‘21’ Not the First Film To ‘Whitewash’ Our History

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You’ve probably heard the new film 21 is based on Ben Mezrich’s best-selling book Bringing Down the House, which recounts the true story of a group of MIT students who devised a method of counting cards and took Las Vegas casinos for millions.

In the real-life version, most of the students were of Asian descent — the idea being that casinos are less suspicious of Asians with lots of money to gamble away. But in the reel world of Hollywood, we have pretty Caucasians Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) and Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns) leading the cast. The filmmakers threw in Asians Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira to placate angry activists, but that hasn’t stopped some in the community from expressing outrage and threatening a boycott.

This isn’t the first time that Hollywood has taken a page from Asian American history and literally “whitewashed” it. Here are two more films from the not-too-distant past that took liberties with the facts.

In 1942, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly interned in a time of xenophobic wartime hysteria. Almost 50 years later, Hollywood finally tackled the subject, but because the story of Japanese Americans torn from their homes and forced to live in concentration camps was obviously not dramatic or commercial enough, director/writer Alan Parker decided a love story between a Caucasian man and a Japanese woman was needed.

Dennis Quaid played union rabble-rouser Jack McGunn, who falls for Lily Kawamura (Tamlyn Tomita) while working in her father’s Little Tokyo movie theater. Their relationship is met with resistance by her traditional family, so they run off to Seattle and start a family until World War II throws their lives into chaos — he is sent to war, she and their child to camp.

Come See the Paradise isn’t a bad film. The scenes focusing on the Kawahara family — their prewar life in Los Angeles and the camp years — are fully realized and offer insights into the Japanese American experience. Anchored by Sab Shimono’s quietly moving performance as the family patriarch, the film comes to life in these moments.

It’s the Jack-Lily romance that bogs things down. Their relationship feels inauthentic and undercuts any attempt to tell a believable story about one of the great injustices of American history.

Korean American Chol Soo Lee was jailed for the 1973 murder of an alleged Chinatown gang member in San Francisco. Beginning in 1977, Korean American journalist K.W. Lee wrote over 120 articles arguing that the younger Lee (no relation) had been falsely convicted, an effort which led to a nationwide movement culminating in the release of Chol Soo Lee in 1983 (see “The Story of Chol Soo Lee” in the March 28 issue of AsianWeek).

This story became the basis for the 1989 film True Believer about a young Korean American wrongly accused of a gangland murder and the man who helps free him. And who played the heroic crusader? James Woods, playing an attorney who works tirelessly to free the innocent Shu Kai Kim (Karate Kid 2 baddie Yuji Okumoto).

The contributions of K.W. Lee are completely brushed aside, as are those of the other Asian Americans who worked tirelessly on the case, including Jay Yoo, Grace Kim, Ranko Yamada, Tom Kim, Warren Furutani and Luke Kim.

At the time of True Believer’s release, K.W. Lee told the Charleston Gazette he enjoyed the film “as fiction … but it was not a true picture. They have completely preempted the struggle of Asians.”

And as 21 has shown us, not much has changed in 20 years.

Philip W. Chung is a writer and co-artistic director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble. Lodestone’s next production of Nic Cha Kim’s Trapezoid opens on April 19 in L.A. For more info: www.lodestonetheatre.org.

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The history of ‘Hollywood’ Chinese

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