The Slanted Screen
10-11 p.m., Monday, May 21
KCET (Los Angeles)
The subject of how Asian-American men have been represented in mainstream American movies and television deserves a more original approach than we get in the new PBS documentary, "The Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film and Television." This is pretty much a run-through of what we have seen of Asian-American men and their onscreen roles from the days of silent film and early television to the present.
But it's a dry run -- a no-nonsense, humorless trek through much footage, without much context and without a large idea. In this documentary -- written, produced and directed by Jeff Adachi -- there is a good amount of complaining about the situation of Asian-American males: the way actors have been overlooked because of the American media perception of the Asian-American male, period (as pretty much sexless or something to be feared, a bit confusing in itself). The subject itself is a good one, and deserves as much attention as the media and academe have given to the situation of Asian-American women in film and television. Too bad this could not have been a more entertaining, informative approach.
The docu begins with a long look at the Asian-American silent actor Sessue Hayakawa, whom some of us might remember as Alec Guinness' nemesis in the masterful "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Hayakawa was a major star in his own right during American film's golden silent era. In fact, he was one of the screen's highest paid and respected actors.
The documentary doesn't lack for historical content at the start, as the segment on Hayakawa demonstrates (there is wonderful footage of him as well). As it moves closer to contemporary times, the docu seems satisfied to let interviewees talk as if they were putting together a complaint fest. The context that the film so obviously needs seems to fly out the window.
It's good to see James Shigeta again, who hasn't been around (or so it seems) since his big splash in the 1950s and '60s in such films as "A Bridge to the Sun" and "Flower Drum Song." When Shigeta discusses his role in the little-seen 1959 Sam Fuller noir thriller "The Crimson Kimono," we get a little meat on the docu's bones. Soon thereafter, Asian-American male film history gets replaced by such actors as Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, the late Mako and Jason Scott Lee, as well as playwright Frank Chin and producer Terence Chang, who file complaints yet who are rarely backed up by a larger context that could provide answers to the questions: What is the situation today? Is it different for female stars?
Nonetheless, it's good to see the faces and to gather more information than we had before.
The documentary airs at 1 p.m. Sunday on WNET New York and at 10 p.m. May 21 on KCET Los Angeles.
THE SLANTED SCREEN: ASIAN MEN IN FILM AND TELEVISION
Center for Asian-American Media
Writer-producer-director: Jeff Adachi
Editor/co-producer: Alex Yeung
Director of photography: Ann Kaneko
Executive producer: Robert Chan
Narrator: Daniel Dae Kim