Bad Asians, the Sequel:
Continuing Trends in Queer API Film and Video
In a recent article entitled Bad Asians: New Film and Video by Queer Asian American Artists, I positioned new work by e m e rging queer Asian American artists within a larger genealogy of Asian American media, queer film and video, and film and video by artists of color. I argued that, unlike an earlier generation of queer artists of color who, out of necessity, engaged in a more self-conscious identity politics in their work, new experimental film and video work by queer API artists addresses questions of ethnic and sexual identity in more oblique and satirical ways. These artists find their voices through a perverse identification and relationship with popular culture that uncovers, tweaks, and plays with the racialized fantasies, fears, and representations that make culture popular.1
This essay is an update on the work of queer Asian American video artists over the last five years. Many young artists continue to address the same issues of identity and popular culture, and one can still see a strong identification with popular media and celebrity. Some noticeable changes, however, include a growing preoccupation with the bodyits limits and its possibilitiesin a period of both rapid changes in technologies of representation as well as changes in the meaning of HIV/AIDS, gender identity, sexuality, and culture. While radically different in form, style, and voice, all the artists I discuss use their media to reimagine the representation and boundaries of the physical body in the twenty-first century.
Unlike much film and video by queer artists of color in the late 1980s and early 1990s that tended to center around a clearly articulated identity politics, this newer work posits a vision of culture, racial identity, and particularly the body as mutable and unfixed. In these pieces, bodies are continuously transformed through physical migration, temporal progression, the fantasies of culture and technology, and the projection and translation of shifts in the global body onto the local and private body. It is through the thread of these concerns that the work is situated firmly within the changing artistic, technological, biological, and cultural landscape of the new millennium.\
We Got Moves You Aint Even Heard Of (Part One) by Clover Paek, comments humorously on sexual identity, butch/femme roles, and Hollywoods Orientalism by re-casting the filmmaker as the lead in The Karate Kid and its sequels of the 1980s, and, alternately, by re-imagining teen idol Ralph Macchio as a lesbian icon. The 1999 short video substitutes Paeks sexually ambiguous body for that of the Karate Kid (Ralph Macchio) to underscore both the flexibility and mutability of his image as a sexual icon for straight and queer viewers and to expose the ways in which the appeal of the Karate Kid movies rests upon the converging spectacles of homoerotic violence and masked orientalism. Clover Paek is, in fact, the tranny boy alter ego of the videos real director, Erica Cho, adding another layer of visual punning and gender substitution.
The video begins with a layered scene of Daniel LaRusso (Macchio) wandering through what appear to be public restrooms at the beach while the Bananarama song, Cruel Summer, provides a musical reference to the films temporal setting as well as a commentary on the underlying violence associated with Daniels sexuality. This is intercut with scenes of a Los Angeles park at night, over which is laid a track of children questioning the gender identity of an unidentified person (Are you a boy or a girl?)2 The re-edited scene serves to queer the original one, refiguring Daniels furtive searching as gay cruising. The next scene is of Daniel, this time played by Paek, on the ground on his stomach, being beaten by a group of boys, to a soundtrack of lesbian sex. Next, we see the scene in which Daniels mother confronts him about his sunglasses, but when his mother insists on seeing his baby browns, the reverse shot again shows Paek reluctantly removing his/her sunglasses to reveal a black eye. Replacing the Italian American karate star with the Asian American queer filmmaker, the film lays bare the ways in which the production and marketing of Macchios image is dependent upon the already familiar mold of a feminized, sexualized, and brutalized Oriental. Another scene replays in slow motion the moment when Daniel is humiliated in front of his love interest and his rival when he trips in a restaurant kitchen and is covered in a red mess of spaghetti. While the dramatic force of the original scene depends upon the public spectacle of Daniels shame, We Got Moves re-stages the scene with Paek using the spaghetti as an erotic prop. Once again, Daniels abjection is transformed into a site of queer desire.
Like the visual substitutions enacted by the video, We Got Moves identifies teen fan culture as the site of a proliferation of meaning and as the space of queer subversion. Rather than securing a proper heterosexuality for their fan market, the carefully constructed and commodified images of the teen idol serve instead, through their excess, to open up a multiplicity of vectors of desire and identification. In one scene, the filmmaker is shown nervously interviewing the subject of his/her fandom, Ralph Macchio, who is also played by the filmmaker. While the interviewer asks questions, such as, What else do you do in your spare time?, Macchio replies,
I like to sing and dance. . . Sure. Ive always yearned to do Broadway. When the lights go down on the house and come up on the stage, its the actors who are telling a story. And its always changing. Its always fresh. When the other kids were listening to the Eagles, I was listening to No, No, Nanette.
While the astonished interviewer listens, Macchio relays contradictory stories about his love of musical theatre, his childhood hockey career, and his two children. (The interviewer cannot contain his/her incredulity at this one, exclaiming, But I d o n t get it. Youre seventeen!) While numerous Teen Beat-style headshots of Macchio swim in the background of the interviewe r, Macchio the interviewee is shot against a backdrop of ambiguously gendered characters kissing and fucking in a public park at night.3 The paradoxical answers, as well as the interchangeability of the idol and the fan, produce a pointed commentary on the unreliability, the queerness, of popular cultures icons. As the video ends, we are returned to the earlier scene of Daniels surreptitious cruising. He finally chooses a door and enters. Inside, turning in slow motion to meet him, is Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita.) The camera freezes on the Asian mans inscrutable face as the final words to be continued flash across the screen. The teacher/student relationship of the two men in the original film is once again re-figured as one of potential gay desire. If the Karate Kid films find their appeal in a series of cross-cultural substitutionsRalph Macchio as the orientalized object of desire and the abject disciple of an older Asian master then a queer Asian American filmmaker can step into the wobbly space of visual and cultural translation, claiming the perversity as her own.
In her video JJ Chinois (2002) Lynne Chan takes up the idea of a perverse, transgender, transnational fan culture and expands on it, using the aesthetic and technological tools of the internet fan site and Macro Media Flash, a rich user interface program for interactive web design. Unlike We Got Moves, which takes a recognizable media icon and infuses it with queer sexuality, Chan creates her own icon in JJ Chinois, the suburban California-born, Republican heartthrob and Bruce Lee look-alike played, as with the previous video, by the filmmaker herself. The video is based on the fan site www. jjchinois. com, which off e r s biographical detail in typical fan magazine formatD.O.B.: April 25, 1975; Birthplace: Bakersfield, California; Sign: Taurus; Fave Book: The Bible; Does He Cry: Yeahphotos of JJ and some of his favorite fetish objects; dates and locations of his upcoming tourFresno, CA, Target; Bowlegs, OK, OK Egg Roll; Crappo, MD, Crappo Community Collegeand the opportunity to ask JJ questions and to send fan mail.
Both the website and the video give historical background to JJs career: the website explains that he was working as a dim sum cart pusher and busboy at the steakhouse Steer and Stein in Coalinga, California when he was discovered by producer Murray Hill.4 According to the website, they joined forces, and through tireless experimentation, arrived at what they thought to be the ideal combination of talent and virility without bias in either direction. The video continues the narrative with text explaining that, in his latest project, JJ broke out of the comfortable Shangri-la that hed languished in for two projects/ Phoning up his old Altoona Blair High School chums/ JJ deftly mixed their collaborations to his gorgeous ends. While seeming to offer a close, intimate look into JJ Chinois by supplying a plethora of trivia such as photos of his favorite undergarments (leopard print bikinis) and details about his bad habits (burping, puts ketchup on everything, poppers), neither the website nor the video ever explain exactly what JJ Chinois does. Is he a singer? actor? musician? We learn little about JJ Chinois except that he is, simply, an idol. JJ Chinoisthe website and the videomimics popular fan sites by focusing less on the idols talents or accomplishments than on the minutiae that fascinate and enthrall fans. As in We Got Moves You Aint Even Heard Of, the real person behind the fan, whose life story is often filled with truths that clash with the constructed image, is less important than the screen of fetish commodities produced and marketed as metonymic fragments of his persona.
In this discussion I will be focusing on JJ Chinois the video, which samples not only from the website but also from a Bruce Lee 1975 biopic called Bruce Lee and I, directed by John Lomar and based on the account of Bruce Lees mistress, Betty Ting Pei, who was with Lee on the night he died, and who plays herself in the film. By mixing images and text from the interactive internet fan site with scenes from the 1970s biopic, Chan contrasts two historically and technologically distinct forms of fandom and homage. The 1975 film, which is alternately marketed under the titles Bruce LeeHis Last Days, His Last Nights and I Love You, Bruce Lee, and is also, curiously, subtitled in Hungarian, depicts Lee (played by Danny Lee) having sex with his mistress, playing on a trampoline with brightly colored pillows, smoking dope, and finally, clutching his head and dying from a cerebral edema. The poor quality of the video, along with its alternate titles and its subtitles, suggests that we are watching the third or fourth generation of a product that has been multiply copied and exported to markets around the world.5 On top of this melange, Chan adds scenes of her own production, in which she, wearing the shag hairstyle and trademark aviator sunglasses of Bruce Lee (and JJ Chinois), reenacts scenes from Bruce Lee and I with filmmaker and performance artist Patty Chang standing in for Betty Ting Pei. In other words, the audience is given images of Lynne Chan, playing JJ Chinois, playing Danny Lee, playing Bruce Lee, with a string of metonymic signifiers (sunglasses, hairstyle, degenerating video image) connecting the performances across time and media.
Once again, however, the specific details of the performer or the performance are less important than the icon itself. While mixing together multiple generations of Bruce Lees image (without Bruce Lee himself ever appearing), Chan ties them together with a simple silhouette of an ambiguously gendered figure wearing tight clothing and shag. The two-dimensionality of this image is accentuated by Chans use of the Flash program, whose bright, flat colors and geometric shapes recall a 1970s aesthetic and offer a statement on popular cultures tendency to recycle fashion and icons. Bruce Lee popularized martial arts in the United Statesand around the world, as the Hungarian subtitles attestwhile internet technology has allowed U.S. producers and fans to appropriate cinematic forms from other cultures and other time periods and to recycle them for export on an even wider global scale.
JJ Chinois is, in fact, full of gleeful slippage between the mistranslation of exported Asian culture and Asian popular cultures nonsensical uses of the English language (catalogued extensively by U.S. fans in websites such as www.engrish. com) and the amateurism of D.I.Y. fan culture. The title of JJ Chinois latest project, for example, is bigger and bigger but keep more and more slowly while text from the video and website declares to fans, Ill be accompanying you on your life. Details of JJs fave thingsCollects: Hard Rock café menus, Fave Food: Olive Gardenlink the numerous grammatical errors and misspellings not only to a multiply translated and removed Asian popular culture but also to an Asian American suburban provincialism. The quote selected to represent JJ to his fans is, I dont have an accent, I just have food in my mouth.
As in We Got Moves You Aint Even Heard Of, JJ Chinoiss ultimate subversion comes in appropriating a dense field of popular iconography as a space of queer sexuality. The video performs a critique of the ways in which consumer culture mobilizes fans desire even as the filmmaker re-routes that desire to her own gorgeous ends. The unmooring of desire from its structured path leads to a slippage of identity and object choice. While JJ Chinois is ostensibly a lesbian re-staging of a hyper-heterosexual icon, the queer transgender performance inexorably expands to hint at a gay male sexuality as well; among JJs favorite items and habits are his cock ring and poppers.
The obsession with popular culture marks much of the new work being produced by young queer Asian American artists and attests to the pervasive influence of television and other forms of popular media on contemporary conceptions of identity and politics. While the previous two videos are marked by a playful sense of the expanded possibilities of identification and self-expression in an era of new, increasingly accessible technologies of representation, the next two pieces point to the darker side of the same proliferation.
In two separate videos, both produced in 1997, Stuart Gaffney examines the mutability and instability of the queer Asian American body within two disparate contexts: the first is the late twentieth-century culture of bodies, antibodies, and science, specifically the experience of living with HIV/AIDS after the advent of the cocktail; and the second is the media coverage of a gay serial killer. While these two videos appear to deal with completely unrelated topics, there is a strong tie between their understanding and treatment of the nature of the queer, racialized body in a world in which popular media has enormous power in both creating and silencing narratives about race and sex.
In Cunanans Conundru m, Gaffney explores the ways in which the medias inability to recognize and describe biracial identity collided with worn cultural tropes about the inscrutability and unreliability of both queer and Asian bodies, meeting in the ideal media icon of Andrew Cunanan. According to Gaffney, Cunanans mixed-race heritage and his queer sexuality served as metaphors for each other, and, in a chain of sliding signifiers, the illegibility of his identity was read as deceitful which, in turn, was read as predatory. Thus, Cunanans status as serial killer was read backwards as the natural articulation of his already unstable and pathological racial and sexual identity.
The video is a visual collage of media imagesstill photographs and text from newspapers, video clips from tabloid news programs such as Hard Copyas well as quotes from scholars of race and sexuality. In a voiceover, Gaffney explicates the media coverage of the case and Cunanans illegibility to mainstream media, the public, police and FBI analysts. Gaffney states:
Like others before him, Andrew Cunanans crimes were heralded by the headline, Gay Man Kills. Unlike other homicidal homosexuals, however, Andrew Cunanan was a different kind of ambiguity. He was portrayed as a snake that easily shed one look for another, someone who blended in anywhere and mixed easily in elite circles. What made him different from, say, Jeffrey Dahmer? Why did people see him everywhere?
The reason, Gaffney explains, is Cunanans biracial identity: he was the son of a Filipino American father and an Italian American mother. He goes on to explain that, while the stereotype is that all Asians look alike, the FBIs problem was that in America a Eurasian seemed to look like anyone. Cunanan was a blank slate. He could blend in anywhere, appear like anybody.
While the FBI decided to avoid the issue by listing Cunanan in their Wanted posters as white, the media responded to Cunanans racial ambiguity by offering up an endless stream of possible disguises and transmutations. Cunanan, it was suggested, had inhabited every possible racial, class, and sexual identity category, blurring even the lines between serial killer and spree killer. He had been Cuban and Israeli, male and female, a sadist and a masochist, a wealthy party boy and Tom Cruises lover.
Gaffney quotes scholar Gina Marchetti, who writes that, the possibility that a mixed-race character could pass for white in a society that defines itself in terms of absolute boundaries between the races represents a significant threat.6 He says, I see Cunanans life as a struggle over who would describe him. For Gaffney, the struggle for definition, as it is enacted in a popular media industry invested in binary categories of identity, signifies a life or death battle for queer people of color.
Gaffney s second video, Leaving the Way it Came, offers a critical counter view to the medias exuberant celebration of new AIDS drugs as marking the end of the epidemic. The video begins with a voice-over explaining how the new AIDS cocktail is saving the life of one partner in a relationship but not the other. The black and white video edits television news imagery with two sharply contrasting studies: external shots of sweeping vistas and a train yard, and indoor images of a man taking pills, a prone body, and a close-up of a human eye. The outdoor shots, particularly of the industrial train yard, contrast sharply with the deeply physical and intimate ones that move closer and closer into the body. The contrast serves to underscore Gaff n e y s point about the acute divisions being created in health care and treatment in the changing face of AIDS as well as the divisions between public rhetoric and personal experience. He states,
In Leaving the Way it Came, race is never explicitly mentioned, but subtle visual cues, such as footage of an infected African child and a Chinese junk, gesture toward the vastly unequal impact that AIDS has had on other countries, particularly Africa and Asia, as well as within relationships and within and between communities in the United States. Gaffney says,
If AIDS is leaving, its leaving the way it came: with division and confusion in its wake. I see us being divided into the AIDS haves and have-nots, those who are helped by the new treatments, have access to them, and can afford them, and those who arent or cant.
Dont get me wrong. Im really happy about the new treatment. My lover is one of the success stories. . .This is a real gift and a cause for real joy. But Im worried that, in our haste to put AIDS behind us, move beyond it and enter what some are already calling the post-AIDS era, people are getting left behind and forgotten. Whole parts of the world cant hope to benefit from the new expensive pills.
By mixing footage from a variety of media sources and of a variety of perspectives on the face of AIDS, Gaffney situates the issue of the unequal impact of AIDS technology and treatment in both a global context and an intimate domestic one. Like the previous videos discussed, Leaving the Way it Came takes on the medias ability to create narratives of truth. This time, however, the video maker, though able to martial a vast archive of media imagery to speak for him, directs our gaze through the point of view of someone who has been shut out of the progress being invented and celebrated by the press. The video ends with a shot of a train leaving the station; the perspective is from the person being left behind. The voice-over reminds us simply that, its not over yet.
While addressing seemingly unconnected themes, both of Gaffneys videos draw a direct and visceral connection between how bodies are read and whether they will live or die, what value is assigned to them as victim or murderer, as one of us or one of them. In other words, there are material consequences to the discursive status of race and sexuality.
If the cinematic voice and vision of new queer API filmmakers is being spoken and viewed through a re-imagined and unstable body, it is because the body itself, marker of race, gender, and sexuality, is undergoing radical transformations in meaning, in health and in geographical, technological, and discursive positioning. Denied the luxury of stable location and boundaries, this work continues to push at the borders of experimental, queer, and American media.
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I would like to thank Lynne Chan, Erica Cho, Stuart Gaffney, Steven Flusty, and Jim Hubbard for their generous assistance with this article.
1. Eve Oishi, Bad Asians: New Film and Video by Queer Asian American Artists, Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism, Eds. Darrell Y. Hamamoto & Sandra Liu (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000) 223.
2. The children on the soundtrack were taken from a videotape in which Eric Cho walked the streets of Koreatown dressed as Mr. Miyagi in full gray goatee and brown maintenance man outfit. When she encountered some Korean kids they addressed her as Grandfather in Korean until she spoke, at which point they yelped, What IS it?! The scenes of the Los Angeles park at night were shot at the mini golf park Golf N Stuff, where The Karate Kid also takes place.
3. The ambiguously gendered figures include Lynne Chan, director and star of JJ Chinois.
4. Chan has collaborated with New York drag king Murray Hill on several previous occasions, most recently in the 2001 video Call Me Cwazy (codirected with Yvette Choy) in which Hill takes the role of Barbara Walters in a hilarious reenactment of Walters 20/20 interview with Anne Heche.
5. The alternate titles for the video were gleaned from several independent internet sites that offer the video for sale under a variety of names, perhaps as a result of translation back into English from Chinese translations of the original title.
6. Gina Marchetti, Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993) 69.