Thursday, September 01, 2005

On Eric Byler, and Asian-American sex relations

Just got back from a trip to find that Charlotte Sometimes arrived from GreenCine while I was gone. I can't really say that I like it, but it has some virtues, and it's interesting at least. It's a super-low-budget film that, apparently, made a splash on the festival circuit, won a couple of awards, and was championed, with effusive praise, by Roger Ebert. It's also one of the rare American movies with Asian-American lead characters who are distinctive individuals, with real dialogue, complex motivations, etc., rather than stock caricatures or representatives of Archetypal Ethnic Verities.

Anyway, I'm posting about this only because I'm watching one of the DVD extras, an interview by Roger Ebert, from a post-screening session at Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, with the director, the producer, and two cast members. The director, Eric Byler, who also wrote the film, turns out to be an unexpectedly thoughtful person.

More precisely, it is not the fact that he's thoughtful which surprises me (many directors are), but rather the manner of his thoughtfulness, which seems writerly, almost novelistic. When most film directors give interviews or DVD commentaries, they seem preoccupied with the nuts-and-bolts craft of filmmaking. They'll go on and on about the travails of shooting in some special location, or building some peculiar set, or how the gears of a plot's mechanics mesh together. Film directors also tend, on average, to be primarily visual thinkers, and so --- aside from the obvious fact that they talk more about the visual aspects of a film than its verbal aspects --- they're often pretty bad at expressing complex thoughts in words. For example, I think that Quentin Tarantino, despite his gift for writing dialogue and his extraordinary personal loquaciousness, sounds completely goofy in interviews. Byler's different --- he seems preoccupied, above all, with the interiority of his characters, and he's reasonably articulate at explaining his thinking about them.

Byler also has interesting things to say about Asian-American inter-sex relations (he is mixed-race, by the way):

EBERT: You mentioned, at Hawaii, that there were what you felt were specifically Asian-American gender issues in the film, which you doubted that would be obvious to every audience. You said something about that.


EBERT: Could you talk about that?

BYLER: You know, I didn't, I didn't really think about the audience very much in any of the artistic choices that I made. But what sort of inspired the beginning, and I have to go all the way back to there to talk about it, 'cause I don't like to, myself, deconstruct the movie, but when I started, the way that I saw the world was, I saw a lot of couplings between Asian-American men and Asian-American women that were platonic, or that's what they called them. But there was always this tacit understanding that, uh, he would pretend not to love her, and she would pretend not to know.

And it's not necessarily an Asian-American thing, I betcha everybody here has been in a situation like that. But there's sort of a suspicion among Asian-American men, I think, that somehow the choice as to whether this new person who comes into your life is gonna be a lover or a friend is somehow contingent upon race. And, you know, I'm thinking about, you know, I was growing up south of the Mason-Dixon line on the East Coast, before I moved to Hawaii. I looked a lot more Asian when I was young, and the, uh, well there's a certain sense of isolation when there's only two other specimens in the whole school. And, of course, there's a little bit more isolation when you're not the same race as your, either one of your parents. So then your siblings, if you have them are the only, you know, the only being that you know when you're a child that's like you. But, you know, as you come of age and you start to say well, how, what kind of sexual being am I gonna be? You look at the images that you see on television. And you know, usually an Asian man is a technician, and he's never a lover. And if he does express sexual desire, it's ugly or unwanted. So if you're an Asian boy and you're growing up in this country, and you're thinking how do, where do I fit, as a sexual being, the message is the more you repress your sexual desire the more you'll be able to be accepted, or be able to fit in.

And, if you think about the messages that Asian girls get in this country, watching the images that we have on television and movies of Asian women, it seems as if sex is the only thing we want from them. The more sexy, the more beautiful you are, the more we want you. And so they misinterpret, I guess what we'd call exotification, as acceptance.

And so these two creatures, this Asian-American boy and this Asian-American girl grow up, and he's a little bit more tied to traditional values, and not surprisingly, because the traditional values, whether they're Christian or Buddhist or Shinto religions, those values are more in line with what, I guess, mainstream society wants from Asian men. And Asian girls are sort of encouraged to be more sexual, and so they're sort of breaking through into another more, I guess, Western set of values, or more like, Greek or, you know, the hedonistic sense of values that have overcome Christian values here. And so these, these creatures don't know how to interact very well. They sort of slide into this, they're attracted to each other, they want to be together, but they slide into this friendship thing. And I think there's a fundamental lie at the core of that friendship. And it often leads to some very difficult emotional situations.

Now, I should make a few things clear. First, I usually try to avoid generalizations about Asian-Americans as a whole. Second, I usually feel that I, personally, am pretty atypical for almost any recognizable subgroup of Asian-Americans, or stereotypes thereof (for those who don't know me, this claim probably sounds incongruous coming from an Asian-American grad student in computer science, but if you knew me better I hope it would seem less so). Third, I've never been the male half of the above-described quasi-platonic unrequited-infatuation friendship situation.

Nevertheless, I find Byler's statements very astute. Byler's saying, out loud and in public, things that are rarely said, even though (I think) nearly all young, adult Asian-Americans today recognize them on some level, whether they consciously acknowledge them or not.

Note, by the way, that one should be wary of confusing the view Byler expresses with a superficially similar sentiment that is unfortunately rather common among Asian(-American) men: the belief that Asian(-American) women are effectively a form of racial property, and therefore for an Asian(-American) woman to refuse an Asian(-American) man is an infringement on that property right, and a form of betrayal. This sentiment is, of course, reprehensible for all sorts of reasons that should be obvious.

The superficial similarity to Byler's view is that both views describe circumstances that seem potentially frustrating for Asian-American men. The difference, however, is that Byler doesn't indulge the racist, sexist premise of racial ownership of women. He merely acknowledges the obvious fact that sexual attraction, like all human emotions and behaviors, can be modulated by cultural influences, including racist assumptions embedded in the culture, and that the results can be painful for all involved.

1 comment:

  1. "even though (I think) nearly all young, adult Asian-Americans today recognize them on some level, whether they consciously acknowledge them or not."

    Yes, I absolutely agree; I certainly recognize what Byler's talking about.