Friday, November 13, 2009

Transcultural Adoption and Cinema

With the very first MNTRFF at the Oak Street Cinema, I find myself deeply excited about the meaning and significance for transcultural adoptees, who have one of the largest populations in the world in Minnesota. The doors open at 1:30pm, with tickets sold until 5pm. And with those doors opening I think about the films that meant the most to me growing up as an adoptee.

In the cinema of my youth, I can't think of any dramas where I meaningfully saw my experience, my voice, my feelings reflected in what was on-screen. This has been a recurring complaint of Asian Americans, and one deeply felt as a transcultural adoptee. A TRA experience is almost never presented as anything but device and joke. This occurs often enough that I think: You know what? Forget it. I really just don't want to see TRA characters now, because people will never get it right. And I hate that it has come to such a point where I would be pushed away and repulsed by the depiction of my own culture's stories or the story of others in similar situations.

The worst of these, however, that still lingers in my mind, is Justin Lin's TRA character in 'Better Luck Tomorrow'. Which may not be fair, I admit. The thrust of Lin's story was not to be an expose or a meditation on Asian American TRAs, it was a first attempt at creating a majority Asian American film. The film was vital in a Hollywood environment where, despite the large concentration of Asians in California, their presence is all but ignored. Our issues as TRAs? Afterthoughts and throwaway moments.  Watching Lin's inauthentic TRA character Stephanie was more painful than any depiction I've come to expect from Hollywood.

This character was essentially a message:TRAs can never expect to be presented authentically in full-depth or context except by productions made by our own hand. 
That's why I find the MNTRFF filled with so much potential even as I go in knowing much of the work may be rough or worse, as dull as an Eric Byler film.

Let me be clear: I don't go to see a film to watch a TRA character 'on a journey to discover themselves/their lost family/their alienation'  any more than I go to see an Asian American film to watch a 'Wendy Wu' /'Joy Luck Club' Old Country vs. New Country kung-fu or an immigrant/refugee melodrama like Oliver Stones' 'Heaven & Earth'  Barf.

When I see a story with a TRA, I want to see an authentic consciousness depicted, no matter how absurd, fantastic or dramatic the situation is. I'd prefer a TRA film to have TRA characters and households within it, where their presence as TRAs is organic and integral to the story, but it is NOT the story.

The story should be the story. Characters should have a natural flow and response to conditions within that story. Not a 'Look at me! I'm TRA!' self-consciousness. That's amateurish and beneath us.

To me, watching a TRA 'Roots' a 'Daughter of Da Nang'-style documentary is about as compelling as watching spackle dry. Pass.

I'm also totally uninterested in watching a dramatized sociology textbook on the politics of transcultural adoption. That's just my taste in films.

There are often overt or implicit suggestions TRA don't have our own culture. That we are neither fully 'white' nor fully 'Asian' or whatever our ethnicity or root culture may be. I, and I believe many others, grew up with a sense we belonged nowhere, truly-There is no place for us, unless we make it ourselves. Fair enough. So be it.

I go into the MNTRFF understanding that most of these films were produced with limited resources, certain necessary compromises and different aesthetic tastes, but I am sure there are also a few bright gems in this year's selections and I hope, over time in future festivals we will see work of great depth, great art that speaks with authenticity and honestly, kicks ass.

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