By GUY AOKI
Before this week, critics of the film version of “The Last Airbender” didn’t have a script or any secret footage to analyze. All they knew was that a popular television series about a fantasy world inhabited by only Asian and Inuit people was going to star three white actors and Asian Indian Dev Patel was going to portray the evil Zuko. When Paramount shot back in the press that there were 23 speaking roles including parts for actors of Korean, Japanese, and Indian descent, we assumed that only meant token lines for ethnic characters living in the nations of those white heroes. But even we overestimated how much that would be.
This Monday, Paramount President Adam Goodman finally made good on his word to me that he would show us a pre-screening of this controversial project. Back in November, he promised it wouldn’t come as late as two weeks before opening night. Well, it came three days before today’s premiere. Supposedly because director M. Night Shyamalan was still putting on finishing touches that late in the game — even when he’d already begun the 3D conversion process which supposedly takes at least eight weeks to complete. And we were supposedly the first to see the film ahead of movie critics.
Well, it was worse than I expected. Everything we’d been saying about this project is even more true. It took almost half an hour for the first non-Asian bad guy to say anything, and it was mostly a few lines about how the Fire Nation came through and subjugated the Earth Nation.
Since two of the heroes were Katara (sister) and Sokka (brother), I presumed some token Asian people in their Water Nation would speak to them. But it was laughable that when they went back to their village, all the extras were Asian, but the only person who spoke was their grandmother, who, of course, is white!
I’m shocked at how little dialogue was given to any Asian person who wasn’t part of the oppressive Fire Nation. Furthermore, an Asian man later appears to befriend Aang and tell him what happened to his Air Nation during his 100 year absence … but he ends up betraying him! All in all, except for a few lines from the Earth Nation villagers, all the Asian/brown people are villains. Every single white person is good.
And of course, white paternalism rears its familiar, annoying head. When he realizes how much the Fire Nation has subjugated the Earth Nation, Aang has to tell these Asian people to get with it and use their earth powers against the invaders. Finally, they spring to life.
“Thank you, white boy! Without you, we would still be a bunch of good-for-nothing couch potatoes!”
And when, after a climactic battle, everyone bows before Aang and Katara pretty much says she—and they—want him to be their god? Oh, don’t get me started…And let’s not forget that scene of the Asian woman dutifully giving that man a foot massage … I’m serious!
This is kind of a spoiler: Supporters of the movie said, “What are you crying about? If you know anything about the cartoon, Zuko (Dev Patel) ultimately becomes a good guy.” Well, even by the end of this film, he does not.
Yet the director claimed, “Ultimately, this movie, and then the three movies, will be the most culturally diverse tent-pole movies ever released, period.” Now, I know TLA takes place in a fantasy world, but I want to know what kind of fantasy world is M. Night living in! That statement is ludicrous. Most culturally diverse movie? “Harold and Kumar” just blew some smoke into your face. So did the fuse of “Mission: Impossible III” because Maggie Q got some choice scenes. And don’t forget the old and new Star Trek films.
Even if you don’t care about this casting issue, the movie itself doesn’t hold together. And mark my words, in what has become a predictable ritual for Shyamalan, it will be torn apart by critics. The 10 of us who saw TLA agreed: It was shoddy movie making. There was weak dialogue, weak editing, and unimpressive special effects. And because the 3D seemed to disappear after 10 minutes, I’m inclined to believe Goodman was telling the truth—that M. Night really was working until the last minute to complete this film—because it appears he ran out of time to apply the 3D effects he hoped movie-goers would pay that extra $2 to experience (the most impressive 3D effect came right at the opening—seeing the Paramount logo with the stars coming at us!).
In past interviews, Shyamalan said Noah Ringer was the only one in the world who could play the lead character Aang. Again, WRONG! He cannot carry the movie. He’s not capable of bringing the emotional weight necessary to demonstrate the tragedy of what his absence has wrought. Seek out a video by a Filipino American boy named Perris Aquino here. He auditioned for the film. In his video, he reads from the script and shows off his martial arts skills. With some proper coaching, he could’ve done a better job than Ringer. Yet he didn’t even get a call back. What other potential Asian American stars were likewise rejected?
Early on when Zuko threatens to destroy everyone in the Water Nation unless Aang comes with him, Aang says, “I’ll go with you!” There were giggles in the screening room. Even in a room of supporters, I was being respectful and refrained from acting out. But apparently, others just couldn’t help it.
No wonder most of the trailers feature no dialogue: Paramount was trying to entice ticket buyers by showing the epic scope of the picture and not risk that interest being undone by the actual acting of the children. As M. Night cuts from one scene to another, loud music builds underscoring the drama inherent in the words uttered by the characters. But the words he wrote usually fail to create any suspense or tension. And some passages make no sense: Soon after Aang begins meditating for four straight days so he can fend off their enemies, Katara starts talking to him, saying “I always knew you were real.” For this “important” piece of news, she risks disturbing his concentration?!
Early on when a white dome appears in the snow and a ray shoots out into the sky, that dome begins to crumble. Rather than show it happening bit by bit for effect, the director cuts to it already being opened.
Shyamalan, who’s famous for his twist endings, tried one here, complete with the expected booming music. When it was revealed, I went, “So? Big deal.” When the movie credits started rolling, I thought, “Wait, that’s all?! That’s supposed to make me wanna stay tuned for the second film?”
Dev Patel clearly had better screen charisma than anyone else. Too bad he was wasted as the villain. Yet the director, speaking to IndieMoviesOnline.com, felt compelled to answer his critics.
“The whole point of the movie is that there isn’t any bad or good,” M. Night said. “The irony is that I’m playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I’m racist are doing. They [MANAA and unhappy fans] immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which, as it turns out, is completely incorrect.”
Wrong again. If your intention was to show that, you failed as a storyteller. (Spoiler alert again) Although Zuko eventually sees the light, he doesn’t by the time this first film ends. He’s still trying to regain the respect of his father by capturing the Avatar. And as I said earlier, except for those Earth Nation Asians, the only people of color who speak are from the invading Fire Nation.
On March 10, M. Night told ugo.com, “Maybe they didn’t see the faces that they wanted to see but, overall, it is more than they could have expected. We’re in the tent and it looks like the U.N. in there.”
Only if the only members of the U.N. who’re allowed to speak are the North Koreans!
Last last week, Shyamalan told Indiemoviesonline.com, “Here’s the irony of the conversation—‘The Last Airbender’ is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time. I’m not talking about maybe one Jedi, maybe one person of a different color—no one’s even close. That’s a great pride to me. The irony of this statement enrages me to the point of…not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You’re coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I’m casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented.”
Casting color blind. Wow. I usually hear that when a white director has to justify ending up with an all-white cast. That’s almost the same as, “We got the best actors for the roles.”
The director continued, “And so it’s infuriating, this stigmatization, that the first word about the most culturally-diverse movie of all time is this accusation. And here’s the irony of it, this has nothing to do with the studio system. I had complete say in casting. So if you need to point the racist finger, point it at me. And if it doesn’t stick, then be quiet.”
Oh, it sticks all right. So Night, that’s my gigantic finger pointing at you. Now, why don’t you be quiet and ponder how you’ve lost your way not only as a writer and director, but as someone who could’ve made a difference in the opportunities given to Asian Americans? You peaked 11 years ago with “The Sixth Sense.” It was all downhill after that with each movie being worse than the last: “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” “The Village,” “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening.” In fact, that last one was so bad, The New York Post wrote it was “dead in the water” and that the director was a “crackpot with messianic delusions.”
When Disney executives rejected your script for “Lady,” your fragile ego went berserk and into a deep depression. There was so much drama, there was even a book about the whole ordeal. It led you to leave the home of your biggest successes and take “Lady” to Warner Bros. Critics and the general public proved Disney was right all along. Funny how Warner didn’t want to take your next film. You had to go to 20th Century Fox instead. Now you’re at Paramount.
When TLA flops with its $150 million budget and $130 marketing costs, you’re going to have to find yet another studio to take a chance on you. You’re running out of places to run to. Your fans hoped that because this was the first film whose story you didn’t invent that you could turn around your fortunes. But there’s just one problem, you see: You still wrote and directed it. This may be the last time any studio gives you the power to cast anyone except maybe in your daughter’s school play.
Why am I being so vitriolic? Because those who care about balancing the laughable image Asian Americans have in motion pictures prayed for someone from our own community to develop enough power to create films that could make up for decades and decades of hostile treatment—to make us heroes that audiences of all backgrounds would cheer for. You were one of the few who could do that.
Instead, you invented new excuses that white directors never thought of, leaving us off the page and off the screen—even for a project that was originally written specifically for us.
You blew it big time. For all of us.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.