Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Asian American screentime


'The Slanted Screen' plays the Roxie Cinema

Mako in The Slanted Screen: a century of Asian American film history.
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"I hate the British. You're defeated, but you have no shame. You're stubborn, but you have no pride! You endure, but you have no courage! I hate the British!"

Sessue Hayakawa was in his mid-60s when he created the role with which most Americans of my age will forever associate him, that of the sagacious, moody Japanese prison-camp officer matching wits with Alex Guinness' implacable Colonel Bogey in David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai. Watching the key scene between Guinness and Hayakawa 50 years later, itself a seven-minute mini-movie, one observes the major issues that underlay the titanic struggles for Pacific Rim supremacy between two societies. Hayakawa, as the proud Japanese officer struggling to bend the obstinate Guinness (on a hunger strike) to his will, gives a textbook display of an actor's tools and palettes of emotion, from seductive charm to murderous fury.

In The Slanted Screen, his deftly compiled documentary examination of a century of Asian-American film history opening at the Roxie, SF's own Jeff Adachi reminds us that in the days of Hollywood's boisterous infancy, a young, handsome Hayakawa rivaled Rudolph Valentino as a screen lover. Veteran actor Carey-Hiroyuki Tagawa notes the dangerous allure of Hayakawa. "Sessue Hayakawa had Saturday matinee theatres full of white women coming to see an Asian male overpower them."

This survey of the hard struggle for acceptance features the personal stories of Asian-American artists James Shigeta (Flower Drum Song ), Jason Scott Lee (Only the Brave, a candid depiction of an Asian American army unit in WWII), Dustin Nguyen (Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation ) and Eurasian filmmaker Eric Byler (Americanese ) confronting both the racially and sexually inspired fear and revulsion of white American audiences, as well as the racist casting proclivities of Hollywood moguls. Adachi's Slanted Screen demonstrates why, despite brilliant individual achievements and tantalizing momentary breakthroughs, the battle for true acceptance, especially by Asian males, has been so long, costly and as yet unrealized.

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