Tag Archives: Orientalism

Yellowface Film Review #10: Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)

remo-williams-the-adventure-begins-1985    Remo-Williams-UK-Poster

The title of this rather stolid and cheesy 80’s actioner proved inauspicious as the adventure ended here and so did the intended franchise based on The Destroyer series of pulp paperback novels about a Newark cop framed for a crime and then having his appearance altered and identity changed so he can become an assassin for a secret government organisation.

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To this end he is trained in a fictional martial art called Sinanju by a Korean master called Chiun who is actually played by a white man in extreme yellowface (which is where we come in). Sinanju training enables one to hold one’s breath for over an hour, rip steel doors from their hinges, climb walls, dodge bullets (even at point-blank range), overturn a moving tank, outrun a car, seem invisible, overcome multiple opponents, and bring a woman to the heights of sexual ecstasy. We don’t see all of those in this film but we do see most of them and the last one is somewhat anti-climactic if you’ll pardon the expression.

  remo-williams1   remo-williams

The film is but minutes old when we’re confronted by some truly hideous looking prosthetics. These though are not the yellowface variety but the ones applied to Fred Ward as the eponymous Remo before he’s called Remo and before he gets his face-lift. Ward has proved himself a solid character actor down the years, blessed as he is with craggy charm in abundance. This though is not a very well written role and it’s difficult to warm to him, as it is to the entire film being, as it is, not action-packed enough to thrill, not funny enough to amuse and not a good enough story to compel. There’s some rather perfunctory flirtation with Kate Mulgrew’s awkwardly cast army major but the whole thing feels as flat as a pancake sadly.

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Yellowface watch

Remo-Williams-and-Chiun The film though did garner a Golden Globe nomination for Joel Grey as Chiun and this in itself is probably quite revealing as to why there’s often such a reluctance to relinquish the right to yellowface because, as with playing disabled people, it offers the kind of dramatic transformation opportunities that trumpets loudly to the viewer what a great actor they’re watching.

remo_williams “The sheer GENIUS!!!”

Grey (a terrific actor who was rightly lauded for his turn as the MC in Cabaret) plays Chiun like an effeminate bird who mangles his l’s and r’s all over the place while his accent wonders across several hemispheres. Word to the wise, Joel; as any East Asian actor will tell you, if the dialogue ain’t written well that shit ain’t easy, blud.

1340797837-vlcsnap-2012-06-27-  “Praying Oliental learry nor-easy!”

Being a mystical chop sock “Oriental” he is of course endowed with sage-like wisdom and rather awkwardly realised eccentric “charm”.

  remowilliams “Hele I am, With a LEAL brack actor”

His basic model appears to be Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid films (the 80’s variety), though Mr. Miyagi was of course portrayed by a genuine East Asian (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) which helped  offset the contrived orientalism of the clumsy characterisation. At one point Remo asks Chiun if he always speaks like a “fortune cookie”, the one bit of penetrative wit in the entire picture because he does indeed seem to communicate in nothing but hodge-podge Zen Confucian truisms. He is buried under horrendously ugly prosthetic make-up to make his eyes slant and his skin yellow. It is in short a train wreck of a performance. Oh, and the make-up was nominated for an Oscar. I kid you not.

vlcsnap-2011-09-21-23h37m32s130 “You can’t come in. You’re not wearing Oscar nominated make-up, darling”

There is the vague notion at times that Chiun might turn out to be a threat (at one point he reassures Remo that if he has to kill him he will only do so “rerructantry”)… remo-williams-3 …and other times there’s a bit of moist-eyed “bromance” between the two characters… remowilliamschuin …but mostly he’s a funny little foreign chap lent some added cool by the fact he can dodge bullets.     remowilliams08  0411747_12195_MC_Tx360

At one point we’re treated to the following exchange between Chiun, Remo & Major Kate-

Chiun: “Women-a should stay home and make-a babies…plefelably man-child

Major Kate: “I see you both went to the same charm school!”

Remo: “Oh, he always talks like that. He’s Korean!”

view_13_REMO-WILLIAMS-THE-ADVENTURE_jpg It’s difficult to tell what’s more dodgy here, the idea that it’s okay for him to be a sexist pig because he’s a comedy “Oriental” or that all Koreans are sexist pigs. You take your choice.

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Fave scene? Gotta admit, the one where Remo uses the diamond in a villains tooth (without removing it) to cut a hole in a glass wall was pretty sick.

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Tomorrow sees our final Yellowface Film Review and sees us assail yet another Ghengis Khan bloodbath. Meantime there are just THREE MORE PERFORMANCES in which to catch The Fu Manchu Complex “a devilishly ironic spin on Sax Rohmer’s classic novel that will leave you in hysterics”(The Upcoming) at Ovalhouse. BOOK TICKETS NOW http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex


Yellowface Film Review #6: The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (1918)

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Despite an undeniably progressive (certainly for its time) plot centered around an inter-racial romance between San San, a Chinese princess, and John Worden, an American diplomat (well it wouldn’t be vice-versa gender-wise, would it?),  and notwithstanding some heartfelt emoting from Norma Talmadge and Thomas Meighan (two of the great stars of their day) this is a fairly crass affair. The title itself is a giveaway. The heroine only goes there once and, though it could be argued that San San’s conniving father wants to curry favour there, the story certainly doesn’t revolve around the imperial palace. Like much of this film it seems to have been chosen for its exotica factor.

Forbidden city HA       The Forbidden City

Competently directed by Sidney Franklin the picture comes a cropper in its casting and portrayal (naturally) with even the 1918 New York Times lamenting that Franklin “was unable to make some of his actors seem like natives of the East”, a criticism which, having watched it, I can only regard as more than a little lenient.  The male Chinese characters (with one notable exception) are unremittingly ruthless in a manner that can only be regarded as gratuitous and San San herself is introduced with a caption that has her imploring Buddha to “please send love-man here to give me million sweet kisses”.

forbidden-city-movie-poster-inkbluesky   forbiddencityz

Steady on! Indeed there’s an awful lot of snogging in the first part of this though there’s no surely no denying that the intended inter-racial frisson of these clinches go for a burton because of the spectacularly unconvincing yellowface casting.

forbiddenCity-grapevine  She’s half-Chinese you know.

It’s also more than a little a cheeky to begin the film with Kipling’s famous quote about “never the twain shall meet” between “East” and “West” but then put it in the mouth of the Chinese emperor!

Yellowface watch

Nuray-Pictures-New-Releases-June-14-2013-4 Spot the Yellowface

Yellowface is everywhere in the first half of this, though in fairness (and unlike a lot of similar films of the time) a great deal of effort seems to have gone into making the actors seems as “Chinese” as possible. There’s an awful lot of bowing and florid gestures and Norma Talmadge  as San San seems to be attempting that styilised but slightly stilted manner that many in the Western entertainment industry perceive as authentically “Eastern”. Talmadge later portrays the Eurasian fruit of San San’s union with Worden (the curiously monikered Toy) where she looks and acts like a regular Caucasian but is still captioned in hilariously clumsy pidgin English (even when speaking with other Chinese characters).


Her conniving mandarin father is played by yellowface “specialist” E. Alyn Warren (The Hatchet Man, Outside The Law) who in his beard and glasses puts one to mind of Sigmund Freud in chinoiserie.

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This being a silent movie we are (unlike in The Hatchet Man) thankfully spared Alyn’s truly ludicrous Chinese accent but he nevertheless hams up his sly Chinaman role with relish. I don’t wish to mock a fellow professional here and I’m sure the man gave some truly fabulous performances in a 99 film career but he should never have been allowed to play East Asians.

63063-12294 63063-13349The many (yellow)faces of E. Alyn Warren

Such is the abundance of yellowface it’s something of a shock when two genuine East Asians turn up in the latter part of the film. Both perform creditably, though uncredited in the case of the first – an emperor’s court lady who racially abuses  the Eurasian Toy (most of the racism in the film eminates from the Chinese characters). Not so in the case of Charles Fang as the solely sympathetic East Asian male Yuan-Loo who fights heroically to help Toy escape but who is never seen again and whose fate the filmmakers don’t appear to deem worthy of interest. Fang’s contribution though did inspire this truly astonishing appraisal in the January 1919 Photoplay, “In one or two details the play missed its celestiality by an odd margin–notably the scene in which the Pekin palace guard, to overcome an unwary foe, resorts to a barroom wrestling match, a thing about as unlike the Chinese character as anything that may be imagined. Your Oriental moves more subtly and certainly: an overturned flower pot, the plunge of a knife, strong strangling fingers … and the outward course of events flows so serenely that even passers-by cannot tell murder has been done.”

vlcsnap_2013_04_16_22h30m13s107 “Enough cliches already!!!”

My favourite scene? When the Chinese Emperor, played by the impressively whiskered L. Rogers Lytton (who I’m devastated to say there are no pictures of), pretends to allow San San to go free with her baby by gesturing to walk along a corridor of drapes out of which appear about ten spears which promptly slay the hapless heroine. A display of “Oriental cruelty” that makes Sax Rohmer look mild.


We are highly tempted to bust out John Wayne’s notorious turn as Ghengis Khan next but let’s see…maybe later. Meantime, if you haven’t already, don’t forget to book for the “funny, often outrageously so” (There Ought To Be Clowns) The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Just seven performances left!