Fakin' Da Funk (1997)|
Director: Timothy A. Chey
Writer: Timothy A. Chey
Review by Rainbow Chung (posted on 23-Feb-2005)
There comes a time in life when one desires to change the world – this change can come in the form of a radical discovery or an attempt to eradicate racial labels. In this case, Tim Chey's Fakin' Da Funk aspires to take on typecasts that have been ensconced into American culture for generations. Though this may seem like a hefty challenge, Chey’s raw and sometimes absurd film is able to stand on its own without appearing morally driven or preachy.
The premise of this movie is unique: an African-American family accidentally receives a Chinese baby from the adoption agency (because their last name is “Lee”), and, in an entertaining subplot, a Chinese exchange student being sent to the wrong host family. The film follows the story with Julian (Dante Basco) as the adopted Chinese boy who grows up in a black community. When Julian first becomes part of the Lee family (Eddie Hudson and Pam Grier), Joe expresses qualms about raising a Chinese child in a black community, but Annabelle refuses to send him back. Although the Lees adopted Julian because they thought they could not bear children, Annabelle unexpectedly becomes pregnant with Perry (Rashaan Nall), who becomes Julian’s little brother. The loving support of Julian’s family, and the caring church community he grew up in, where ethnicity was never an issue, allowed Julian to identify with his African-American heritage. When Annabelle is widowed, the three move to South Central Los Angeles, a neighborhood that is strikingly different from their cozy hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta, Georgia, the place, needs to be brought in earlier in the piece.
For the first time in his life, Julian faces an identity crisis when the locals of South Central LA cannot accept his self-identification as an African-American. As a result, his relationship with his brother is also strained because of the added pressure Julian’s ethnicity places on both Julian and Perry. When Julian becomes involved with a wealthy African-American, Karyn (Tatyana Ali), the snide comments reach a boiling point. Much of the film's compelling and engaging facets lie in Julian’s struggle with the community, his girlfriend, his family, and himself.
The humorous subplot of the misplaced Chinese exchange student, May-Ling (Margaret Cho), lightens the atmosphere of the movie as the audience chuckles at her social gaffes. She starts out as an innocent Chinese girl, who transforms into a local "home girl." This metamorphosis incorporates important commentary on society because May-Ling relinquishes much of her Chinese background to assimilate and become a local. Thus, we wonder, why did May-Ling want to become a "home girl"? The social implications of this transformation are explored as she slowly changes with the help of the man she takes interest in, Brandon (Duane Martin).
There are some unabashed exaggerations of Asian culture and stereotypes, although the exaggerations may have been completely intentional. Asians are often considered the "model minority" because they are viewed, by members of other races, as demure and unflinchingly accepting of their surroundings, while becoming successful through their infallible work ethic. The writers behind this film were probably trying to emphasize the fact that Asians are often stereotyped as the model minority – with the "shuffling" characteristic of the Chinese gait, the studious nature of Asians, the clothes Chinese people wear, and even the activities Chinese people partake in. Stereotypes may have been inflated in this film purposefully, but it appears almost unrealistic and difficult to apply to reality because not all Chinese people shuffle and few dress in traditional Chinese apparel on a regular basis.
A notable and effective contrast is constructed between the two Chinese individuals in the film: May-Ling is portrayed as an authentic Chinese girl who exemplifies all the common Chinese stereotypes, and Julian is depicted as a confused Chinese man who does not understand his Asian roots. Julian’s situation is particularly heartrending because he faces a daily struggle as people indirectly tell him that he should be more "Asian" -- in the process, he struggles with himself because he does not know where he belongs. Home, to Julian, is Atlanta, where he grew up and the community was all black. The locals in South Central think that Julian's home is China, and they cannot comprehend that he claims roots in black Atlanta.
One of this film's drawbacks is the ethnic inaccuracy of the actors and actresses. Dante Basco is Filipino, which is, racially speaking, far removed from the Chinese character he plays in the movie. Additionally, Margaret Cho is Korean, masquerading as Chinese. Why was it so important that the characters be Chinese? Chinese characters were used most likely to create the contrast between May-Ling and Julian in order to show that they are entirely different despite their common heritage.
Julian's search for his identity is doomed from the start because identity cannot simply be discovered and embodied. Instead, identity consists of a long and intricate journey of self-discovery, with obligatory trials and tribulations. Additionally, identity is rarely stable and immutable due to the nature of life and the choices a person makes. Although Julian may not be able to choose how the community perceives him, he can choose how to perceive himself. His struggle with finding himself is noble, but he fails to realize that everything he has gone through and everything he will go through are all an integral part of his identity.
A particularly interesting theme of Fakin' Da Funk is the idea that Asians are expected to act Asian and be knowledgeable about their heritage. This idea holds true to most races, but its application to Asians is stressed in this movie. When Karyn first discovers that Julian not only knows little about Asian culture, but identifies himself as an African-American, she finds it inconceivable. Here she is, a wealthy African-American, who understands more about Asian culture than an Asian! Julian argues that Karyn does not know about the culture in the hood because she has grown up in a completely different environment. Both believe that the other is untrue to his or her roots, though the audience can see that they are both correct. Asians, or members of any other race, are not required to know everything about their race and culture. Julian tries to impress Karyn by learning Chinese, but eventually he realizes that he wants her to accept his true self. Karyn respects that, but she does not fully accept him until she talks to his mother and understands his identification with blacks.
Another prominent theme is the concept of labeling other ethnicities as "exotic." Asian culture is often thought of as exotic: the clothing, food, and practices are often viewed as sensuously foreign. In this film, this notion is bolstered by the reaction of the black community to Asians. Asians are treated as foreigners who are only in America temporarily, ready to return to their “homeland” at any time. Many members of the American community cannot accept the fact that many Asians call America home, and that they feel no ancestral obligation to any other land. In this movie, Karyn is also considered an exotic individual; when she and Julian go to the Chinese restaurant, the waiter blatantly flirts with Karyn and ridicules Julian for his inability to speak the language. The waiter finds Karyn exotic and attractive, indicating that any race is susceptible to being stamped as "exotic."
One important scene in this film is where May-Ling’s host father was learning Tai-Chi from May, and stops immediately upon being discovered by his neighbors. This scene is then touched upon much later when a large number of the community joins May and her family in practicing Tai-Chi. This is a comical and pivotal point in the movie because it demonstrates the ability for a community to embrace and appreciate another culture. May's metamorphosis to a home girl represents the reverse of cultural incorporation; she assimilates into the main culture present in South Central LA, demonstrated by her loss of a Chinese accent.
Though stereotypes and racist behavior are, unfortunately, almost unavoidable, this ambitious and sincere film provides an optimistic vision that cultures can intertwine and complement each other, without losing the identity that makes each culture unique. This film has the noble intention of challenging typecasts, but it lacks the realism that is necessary for the film to appeal to audiences. The premise of the film is preposterous, and although the plot reinforces the comical nature of the movie, it makes the racism present seem exaggerated and almost unbelievable. Ultimately, the goal of the movie, dispelling racism, is undermined, because its lessons cannot be applied to real life.
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