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Pet Sins March 2005

Robot Stories

Director Greg Pak made his 4 shorts around the theme of the relationship between humans and machines. But built into the science fiction narratives are understated challenges to stereotypes about Asians.

Short 1

A high powered executive and her architect husband decide to adopt a child. To evaluate their parenting skills, the adoption agency gives them a robot baby to take care of for a month. The prospective father proves adept at the task of parenting but his wife Marcia seems to lack nurturing skills. There are a few positives about this short in addition to the things that other reviewers already mentioned: First, it is rare to see an Asian man in a lead role in an American-made film. Secondly, a positive Asian male character in a consensual sex scene with an Asian woman is also rare. In 'mainstream' American movies, an Asian man in a sex scene is almost always a perverse gangster forcing himself on someone, or a dissolute playboy. Thirdly, an Asian man in the role of an emotionally rounded, competent father is even rarer - in American fiction, Asian men are almost always cast in the role of the sexist, cruel patriarch who oppresses his family (e.g. Joy Luck Club), or a well-meaning but powerless man who is unable to protect his children (e.g. A Thousand Pieces of Gold).

American movies tend to portray Asian female characters in the image of the stereotypical demure, attentive, family-oriented woman (e.g. Tom Cruise's love interest in The Last Samurai) or they over-compensate by creating a strong, but over-the-board angry and aggressive female character (e.g. Dominatrix-style Lucy Liu in Charlie's Angels and Zhang Ziyi in Rush Hour 2). In either case, such characters almost never reflect the reality of Asian and Asian American women.

Greg Pak's character of Marcia does not cater to either of these old formulas. Marcia is assertive. She is perceived as bossy and unappealing by a white male subordinate, but a black female subordinate likes her working style. Marcia lacks the typical nurturing, care-taking skills attributed to Asian females by Westerners, but her character has an emotional depth that makes it more than just an anti-stereotype.

Short 2

This is a short about a mother who tries to complete her braindead son's robot collection, in the hope of connecting with him. At first, she seems the 'typical' naggy, controlling East Asian mom a la Joy Luck Club, hung up on her child's academic and career success. But the narrative takes a twist when our respectable old lady steals a rare collectible robot model from a store, and is chased down the street by the store owner like the thief she was. The story's charm lies with its delivery of the unexpected, which Greg Pak does on a number of different levels.

Short 3

Two officer worker androids (both in the image of Eurasians, one of them played by director Greg Pak), meet and fall in love. While I found the main premise mildly interesting, it was the side characters who got my attention. The Asian characters were ordinary people with ordinary flaws, not cardboard villains or geeky over-achievers. In the opening scene, Greg Pak's character looks at a dejected Asian man sitting in the subway with his head in his hands. The android delivers himself to the office where his slacker boss, an irritable middle-aged Asian female, plays computer games at work. Both European-descent and Asian-descent characters were portrayed as capable of the same evil - in one scene, an Asian man and a European man molest a female-model android; in another scene, an Asian woman and a European woman make sexual comments about the male-model android. This sort of balance is hardly ever achieved in American film, where villains of one color are usually not balanced out by villains of another color, creating a skewed impression.

Short 4

In a future where the thoughts of a human brain could be scanned into computer, everyone has virtual immortality. It is required by law that all dying individuals schedule an "uploading" so that their consciousness could be preserved forever. An aging Asian American potter rebels against this edict, preferring to die a natural death, much to the mortification of his already-dead-and-digitized African American wife and their son.

The Asian American man/African American woman coupling is a rarity on film. A tender interracial love scene involving a yellow male and/or a black female is even rarer in American entertainment. Robot Stories boldly and unself-consciously works both into the story with a matter-of-factness that one could only hope would be the attitude of our real future society.