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Pet Sins September 2001

Fakin' Da Funk

This 1998 independent film with a focus on black-Asian interactions is produced by Harry Yoo. Tim Chey writes and directs. This is one of those rare interracial-themed U.S. without white people, and precedes major commercial releases featuring a similar racial mix - Rush Hour (1999) and Romeo Must Die (2000).

The plot centers on the life of an African American family and their adopted Chinese son. Julian (played by Filipino American Dante Basco), a Chinese adopted at birth into a black pastor's family, was well-accepted in his family's church-based black community. The pastor passes away, and his wife (played by Pam Grier) moves Julian and his younger brother Perry to L.A. Taking his blackness for granted, Julian does not feel obligated to explain his family background to local blacks, who speedily conclude Julian is a wannabe trying to act black. His brother Perry is assumed to be an unrelated bystander by local youths who make racial jokes about Julian in his presence.

There is a subplot about another African American family in the same neighborhood who take in a Chinese exchange student. The daughter of the family (Tichina Arnold) hits it off with the Chinese girl May Li (Margaret Cho) and shows her around South Central L.A.

Considering the film is produced, written and directed by Asian Americans, it is a surprise that Fakin' Da Funk contains some inaccuracies and exaggerations in the portrayal of Asian characters. Firstly, Asian American actresses Margaret Cho and Kelly Hu butcher their Chinese lines while playing Chinese exchange students. OK, we know Kelly Hu is Chinese but that doesn't mean she can speak Mandarin right.

Secondly, the Chinese characters are depicted with a shuffling walk. As a Chinese, I'd have to admit many Chinese (and Japanese and Koreans) shuffle, though not to the point as grossly exaggerated as in the movie. Today, the shuffling walk is a lot more common among the men than the women. I've seen many Chinese/Japanese/Korean men walk with slouching shoulders, heads down, dragging their feet. Non-East Asians, e.g. other Asians like the Filipinos, are much less likely to do that. Anyway I thought it was interesting that they had a scene where Tichina Arnold shows Margaret Cho "how to strut" instead of "shuffle". Because one is not too likely to find a shuffling Chinese woman.

Despite the weak points, there are enough decent stereotype-busting twists in the movie to keep it going:

Julian meets a wealthy black college student (Tatyana Ali) who learns Japanese, is familiar with Asian culture, and looks gorgeous in a Chinese dress. By contrast, Julian, the ethnic Asian, knows nothing at all about "his culture", and the point of the movie is, why should we even expect him to? Just because he is Asian by blood doesn't make him Asian.

Brandon, the South Central black youth who leads the pack in making fun of Julian, extends his ethnic jokes to May Li. Brandon was all set to look like the incorrigibly mean bad guy from the beginning, so his eventual change of attitude comes as a surprise. His metamorphosis occurs largely because May Li, who does not know enough American slang to understand his mockery, persists in being friendly. May Li even kicks off a little romance with Brandon. This rare black-man-Asian-woman big screen couple deviates from stereotypes in having May Li takes the initiative.

Producer Harry Yoo appears in a small role as a Korean barber who produces the lamest entry in a competition of who can come up with the best insults.

2000