fictional films are rooted in true stories and personal experiences. The acting is always naturalistic, while his films are paced slowly to allow him to explore the characters’ psyche in greater detail and lucidity. The focal point of this documentary is Hirata Yukata, notable for being the first man in Japan to come out as HIV-positive. As an aspiring filmmaker, it was documentaries like August Without Him that made Koreeda realize how inauthentic his scripts were. So the medium of documentary had a profound effect on how Koreeda would later depict characters in film.

 

Maborosi (1995)

Maborosi is Koreeda’s first dramatic feature film, a visual lyrical poem and a contemplative reflection on loss. The central character Yumiko, is haunted by the death of her grandmother as revealed in a dream sequence at the beginning of the film. Nevertheless, she appears to be living a blissful life with her husband Ikuo. One day this is all brought to a halt by a knock on the door. The police reveal that Ikuo has committed suicide by walking on the tracks towards a moving train. So the focus of Maborosi is Yumiko’s grieving process, as she tries to fathom what caused this inexplicable suicide.

There is hardly any dialogue in Maborosi, instead the audience are immersed into her world. Yumiko’s emotions are clearly hard for her to convey coherently to us. Consequently, it is left to the incredible cinematography to reflect her state of mind. Koreeda decides to use only natural light in the film, so the scenes are often dark. The long, lingering shots of the Japanese landscape makes the world look vast and empty. Furthermore, the constant sound effects during the film convey her futile attempts to find peace. Everything is dark. There is no silence. There is no escape. Maborosi is a serene and poignant work of art.

 

After Life (1998)

The recently deceased find themselves in purgatory, a realm that seems to resemble a bureaucratic office. Social workers command each dead person to select a memory to keep for eternity. Once chosen, the workers transform into filmmakers, as they go about condensing the memory into a short film. Although the premise is steeped in fantasy, the film itself exudes realism and pragmatism. There are no fancy special effects, instead After Life is shot like a documentary with Koreeda using a hand-held camera. The vast majority of the film consists of interviews, whereby people with no prior acting experience were invited by Koreeda to reminisce about their own lives in front of a camera. It is an intelligent and moving film, compelling the audience to venture into their own bank of memories.

 

Distance (2001)

Distance, nominated for the Golden Palm award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, focuses on the aftermath of a massacre by an apocalyptic religious cult. On the 3rd anniversary of the tragedy, four friends convene at a lake where the ashes of their loved ones are scattered. It is here where they encounter the sole survivor of the cult, who absconded just before the massacre. He gives them a tour round the religious sect’s headquarters and the characters are forced to confront their overwhelming feeling of loss as well as shame. Distance is interspersed with recollections, flashbacks and long, unbroken shots instilling a meditative tone to the proceedings. Ultimately, the film poses the question: can the characters put a distance between themselves and their loved one’s incomprehensible act of violence?

 

Nobody Knows (2004)

Nobody Knows is about a four young siblings muddling through their adolescence after their single mother abruptly leaves without any warning. Based on a true story, the children are forced to fend for themselves in their cramped Tokyo apartment. It is rare in cinema in general to see a film that portrays a child’s view of the adult world with such aplomb as Koreeda does here. It is heartbreaking gritty realism, with the unobtrusive camera work allowing the story to unfold. Nobody Knows slowly and tenderly paints a devastating portrait of the children’s lives blighted by parental neglect. Koreeda’s intense and empathetic portrayal led to the main actor Yûya Yagira winning the best actor at 2004 Cannes Film Festival – at the age of 14.

 

Hana (2006)

A slight divergence by Koreeda here as Hana is a period drama about a young samurai in 18th century Japan. However, in typical Koreeda fashion, this is an offbeat samurai film that shuns many of the traditional elements associated with the genre. For example, there is hardly any sword fighting at all in Hana. The main character, Aoki Sozaemon, is not a stereotypical samurai. He is an amiable but meek warrior trying his best to avenge the murder of his father. However, he is not bloodthirsty and struggles with his reluctance to carry out his mission. Koreeda humanizes the samurai, as Sozaemon starts to question his true essence. Koreeda deserves great credit for his originality, making a fresh contribution to what is a well-worn genre.

 

Still Walking (2008)

‘Still walking, on and on. But I only sway like a little boat’.

The title of the film is lifted from the lyrics of a romantic song called Blue Light Yokohama. The lyrics, heard in the film, takes on an extra poetic meaning in the context of this tragicomedy. The audience are introduced to the Yokoyama family, who come together every year to commemorate the death of the elder son Junpei. He drowned in the sea while saving a boy over a decade ago. There is no melodrama nor hysteria in the film. Instead, it is an understated and yet touching depiction of a family shaped by a tragic event. The naturalistic performances are compelling, with every action and every line utilized to revealing the inner psyche of the characters. Hirokazu has commented on how the film – a direct response to the death of his mother – was an important stepping stone in his career. This is because he was struck by the realization that deeply personal films can actually be extremely resonant. Indeed, there is no measured sense of objectivity in this film. Its sentimental attributes help everyone relate to Still Walking.

 

Air Doll (2009)

Air Doll is based on the manga series Kuuki Ningyo by Yoshiie Gōda. In the film, a sex toy called Nozomi, played by Bae Doona, somehow magically comes to life. She seeks to immerse herself in new experiences, while trying to make sense of this peculiar world. Nozomi enjoys the sensation of the rain, marvels at babies and gets a job at a video store. Here she forms a relationship with co-worker Junichi. This premise is ripe for exploration on many themes such as alienation, loneliness and feminism – executed with a deft touch by master Koreeda.

I Wish (2011)

Hirokazu manages to expertly capture the essence of childhood in this charming film. Starring real life brothers, Koki and Oshiro Maeda, the two protagonists are geographically separated because of their belligerent parents. The brothers latch onto this idea that if present at the moment when two bullet trains pass each other – at very high speed – then they will be able to have their wishes granted. The brothers take refuge in this miracle, sweetly believing this will save their parent’s marriage. Thematically, the film reflects on childhood dreams and revels in their innate wide-eyed innocence. Ultimately I Wish becomes a pre-teen adventure, as the brothers embark on a pastoral journey with their friends to uncover this miracle.

 

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Ryota, an affluent father, has been bringing up Keita very strictly with his wife for six years. Yet they receive incomprehensible news that Keita is not their biological son. He was accidentally mixed up with Ryusei at birth and given to the wrong parents. Consequently, two families from different social classes are forced to come together and make some difficult choices. Koreeda was influenced by his own experience of fatherhood, observing his initial lack of a strong emotional bond with his daughter when she was born. There are many interesting themes in this acclaimed film, such as the nature versus nurture argument, as the two families ponder over whether they should switch the children back. Furthermore, the film provides an intriguing commentary on Japan’s changing attitudes towards fatherhood. For example, Ryota, a detached workaholic, embodies old-fashioned conservative Japan whereby the father’s main role was to solely provide for their family. This is in contrast to the other father, Yudai, who is deeply involved in Ryusei’s life.

 

by Patrick Norrie

Sofia Coppola Discusses ‘Lost in Translation’ on Its 10th Anniversary

On Sept. 12, 2003, the Tokyo-set love story, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, opened in theaters. A decade on, the movie’s Oscar-winning filmmaker, Sofia Coppola, talks to Marlow Stern about making the film.

There are a handful of films that have carved out prime real estate in the hearts of millennials. During one of your many aimless trips to the mall, you may have nabbed the movie’s poster from f.y.e. to grace the wall of your dorm room or moseyed over to Tower Records to cop the soundtrack. You may have even taken your fandom on the road, annoying the rest of your family mid-vacation with eager observations like “Oh, this is the place where _________ kissed!”

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, which was released theatrically on Sept. 12, 2003, is one of those films.

Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, an aging American actor who is in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial, for which he’s being paid $2 million. Bob isn’t happy. His career is on the downslope, and the fire in his marriage has long been out. Also in Tokyo is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young college graduate whose hipster husband (Giovanni Ribisi) is a celebrity photographer on assignment in the city. Much to her chagrin, he seems more interested in palling around with a young American actress, Kelly (Anna Faris), than spending time with her.

The two marooned Americans keep running into each other at night in the hotel bar, and soon a relationship begins to form. In each other, these two lost souls have found exactly what they’d been missing, and they bust out of their hotel-prison to explore the vibrancy of Tokyo. Many millennials, in particular, connected with Lost in Translation’s themes of loneliness and ennui, and the movie grossed $120 million worldwide—against a budget of just $4 million—and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, with Coppola winning the latter.

In honor of the 10th anniversary of the movie, Coppola spoke to The Daily Beast about the making of the film, her favorite memories of hanging out with Bill Murray in Tokyo, and much more.

 

Where did you come up with the idea for Lost in Translation?

I spent a lot of time in Tokyo in my 20s. I had a little clothing company with a friend, so we went there a few times a year. I was living in L.A. at the time, and I always thought about the little cultural differences between the two places. I put a lot of things in that really happened. And since I was in my 20s and didn’t really know what I wanted to be doing, I think it’s my most personal movie because it’s about what I was going through at the time. And then Bill Murray, my fantasy hero, just swooped in.

 

I know how hard it is to even try and nab Bill for an interview—going through his lawyer, etc.—so how did you corral him?

When I was writing it I was picturing him and he really inspired it, and I wasn’t going to make the movie without him, so I was determined to convince him. I spent about a year trying to track him down and was asking random people who knew him through golf. I was on a mission. And he didn’t have an agent at that time, so he was very elusive. I showed my friend Mitch Glazer, who’s a writer, a very early version of the script, and he thought it had something and liked that I saw Bill in that way, so he helped introduce us. We went to Japan without knowing if Bill was going to show up—he wouldn’t even tell us what flight he was on because he’s so elusive—so it was nerve-wracking, but he showed up right before we started shooting.

Also, with Scarlett, she was a relatively green actor at the time. How did you arrive at her, and what made you feel she and Murray would have such great chemistry together?

I just liked her from that movie Manny & Lo, and she was 17, but I had this idea of her being this young Lauren Bacall-type girl. I loved her low voice. You can’t really gauge the chemistry unless you do tests before you start shooting, and I don’t think they even met before we did, so I just picked someone I liked and hoped that it worked. And Bill is so lovable.

 

One of the film’s many accomplishments is that, despite the big age difference, the relationship between Bob and Charlotte doesn’t come off as creepy.

I’m glad! I think it’s a lot to do with the casting. There were certain actors that people mentioned for the Bill part, and if they were lying in bed, that could have been creepy, but it’s just something about how Bill is that it never came off lecherous. Maybe because he’s such a kid.

 

How autobiographical is the story? There have been all the rumors that Giovanni Ribisi’s character is based on your husband at the time, Spike Jonze , and that Anna Faris’s character is based on Cameron Diaz.

The character of the actress was based on a bunch of people—just that type. I could probably name eight people that she was based on, just that bubbly, extroverted blonde that you see on talk shows. It was the opposite of the Scarlett character, where I was feeling very introverted and didn’t know what I was doing. It was just a certain actress type that I was hanging around sometimes. It wasn’t a slight at anyone in particular. But the character of the husband, I was just married and trying to figure it out, so that relationship was based on what I was going through at the time.

The opening shot of Scarlett lying on the bed in her underwear is one of the film’s great images. What inspired that shot?

There’s a painter called John Kacere who does paintings of girls in different underwear, so it’s taken from one of his paintings. When I started the movie, I had a reference book of different images that came to mind with the movie. I always collect reference pictures to make a book that I can show, and they were just snapshots around Tokyo, looking out the taxi and seeing neon lights going by, and I used to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, so there were pictures of the view from the hotel bar. And the redheaded singer [in the film] was actually a singer I saw performing at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and we got the manager to track her down.

 

One hilarious moment is the “lip my stocking!” scene with Bob and the Japanese woman in the hotel room. Where did that come from?

That came from a story of a friend of mine who was working in Japan and had this story of, I don’t know if it was a prostitute or a co-worker, and thought she wanted some bondage thing, but it was a misunderstanding. And I was looking for stories of misunderstandings.

 

The “Suntory Time” commercial shoot is so hilarious. I read that it was based on a real-life commercial that your father shot with Kurosawa?

Yeah. My dad and Kurosawa did a Suntory commercial which they shot at our house in San Francisco. But going to Japan, you’d always see ads of people like Kevin Costner or someone promoting coffee. It’s this heightened, Japanese idea of Western culture. And I was cracking up the whole time during that shoot. That was a real photographer, and I was sitting with the photographer and I would say things to him and he would repeat it to Bill, so he was yelling things like, “Rat pack!” at Bill, and Bill would respond. And Bill improvised that entire scene.

 

Any favorite memories of hanging with Bill during the making of Lost in Translation?

He’s just so much fun. I remember he would throw the hotel housekeeper lady over his shoulder and walk around with her. He was so funny and so fun.

 

Bill’s been known to crash the occasional karaoke party. Did you know about his love of karaoke before making him sing it in the movie?

I knew he sang because I remember that character on SNL of the lounge singer, and we all went out with the crew and would sing karaoke. That was definitely a highlight. I feel like Bill was kind of a classic rock guy, but I can’t remember what songs we did!

I also heard that the crew was almost arrested a couple of times for filming in public in Tokyo—

We didn’t have permits and would just go into the subway or on the street, and I think there was some Yakuza mix-up at some point. Apparently, we were on some Yakuza territory that we didn’t know about. That shot where Scarlett is crossing the street, there was a Starbucks upstairs so we just snuck up there, bought a coffee, and shot it from above. Nobody seemed to notice. And we got shut down a few times on the street but just moved on.

Problems with the cops and the Yakuza aside, what was toughest scene for you to film?

The scene where [Bill and Scarlett] are lying in bed talking and the TV is on, it’s just really intimate. That was just off. I don’t know if they just weren’t in a good mood, but they weren’t getting along and it wasn’t going well. So we just stopped and tried again the next day. I just remember it being a bit tense, but it’s just such an intimate moment. And we shot the film in 27 days and it was super low budget, so the whole thing was tough, and there was a language barrier with the crew and cultural misunderstandings there as well. It was a messy adventure, but it was fun.

The film has a great soundtrack, too. It was the first time many Americans had heard Phoenix.

I always liked Phoenix, but they weren’t really known here until recently. They were just songs I liked and had been listening to, and Brian Reitzell would help me out and make me Tokyo dream-pop mixes. Phoenix’s “Too Young,” just the lyrics and the whole feeling of it, I loved it for that scene. Thomas [Mars, lead singer of Phoenix] did a song with Air called “Playground Love” that was in The Virgin Suicides, and he performed it with them at Sundance, so we met a long time ago. But he lived in France, so I didn’t get to know him until I lived in France for Marie Antoinette.

 

I feel like this film inspired a generation of young women to visit Japan. Are you a VIP in Japan now for life?

That’s so funny. Probably the hardest thing was convincing the Park Hyatt hotel to let us shoot a movie there, because they didn’t want a movie shot there. They would only let us shoot in the hallways and the communal places at 3 or 4 in the morning, so we didn’t disturb any guests. We were always sneaking around the hotel. But now I’ve heard they have Lost in Translation tours there. I should go back and stay at the hotel!

 

I heard that the kiss at the end between Bill and Scarlett was sprung on her, and she didn’t know it was coming.

It was always meant to be this tender goodbye where they both knew that they had touched each other in some way. And I remember sometimes he would always spring things on her, and it was fun to get her reaction.

 

Is the statute of limitations up on what Bill whispers to Scarlett at the end?

No, I still love that Bill says it’s between them!

 

Do you think Bob and Charlotte would ever cross paths again?

That’s so funny…I’ve never thought about that! I have different fantasies of what would happen to them, but I’d like people to form their own.

 

Lost in Translation gained such a huge cult following. Why do you think it’s held up so well?

For me, I was just writing these little notes about stuff that happened to me, or what I thought, and I didn’t think anyone was going to be interested, so it’s really a surprise to me that that many people have seen it and that it did as well as it did. I felt like it was really indulgent, so yeah, it was a surprise. And it’s still surprising to me.

 

by Marlow Stern