It’s a highly unseasonal hot Parisian Thursday evening in June and I am looking forward to spending an hour and a half in an airconditioned cinema next to the Francois Mitterrand library on the eastern side of the city. However, this is not my typical movie night as this evening I am accompanied by eight French/Asian female illustrators, writers and artists who have decided that they want to see a particular film. To put this into context, I am a white male and I have little contact with the Asian community. The cohort, (of which my girlfriend is part of), make up a cooperative that meets regularly to offer each other advice and support in a country where latent racism and sexism can prove formidable obstacles to professional opportunity in the competitive cultural space.
The film in question, Made In China, is a French mainstream comedy about the significant Franco-Chinese population in Paris and how that community and culture interact with white France. It is unusual not only in that it deals with a subject which is rarely talked about in French cinema but also because the lead actor and co-writer, Frédéric Chau, is himself Asian (of Chinese origin) and the production has been put on a general release.
The story follows François (Chau), a young Chinese man who has recently discovered that he will become a father with his French white girlfriend. Estranged from his family and community for ten years after a dispute with his father, François is pushed by his partner to reconnect with his relatives. Whilst the wider family welcomes him back, his father proves more difficult.
Chau uses the film to show some of the everyday banal racism that Chinese people have to endure from the lead character ringing on the door at a Parisian party only to be taken for a sushi delivery man, through to being asked by a friend to put on a stereotypical Chinese accent to get out of a fix with the police. Despite the unusual subject matter, the film nonetheless follows tried and tested formulas of the popular French comedy genre in terms of plot, pacing, and characterisation. This leads to many of the subjects (white and Asian) often being reduced to simple caricatures.
To my mind, the clearest failure of the film was that despite the good intentions of moving us beyond simple stereotypes of the Chinese community, the film often appeared to have wedged them in further with racist remarks thrown in for cheap laughs which are either ignored by the Chinese characters or quickly forgiven.
As the film clunked through its predictable scenes, I found myself wishing for the projection to end quickly.
Waiting in the lobby as the credits still rolled, I get my first feedback. Surprisingly, the women I initially talk with had enjoyed it and had got into many of the characters. The first two in the group were so positive about what they had seen that I was wondering if we had watched the same production.
The interaction of the father and the son, in particular, had been touching for many of them and the depiction of an older Chinese man unable to express his true emotions had been particularly resonant. Many of the women talked of similar fathers or grandfathers they had known and how they had been touched the film’s representation of this person who they felt that they knew well.
The Chinese grandmother, whom I had taken as a comic cardboard character, was also one that many of the women identified with.
The humour of the film, however, was something that appeared to divide the group. Many found it funny and had laughed through much of the film, however, others found much of the comedy to be problematic.
“I had a problem which many of the clichéd jokes” commented one woman. “Especially when a stranger I was sitting next to in the theatre exploded laughing and shouting “Ha, ha — the Chinese !” “
Another woman agreed “There was a multiplication of clichés and I found that difficult to stomach. You heard a number of people laughing in the audience who didn’t seem to me to have fully understood. I fear that this is just going to be more detrimental than beneficial.”
“To hate the humour,” said another “is perhaps strong, it is certainly true to say that it was not subtle”
What of the depiction of the Chinese community itself?
Again, the view was divided. Many liked the fact that the Chinese community was the focus of the story which included some interesting plotlines such as the community’s micro-financing. Also, some of the scenes were beautifully framed. However, many didn’t like the way that the film concentrated on the two areas in Paris most known for their Chinese community: Belleville and the 13th arrondissement. In of itself a stereotype.
My own girlfriend’s view was far more direct “I’d class this movie as a turkey. What I really didn’t like was the whole ‘Idiots Guide to the Chinese Community’ side to the film, with each character spelling out to the audience why they were carrying out certain actions. Particularly disappointing was the way that the female characters had no proper character development and whose only purpose was to support the male hero.”
Others agreed. The film may have attempted to push the barriers for Asians in France but it had not managed to shake off France’s more insidious sexism and seemed more than happy to propagate it.
Despite this, many felt that the fact it was an Asian screenwriter countered much that was wrong with the film. It was positive after all that the storytelling itself came from an Asian person. Many of the women felt that this in itself was a remarkable first step.
Moreover, the fact that the lead characters were Asians who were played by Asians was seen to be an exciting precedent.
“It’s good to see a film that talks about us, our elders and our stories” commented one woman in the group.
After hearing these views, I began to wonder if I was being uncharitable in my initial assessment. Maybe this film marks an unlikely turning point in French cinema and a changing French society.
“Far from being perfect” concluded another “it’s necessary for this film to exist just to be the first. It shouldn’t be the last one at any rate”