|Lupita Nyong'o in Black Panther|
It was the realization that Lupita Nyong’o was the best Korean speaker in Black Panther that jolted me out of the movie’s magic.
Black Panther is a cultural moment, and deservedly so. It succeeds both as entertainment and as an inspirational piece of film art. Much of the praise for the movie has focused on the movie’s depiction of Wakanda—a fictional African country constructed with so much loving detail that it cannot help but feel real. (This awesome twitter thread showcases some of the details, drawn from various African cultures, that are visible in Black Panther.)
As a Marvel comics fan, I was ready for the ride. My favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is Captain America: Civil War, and no small part of my love for that movie comes from the fact that it is the first moment I got to watch T’Challa on screen. Probably like many others, I drew a breath when the Wakandan stealth jet slid past the virtual camouflage to fly over the glistening skyscrapers in the hidden city. I was fully lost in the ensuing scenes that made Wakanda seem touchable, breathable.
So it was more than a little ironic that a depiction of a real city—specifically, Busan, Korea—was the needle-scratch moment for me, taking the scale made of vibranium off my eyes. In a movie about a fictional country, the least real thing was a real city inhabited by 3.4 million people.
(More after the jump.)
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Hollywood movies never quite figured out Korea. As a major economy and a significant force in global pop culture, Korea is important enough to be regularly featured in big movies. (Seoul made an appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron, for example.) Yet American moviemakers know so little about Korea that they didn’t even yet develop an orientalist stereotype for the country, like the Chinese-language street signs and hanging ducks for Hong Kong or high-tech, steel-and-glass buildings of Tokyo. Korean cities in a Hollywood blockbuster usually is a mishmash of different orientalist caricatures. In Cloud Atlas, for example, the "Neo Seoul" has Hong Kong’s streets and Japan’s interior design. It bears no visual relation to the actual look of Seoul.
|Inside a home in "Neo Seoul," in Cloud Atlas.|
Busan in Black Panther, in which the movie spends about 20 minutes or so, is not much better. To a Korean speaker, the movie’s deficiency in the Korean language skill is incredibly grating, especially because the worst offenders were characters who were supposed to be Koreans. Lupita Nyong’o’s Korean was oddly accented as if she was trying to speak Chinese or another tonal language, but she nonetheless delivered her lines confidently, naturally and comprehensibly. The same cannot be said for other characters.
Black Panther’s foray into Busan begins with the city’s fish market, and nearly every Korean speaker I’ve met who watched the movie complained about “the fish market lady.” The role, played by Korean American Alexis Rhee, engages in a playful banter with Nyong’o’s character Nakia. But the playfulness of the moment is lost on a Korean speaker, because the fish market lady’s Korean is garbled to a point that it is incomprehensible. Other lines in Korean by other minor characters were also stilted and unnatural. For example, a CIA agent supposedly said “back there” in Korean, according to the subtitles. But the Korean phrase he said was as awkward as saying “behind the location.”
(Side note: it appears Rhee cornered the market on cringe-worthy depictions of Koreans or Korean Americans—one of her major appearances was in Crash, a ham-fisted movie about race relations. Her character’s name is “Kim Lee.” I wish I were making this up. But then again, I don’t want to be too harsh on Rhee here. Being an Asian American actor is hard enough—if she couldn’t get this type of roles, what other role would even be available for her?)
The fish market lady, turns out, was not actually a fishmonger but a bouncer to a secret, underground casino—which looks exactly like the casino featured in the James Bond movie Skyfall. Except the Skyfall casino was supposed to be in Macau, a Chinese city famous for gambling, and had the typical interior design of a Macanese casino. Already jolted by the fish market lady’s bad Korean, I went into a full double facepalm when I saw the cocktail waitresses in the casino wearing hanbok-resembling miniskirts. It was a sad attempt by an otherwise excellent movie to signal that, somehow, this Chinese-looking casino was actually Korean. I don't know if there really is an underground casino in Busan. But if there were such a thing, the cocktail waitresses there would not be wearing hanbok.
|The Busan Casino in Black Panther|
The missed opportunity in Black Panther’s depiction of Busan looms even larger because Busan is such a real city. Busan is a distinctive place, and has been that way for a long time. The melodic, allegro tempo Busan accent is instantly recognizable. (Would it have been too much to ask for Black Panther’s Busanians to speak like Busan people, seeing that the movie cared a great deal about Wakandans’ languages and accents?) Like Boston or Philadelphia, it is a second city that carries itself like the first city, refusing to cede grounds to the glitzier Seoul or New York. As an old port city, Busan can be gritty and grimy, but in a lovable way. Koreans from Busan are deeply proud of being from Busan, and show their civic pride by madly cheering for the local sports teams. (Free tip for future movie makers: if you are showing Busan, make sure to include a scene about the Lotte Giants, Busan’s baseball team.)
Is there a movie set in Boston or Philadelphia that does not loudly proclaim how Boston or Philly everything is in the movie? Yet there is nothing Busan about the Busan in Black Panther. The “Movie Busan” in Black Panther is a fake, in a way the fictional Wakanda is not. Wakanda in Black Panther is irreplaceable; change Wakanda with any other city, and the movie no longer makes sense. The Movie Busan is very much replaceable. Swap it out with any city—it doesn’t even have to be an Asian city, any non-US city will do—and the movie would remain exactly the same. Like much of Asia presented in Hollywood movies, the Movie Busan is a prop, an exotic place in which the main characters can romp around before returning home.
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So, what is to be done about this?
The standard woke answer is straightforward: give proper representation to Busan. Showcase the locations that are clearly associated with the city, and populate it with actors reflecting the lived experience of Busan’s residents.
I am in favor of all of the above, but I remain unsatisfied. Suppose Black Panther did all of the above: how much does that improve the movie? No matter how realistic the Movie Busan may be, the movie is about Wakanda, not Busan. To be sure, there would be at least some improvement—the more realistic Busan would in turn make Wakanda more realistic, as Wakandans would be interacting with real people in a real city. But then again, a very realistic Prague could replace the very realistic Busan to serve the same function. Does it really make a difference if an Asian city is made to feel a bit more real for about 20 minutes of run time in a movie that is, ultimately, about men in tights punching each other?
Much of the discussion surrounding Asian American representation on screen frustrates me with its pettiness. Too many Asian Americans, in my view, expend so much energy and emotion in order to win table scraps—as if the fish market lady in Black Panther having pitch-perfect Busan accent would somehow empower the little Korean American girls watching the movie. A recent example of this involved Doctor Strange, another Marvel movie. In the original comics, the Ancient One character who teaches Doctor Strange is a Tibetan. In the movie version, Tilda Swinton played the Ancient One. I watched with bemusement the ensuing charges of whitewashing. True, Swinton playing a Tibetan character can be considered whitewashing. But then again, the Ancient One from the comics is itself an orientalist caricature from the 1960s. The whole concept of a Tibetan guru hidden in the mystical mountains is itself a racial stereotype. I’m supposed to be upset about how an Asian actor didn’t get to play this role?
I believe the insistence on authentic representation loses sight of an important truth: that humans can process only a few perspectives at a time. Every great story, including Black Panther, has the center and the periphery. The center is in focus, the periphery in haze. The center holds, while the periphery changes. Too often, Asian Americans obsess about what happens in the periphery, because they have never been in the center. Again, it would have been nice if the Movie Busan in Black Panther was a bit more realistic. But ultimately, we should have the wherewithal to say: it doesn’t really matter. Black Panther is not about Korea. In fact, the movie would be ruined if it tried to be about Korea rather than Wakanda.
It would be wiser to accept that the universal perspective is not available to us. That to some degree, we are all strangers to someone else. At the end of the day, representation on screen cannot possibly be about creating a fiefdom of equal screen time for each underrepresented group. (How boring would that movie be?) Nor is the solution clawing at the periphery, hoping to make the tiny real estate just a little prettier while the rest of the story passes by. Far better course is to be at the center of the narrative, to tell our story, and let the others recede in the background for a change. If Asian Americans can be confident that their story will be told in due time, as majestically and vividly as the African American story is in Black Panther, perhaps we would become more generous about laughing off some bad accents.
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