The conversation paramount needs to hear after ‘Ghost in the Shell’ bombed

Forget Ghost in the Shell and read this roundtable.

Surprise surprise: Ghost in the Shell is doing terribly in theaters. And if you, like me, opted out of seeing GITS, then I highly suggest you go straight for the Hollywood Reporter’s roundtable discussion.

THR’s Rebecca Sun invited a group of actresses, writers, and comedians of Japanese descent to watch GITS followed by a roundtable discussion. The result, not surprisingly, is a funny, honest, and cathartic take on a terrible movie and even worse plot twist. The gathered, Keiko Agena, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Atsuko Okatsuka, and Ai Yoshihara (y’know, actually being Japanese and Japanese American actresses and all) provide the most important point of view and will hopefully be heard by the rest of Hollywood. Doubtful, but hopefully.

Ai Yoshihara: Major’s backstory is white people trying to justify the casting.
Okatsuka: And they f — ed up in the process because now it looks even worse. The text at the beginning of the movie explained that Hanka Robotics is making a being that’s the best of human and the best of robotics. For some reason, the best stuff they make happens to be white. Michael Pitt used to be Hideo.
Agena: That was the other cringe-worthy moment, when they called each other by their Japanese names. We’re looking at these beautiful white bodies saying these Japanese names, and it hurt my heart a little bit.

Okatsuka: It’s not even about seeing me on the screen as a performer. It’s a bigger concern. It’s 2017 and I don’t know why these representation issues are still happening. It’s overwhelming. This means so much to our community but is so on the side, still, for a lot of people.
Kato-Kiriyama: It’s dispensable. We still feel dispensable.

Agena: …But as a fan, as a human Asian-American, I want to see that star being born. That was the part that hurt. This is such a star-making vehicle. And they can find people. They found that wonderful girl [Auli’i Cravalho] that played Moana. They found the guy that’s gonna star in Crazy Rich Asians [Henry Golding]. Yeah, it’s hard. But they can be found, and this could have made a young, kick-ass Asian actress out there a Hollywood name and star.
Kato-Kiriyama: And they know it, too. They know that they had that kind of power to change someone’s life.

Yoshihara: Yeah, a bunch of the Asian people got killed. All the minor roles are Asians who didn’t have lines. But all the core characters except Beat Takeshi and the mother were mainly white.
Kato-Kiriyama: The question itself has to be challenged. Why are you trying to drum up examples of people of color or specifically Japanese who are OK with it? Is it so you feel justified in maintaining your norm? Don’t you want to know why people are hurt? Aren’t you curious, as an artist? Isn’t there anywhere in your progressive, liberal mind that’s curious about the people that are feeling hurt?
Kato-Kiriyama: It’s trying to get the conversation away from race yet again. Sure, it’s a great role for women. I don’t know if kick-ass white woman action stars is such a void, but even that aside, it’s trying to step over the dead body. That’s fine when there are empowered characters who are women, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re actually talking about race. Can we just stay here for a little bit?
Okatsuka: When white feminists don’t know what to say about race, they go for the feminist thing. That’s what happened with the Women’s March. When women of color were like, “Will you be there, though, for the next march, when the next black kid gets shot? Will you be there when women of color need you?” they were like, “Wasn’t it great for women all around?”

Agena: That’s what’s so exciting about this time. There is a Master of None, there is a Fresh Off the Boat, there is a Get Out. I love being alive at this point, and that’s why I’m just waiting for the thing that’s not this movie. The thing where we can go out not as five women sitting there chewing our teeth through this movie, but five women going, “Yeah! Let’s go see this movie because we’re celebrating it!” I want that experience.

This whole conversation is everything the top decision makers at Paramount — or really anyone who gave this movie the go-ahead — need to hear right now, tomorrow, and every day. Kato-Kiriyama, Agena, Yoshihara, and Okatsuka were really able to break down what many Asian Americans were feeling as they watched the movie, from the first announcement of ScarJo two years ago to its premiere a few days ago. They understood how hard it was to watch this whole project get further through the process, green light after green light, and feel like all our voices and concerns were completely ignored. And then to watch (or hear about) the movie and know our voices had been ignored.

When Asian Americans are going to the movies more often than most other communities of color, why aren’t we seeing ourselves in our own damn roles? It’s been amazing to see that we’re barely four months in to 2017 and we’ve already seen “Ghost in the Shell,” Netflix’s “Death Note,” and Netflix’s “Iron Fist” (not doing great Netflix. Try harder buddy.) I’m not sure how we got to a media landscape where I can list off a handful of amazing AAPI representation accomplishments in media — “Power Rangers” “Andi Mack,” “Moana”— and a whole series of disappointments in one breath.

A few days ago the studio finally admitted that maybe casting Scarlett Johansson as The Major wasn’t the best move. It’s a shame that it took a dollar amount to show them what most of what the AAPI community had been shouting for months. Too little, too late, seeing as the movie is now out and everyone’s been paid. But I am hopeful for the future of Hollywood what with “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Mulan” in the works. Well, hopeful and a little (a lot) scared.

A dependable fantasy in “A Darker Shade of Magic”

A magician, a thief, and an intriguing world.

A few weeks ago, I was bored and felt nostalgic for some bad steampunk. I found a cheap YA steampunk novel (it was indeed bad but I enjoyed it anyways) and when I finished it my friend asked, “Do you want a book that doesn’t suck?” With that introduction, she handed me V. E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.

Prepare to be dazzled by a world of parallel Londons — where magic thrives, starves, or lies forgotten, and where power can destroy just as quickly as it can create.

There are four worlds, stacked like pieces of paper, only connected through London. Magic runs through each one but not evenly: Red London is drunk with magic, Grey London is fading, White London is starving, and Black London is a whispered legend. Kell, a powerful magician from Red London, is one of the few magicians who can travel between worlds (except, of course, Black London) as a royal ambassador. He uses his powers to smuggle trinkets between the worlds, a dangerous past time that crosses his path with Grey London pickpocket extraordinaire, Delilah Bard. First an adversary, then his savior, Kell and Lilah work together to fight off a darker magic to save their worlds.

Unlike Kell’s complicated navigation of the worlds, A Darker Shade of Magic is a pretty straightforward fantasy adventure. A solid storyline with plenty of plot twists and turns, it’s a quick and enjoyable read. Though a bit trope-y at times, I loved the characters and seeing their realistic development and depth. Most of the book focuses mainly on Kell, telling his points of view, thoughts, and story as he navigates through the dangerous magic he stumbles upon. But once Lilah is introduced, we hear more of her point of view and she stands out as one kickass kleptomaniac and heroine. For all of the ways each character fits into their genre — young angsty warlock, street smart pickpocket, charming prince, cruel royalty— they also have a strong, independent voice and personality.

Life-size cutouts of the main cast. Photo taken from V. E. Scwhab’s website

However, I liked the series best for the effortless world building in the stories, the ways that Schwab created four different dimensions so familiar and yet fantastic. Her world building is truly magical, balancing the four Londons and giving each its own distinct feel and imagery. I enjoyed reading about each city and trying to place where it was supposed to be in ours (for the record, I think Grey London is ours, the rest are pure imagination.) The magic in each wove itself naturally through the story; the main focus of the plot, but always as a natural given of the world instead of a thing that needed constant exposition. Creating one magic-based fantasy setting is hard enough, but this bitch created four.

I’m still in the middle of the second book, so I can’t give too much thought on the whole series — maybe I’ll do a trilogy review. But my friend was right, A Darker Shade of Magic indeed does not suck. In fact, it’s pretty great. It’s a solid first book for the trilogy, of which the third and final installment — “A Conjuring of Magic” — just released a few days ago. If you’re like me and looking for a reprieve from our actual world, V. E. Schwab’s four Londons is the perfect fantasy world to get lost in.

The best review of the worst restaurant

Tina Nguyen’s review of Trump Grill(e?) for Vanity Fair is a work of art.

Politics aside, Tina Nguyen’s now-famous review of the resturant inside New York’s Trump Tower is the stuff of legend and journalistic goals. She took a basic restaurant review and told a story out of her experience, from the atmosphere, the people around her, and most importantly, the food.

Nguyen is a political writer at Vanity Fair’s politics and business-focused magazine The Hive. Her other most recent pieces focus on breaking political news like Trump’s transition, Obama’s recent press conference on Russian hacking, and Democrats’ recovery post-election. Her articles all have the brutal honesty and voice of her Grill review, something I find refreshing in the always stoic news cycles of the NYT, AP, and so on.

Now I love a good Trump bashing as much as the next bleeding heart liberal, but I really loved Nguyen’s piece for its writing. Nothing about Nguyen’s writing sounds passive. I could easily talk about her use of analogy, metaphor, and her great use of imagery, but it’s something readers should see for themselves:

The restaurant features a stingy number of French-ish paintings that look as though they were bought from Home Goods. Wall-sized mirrors serve to make the place look much bigger than it actually is. The bathrooms transport diners to the experience of desperately searching for toilet paper at a Venezuelan grocery store. And like all exclusive bastions of haute cuisine, there is a sandwich board in front advertising two great prix fixe deals.

I asked the waiter what Trump’s children eat. He didn’t seem to understand the question, or, like Marco Rubio, appeared unable to depart from his prescribed talking points.“Oh, I’ve shaken hands with him before, and they’re pretty normal-sized hands,” he responded.

The steak came out overcooked and mealy, with an ugly strain of pure fat running through it, crying out for A.1. sauce (it was missing the promised demi-glace, too). The plate must have tilted during its journey from the kitchen to the table, as the steak slumped to the side over the potatoes like a dead body inside a T-boned minivan.

The fried shell, meant for one, contained a party-sized amount of lettuce and ground beef suspended in sour cream and “Dago’s famous guacamole”, which NASA might have served in a tube labeled “TACO FILLING” in the early days of the space program. Sadly, the taco bowl, perfectly adequate as it was, is not good enough to prevent Trump from deporting millions of Hispanics.

The Fifth Avenue — Grey Goose with Cointreau and a “splash of cranberry” — tasted like vodka mixed with Crystal Light, the ultimate drink for an 18-year-old pledging a sorority.

Savage. And wonderfully written, her own voice coming through clearly in her assessment of Trump’s restaruant as a possible metaphor for the man and his upcoming presidency. At the end she says she wanted to be generous in her review, but looks around the grill again and the parade of humiliated Trump enemies vying for postions on his staff going in and out of the lobby. Nguyen takes in the tourists and overwhelmed staff and has to “wonder if he cared about any of them, either.”

Of course the man who’s too busy to hold a formal press conference or attend intelligence meetings has more than enough time to respond to a bad review in Vanity Fair. He tweeted his anger, because that’s all he knows how to do, and specifically called out the editor of the magazine, Graydon Carter.

Interestingly enough, NPR reported back in March that Carter was the one who started the beloved running joke of Trump’s small hands. The satirical magainze he co-created, Spy, would lambast Trump and NPR says, “the magazine chronicled New York’s obsessions with wealth and social status, zeroing in on Trump’s questionable business dealings (of which there were many) and his outlandish personal traits (of which there were perhaps even more).” So really, this has less to do with the review and more with Trump’s easily wounded pride.

Fortunately, Nguyen, Carter, and Vanity Fair came out the stronger for the article. CBS Money Watch reported, “in the aftermath, Vanity Fair said Thursday’s subscriptions soared 100 times the level it usually gets in a day. Plus, Thursday saw the largest number of subscriptions sold in a single day for any Condé Nast publication. Further, Vanity Fair added 10,000 new Twitter followers.”

So I say read Nguyen’s article for its writing, stay for its scathing review of Trump’s attempt to con people into believing he offers a quality product — be it his restaurant, competency, or presidency.

The Simplicity of “Heroine Complex”

Truly diverse characters, leading female protagonists, and a fun ride — it’s not complicated.

“Diverse” has become such a buzz word recently that it’s pretty much lost its meaning. Diversity went from a desire to see more representation in media to a chore or a check box. As more TV shows and movies desperately try to jump on board the diversity train, books are really the best place to look for representation in media. My personal suggestion? Sarah Kuhn’s new urban fantasy novel Heroine Complex.

Being a superheroine is hard.
Working for one is even harder.

When a mysterious demon portal opened up in San Fransisco and granted a select few miniscule super powers, the portal also created San Fransisco’s favorite super heroine: Aveda Jupiter. Better known as Annie Chang to her long-suffering best friend and personal assistant, Evie Tanaka. Evie and Aveda are both very good in their respective roles, which is exactly how Evie prefers her life. Managing her diva of a best friend, blending into the background, and keeping her own super fire powers a secret. Then everything changed when the fire attacked. No really. After Aveda has a minor accident, Evie has to take her place and learns what it means to be a modern super heroine — the fans, the social media, and the threat of demon attacks.

Heroine Complex doesn’t get much more complex than that. Her world building is pretty solid, the story moves along nicely, it’s a fun read with realistic, fully formed characters. Well, the female ones at least, the men are a little 2D but I’m not complaining. The deeper reasons I love Heroine Complex lie in the simple details about identity and relationships that hardly get any mention.

“There was something deeply ironic about the fact that so many of the ‘exotic’ food items that had gotten us teased and bullied by our white classmates were now fetishized by white hipsters.”

Kuhn didn’t set out to create some great big commentary on society or human nature. She wrote a book about something she loves — super heroes, independent women, urban fantasy — and along the way included reflections of everday life. Evie is half-Japanese, Aveda is Chinese with immigrant parents who don’t approve of her profession, the team bodyguard Lucy is lesbian. No fanfare about each of these descriptions, it comes up once or in context clues. Their identities are important to them as characters, but doesn’t dictate the plot.

The “diversity” in Heroine Complex is so simple and natural to the flow of the book it hardly needs addressing. But of course it was a conscious decision on Kuhn, also half-Japanese, who has talked a few times about how more Asian American representation matters to her. Kuhn points out some double standards of being a POC, but each is more of a zing than a preach. Of course two leading Asian American females are one of the main reasons why I had to read her book, but I ended up loving her book for one specific reason: Kuhn’s validation of girls’ anger.

If you can’t tell, I run on outrage. All-caps Twitter or Facebook rants give me life. This blog is founded in part on my constant wealth of rage as a motivation to write. My friends decided that my little Inside Out emotion that runs my brain is Anger. I am an angry Asian. And so is Heroine Complex’s Evie Tanaka. Her frustrations and reaction to them are completely believable, because that’s how most people would reasonably react to diva bosses or attacking demon statues. To say a minor spoiler, the crux of the final battle relies on Evie getting angry, to which she says “Yeah. I don’t think getting mad’s going to be a problem.” In the real world when women are told to be happy, smile, and calm down all the damn time, reading a situation when getting pissed off and blowing shit up to save the city sounds like a dream.

Thanks for the autograph, Sarah Kuhn!

Heroine Complex is the first book in a trilogy, not sure yet when the second one is due, so it’s not too late to catch up. Like any superhero movie, it’s a light, easy book that doesn’t ask too many questions. You can take a deep look at the world with Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Madeline Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, or settle in with The Avengers and Heroine Complex.

When “badass” is a problem

I always love the silent, strong, ass-kicking heroine. The less emotion and more bodies on the ground, the better. Then I found Hermione Hoby’s “The problem with being badass” in The Guardian, explaining how “badass” became both a high complement and a stereotype encouraging masculine strength in women.

Screenshot of results for Google search “badass women.”

For the longest time, I thought women who wore all black, wielded 12 weapons, had physics-defying martial arts skills, and were so done with your shit were the epitome of cool. They were just so badass. As a frequent crier at everything — deaths of fictional characters, Olympic commercials, series finales of favorite shows, you name it — being an absolute emotionless rock that took down bad guys on the regular looked awesome. Whenever I saw those types of characters, they were instantly a favorite, and badass became the highest honor I could bestow upon a woman.

Hoby, however, points out the paradoxes of badass in her column. She notes that by hold up women who don’t show feelings or appear “weak,” it really means saying women who act more masculine are stronger because feelings and femininity are a weakness. She points out a number of examples in her column, saying that for every Jennifer Lawrence, Beyonce, and US Women’s Socer team, calling them “badass” enforces that there’s only one type of way to be strong.

“Women are often told to talk, think or behave like men; telling them to be badass enforces the same thing. The more urgent message, surely, is that we might consider just talking and behaving like ourselves.” Hermione Hoby

This column finally put into words the hypocrisy of female representation and my aversion towards showing my “weakness” in crying all the time. Because no matter how many times people say showing your feelings is another type of strength, seeing it negated by the media repeatedly re-enforces the same stereotypes. Who wants to be the weak princess singing about being trapped in a tower, when you could by the frying-pan wielding heroine smacking bad guys around? I love the stories of women saving themselves, but as Hoby said it’s just as important to talk about women who wear their hearts on their sleeves while kicking ass.

Hoby’s piece blew my mind the first time I read it and has changed how I think about women in my life, fictional and real. I still love the stoic ass-kicking Melinda May in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but that doesn’t mean Rebecca Bunch from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is any less a strong female lead. Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones is a badass for being the amazing comedian that she is, just as much at The Daily Show’s Desi Lydic. Women with independent thought, depth, emotions, backstories, goals, and fears — all capable, all strong, all badass.

“Let’s never stop cheering on female strength, but maybe we can find more ways — and words — with which to do it.” Hermione Hoby