When race matters on the screen and stage

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-08-08 07:25:37

When race matters on the screen and stage

Christian Bale plays the lead role in The Flowers of War, a Chinese film on the Nanjing massacre of 1937. CFP

Of course, the reasons are quite different: China had "white face" because we could not afford to hire Caucasian actors back then, so it is now out of vogue since there are so many Chinese-speaking Westerners working in China, including professional and amateur actors. But America had "yellow face" because Hollywood feared that Middle America would not accept an Asian face on the big screen, not because Asian talents were not available or too expensive.

For all the progress that's been achieved in the past half-century, Hollywood is still not ready for an Asian lead, especially the male lead, with a few exceptions such as Jackie Chan in action movies or others in period pieces set in China (eg, The Last Emperor).

Given the state of globalization, this is a deplorable situation. But I believe it is based on the bottom line rather than on artistic or political consideration.

Zhang's previous work, The Flowers of War, cast Christian Bale in the lead, and that role demanded it be played by a Caucasian actor or the story would not hold. He was an outsider to the Rape of Nanking and it was crucial that he provided that perspective.

In The Great Wall, Damon plays a European mercenary soldier, so it seems the role was also tailor-made for a white actor. Of course, European actors can argue that they are more qualified because Damon may have an American accent at a time when America did not even exist-the story is set in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

I don't think all roles should be Chinese simply because the Great Wall is a Chinese icon. The monster which appears in the trailer is not Chinese or of any country. As a matter of fact, this is a fantasy film, which means you'll have to suspend logic a lot of times when watching it.

Even when a film is rooted in real history, there are many ways to argue for or against any casting decision.

For example, if the engineer in Miss Saigon had been played by a big Chinese star, Chinese audiences might have been offended. As he is a bad guy, they might have said, "Are you implying we Chinese are all this bad?" This role was later assumed by Wang Luoyong, a Chinese actor who launched his China-side career after he left New York. But the musical is not widely known in China.

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