Before you start reading, this post seems to be perpetually popular in my traffic statistics. The question this brings up for me is whether this is one of the few commentaries on these specific texts / films, or if there is another reason. I would appreciate insight, if you care to leave a comment. If not, you should probably read my statement on plagiarism. Thanks! On to the reason you’re here:
Both Who Killed Vincent Chin?and The Cheat should cause a modern audience to cringe. Because these cringes may be for two different reasons, the visceral reactions to these films deserve some investigation and explication. In the earlier movie, The Cheat, the orientalist approach to the representation of the villain and the exploitation of popular prejudices against Asian people serve to drive the narrative. Looking back on this film from 1915 offers a chance to examine the unquestioned prejudices and expectations of Asian people during early 20th century America. Who Killed Vincent Chin?, on the other hand, is a much more recent production and offers an examination of both the similarities and differences to those prejudices and expectations in late 20th century America. That the changes displayed between the two films mostly offer only superficial effect offers commentary about the distance still remaining to be traveled in treating prejudice and racism in America today.
The cringe-factor for The Cheat resolves primarily through the film’s unquestioned orientalist treatment of the central villain, Arakau. This role is certainly stereotyped, from the mannerisms and costumes to the behavior and plot. Even though each of the roles in this film are equally stereotyped, this does not excuse the racial reliance for the Arakau character, just as it does not excuse the gender reliance for the Mrs. Hardy character. The film’s opening on Arakau heating a branding element and the dramatic lighting involved points the audience toward associating the character with villainy before the story even begins. The audience is introduced in-story to Arakau as an almost-peer to Mrs. Hardy, and the hinted-at relationship must have been titillating to a 1915/1918 audience. The unquestioned stereotypes also play into Arakau’s mannerisms, with the formal bowing and sometimes effeminate movements playing to an audience’s misconceptions of the dangerous, sexualized other also seen in characters such as Fu Manchu. Arakau’s ethnicity is used as a crutch and shorthand to validate the character’s actions when he brands Mrs. Hardy toward the climax of the movie. A more in-depth analysis of the character and story would show almost no lead-up to that violent “rape” of Mrs. Hardy.
Where The Cheat fails to question orientalist stereotypes, Who Killed Vincent Chin? reveals the still-too-common stereotypes held in middle-America. The directors made several choices which help to pull back the curtain from these poorly-hidden prejudices. Although not the most obvious choice made, the directors decided against narrating the documentary movie, allowing all the actors involved to speak for themselves. In addition, Choy and Tajima-Pena chose to represent the cultural milieu primarily through visual imagery, incorporating video and stills from Detroit in the recent time-period to the murder. These cultural-centering cuts also were commonly combined with silence as well as multiple other racial experiences (notably the Black community). The silences could be read as the stated “silent/model immigrant” rule that the Asian American immigrant community had followed for decades. That a murder could be so intently disregarded in the criminal justice system caused a break in that rule, and as the documentary progresses, those silences become less prominent.
Choy and Tajima-Pena’s film deftly displays the prejudices that are still present in American society. While after the experiences of the 1950’s and 60’s, few white Americans willingly acknowledge any prejudice or racism, the father’s discussion of his actions that led to Vincent Chin’s death clearly reveal that some of the same unquestioned racism of 1915 still exist in our society today. The fact that he does know better he excuses mostly on the basis of ethnicity and the standard boys-will-be-boys excuse for violent and unethical behavior. Great strides have been made in our society, but clearly racism and prejudice still exist and need to be dealt with before we can progress much further as a fair society.
Choy, Christine and Renee Tajima-Pena. Who Killed Vincent Chin? PBS, 1989. Video.
DeMille, Cecil B. The Cheat. Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co, 1915. Video.