Jeff Adachi’s “The Slanted Screen” – 2006 AAIFF Review

Before Lawrence Olivier, there was Sessue Hayakawa.


Hayakawa, whose prolific career spanned six decades from the days of silent film throughout the prime of Technicolor, was the first Asian actor nominated for an Academy Award for his role in “Bridge on the River Kwai” in 1957.

Compare the lack of public knowledge of Hayakawa’s longevity to the instant recognition of the Long Duk Dong character in “Sixteen Candles,” and there lies the premise behind “The Slanted Screen,” a documentary focusing on the image of Asian American masculinity in film.

Rather than focus on a Who’s Who of Asian American male actors, “The Slanted Screen,” which was directed by Jeff Adachi, instead examines how the times shaped the perception of Asians as leading men. The introduction of war propaganda films, for example, halted the momentum started by Hayakawa, James Shigeta (“Flower Drum Song,” “The Crimson Kimono”) and Mako (Academy Award nominee for “The Sand Pebbles” in 1966), and cast Asian men as the untrustworthy villains.

“If you look at, historically, what was happening in terms of relations between America and Asia, there was a direct connection [to] the opportunities for a James Shigeta or a Sessue Hayakawa based on what was happening,” Adachi said after the New York Premiere of the film at the New York Asian American International Film Festival.

“In Sessue Hayakawa’s case, he just happened to hit that moment of time when there was a tremendous amount of interest in Japan,” Adachi said. “It was before Japan represented the threat that was later realized in World War II…He was able to not only star in, but write and direct films. That was key for him, too. Here was somebody who, as soon as he reached a certain level of stardom, began making his own films and telling his own stories. And that was unusual for anybody [at that time], much less an Asian male star.”

While it is difficult to pack a seemingly broad topic into an hour, Adachi does a noble job of presenting why certain stereotypes came to be and how they are still perpetuated today through the voices of his interview subjects, including actor Jason Scott Lee, playwright Frank Chin and producer Terence Chang. The phenomenon of Bruce Lee is presented as an interesting question as to whether the celebrated star either raised the profile of Asian male actors in America or unintentionally spawned an “all Asian men practice martial arts” stereotype through his premature passing.

Another interesting aspect of “The Slanted Screen” is the sprinkling of behind-the-scenes anecdotes. For example, Terence Chang, the executive producer of the 1998 film “The Replacement Killers” – which starred Chow Yun-Fat – had originally used white villains to fight against Chow’s character, but was later instructed to use Asian villains instead. These and other stories confirm the reality that while Asian men are slowly being offered more three-dimensional roles, there is still a long way to debunk myths in the eyes of studio executives.

Wayne Chang, an actor and model from New York City, is all too familiar with this fact. He categorizes most of the types of characters that he has read in scripts into four groups: “martial arts masters,” “the skinny ultra nerd,” the “ghetto gangster” and “foreigners with bad English.”

“It’s very rare that we see Asian characters who speak fluent English…aside from Ming-Na’s character in “ER” or B.D. Wong in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” where their characters can be portrayed by actors of any ethnicity,” he said. “Even though we have shows like “Lost” – where two of the principals are Asian – the show purposely keeps Daniel Dae Kim’s and Yunjin Kim’s characters as “foreigners.” Foreigners who happened to be traveling from outside of the U.S., while other passengers are U.S. citizens.”

The subjects in this intriguing documentary expressed similar sentiments. At the same time, they took a forward-thinking look into the future, as did Adachi.

“The question is whether or not we’ll see a star of that magnitude now,” Adachi said in reference to Hayakawa’s and Shigeta’s success. “It’s a combination of a lot of things. You have to have the Will Smith factor where you’re going to be able to reach out to any audience and at the same time maintain who you are. I think that will happen. I think that we’re starting to see that now with the emergence of some of the independent filmmakers who are crossing over into more mainstream productions.”