“Seeking Asian Female.” Photo credit: Susan Munroe.

Asianphiles, Fundamentalists, Sex Slaves and Ukuleles

by Yayoi L. Winfrey

With terrorism a buzzword of today’s media, internationally acclaimed director Mira Nair’s latest film is timely. In “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, she explores the consequences of sovereign allegiance through a character named Changez (pronounced Chan-guess) played by Riz Ahmed.

Pakistani by birth, Changez arrives stateside to attend Princeton, enthusiastically embracing corporate capitalism. Easing into a financial analyst position with a major consulting firm, he draws the attention of company president Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland). Together, they give to the rich what they take from the poor.

Whenever he’s not jet setting to Istanbul or Manila, Changez gazes at the New York City skyline from his highrise office. A chance encounter in the park leads to a romantic entanglement with photographer Erica (Kate Hudson with harshly dyed brown hair) and brings him closer to achieving The American Dream.

Then, 911 happens. Enduring racial slurs and slashed tires, Changez is also hustled into interrogation rooms by TSA and FBI agents. With a growing sense of alienation and humiliation, he explodes upon discovering Erica’s photo exhibit focuses on his heritage.

Before long, Changez is back in his hometown of Lahore teaching at a university. Accused of complicity in the kidnapping of an American professor, he plays cat and mouse with foreign reporter/operative Bobby Cross (Liev Schreiber).

Over two hours long, “Fundamentalist” is ambitious, with a plot that meanders as Changez moves from one locale to another. Other characters’ backgrounds are hurriedly explained—Bobby’s stint in Iraq, Jim’s used car salesman father—in order to clarify their motivations. Still, the topic is relevant.

Another relevant topic is human trafficking, covered in the film “Eden”. Based on a true tale about a Korean American woman kidnapped and forced into the sex trade, it was filmed in Washington and stars local Jamie Chung. At 19, Eden (the name captors give her) is abducted and forced into prostitution in the desolate Nevada desert. Graphic scenes including bloody injuries, bondage and torture creates some queasiness, but Chung‘s performance—she won the Golden Space Needle Award—is riveting.

Flipping the image of subservient Asian women by showing one in control is the documentary “Seeking Asian Female”. Filmmaker Debbie Lum confronts her “worst nightmare”, a white man named Steven with “yellow fever”. Obsessed with marrying only an Asian, 60 year-old Steven allows Lum to film his pursuit of 30 year-old Sandy, whom he brings from China to live in his crowded apartment and make their wedding plans.

An airport cashier, Steven is chunky and goofy, but harmless even as he discusses his lust for hot Asian babes.

“It’s the long black hair,” he explains. “The dark eyes, the whole mysterious look.” By film’s end, Lum’s disdain for Steven fades as she serves as interpreter cum counselor for him and his demanding bride-to-be.

Insecure, jealous and an ineffective communicator, Sandy is self-described as “a country mouse” that skipped college to work and buy her parents a house. Considered “an old maid” in her village, she’s desperate for the marriage that Steven will provide — his third.

Admitting their relationship is problematic, she adds, “It’s too late to go home now. I’ll lose face.”

Revealing her plans for nursing school, Sandy orders Steven to clean up his messy home. With her subjects’ roles reversed, Lum contemplates ending filming while questioning her function in their lives.

“You’re not God,” Steven replies. “You’re just a director.”

Jake Shimabukuro is not God either, but he plays the ukulele like one in the documentary “Life on Four Strings”. Not only does he pronounce the four-string instrument correctly (ooh-koo-leh-leh), but knows its roots, too.

“In Hawai’i, I always respected the instrument,” he says. “It’s a big part of our culture.”

Four-string virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro. Photo credit: Merri Cyr.

With his unique technique and versatility, he proves it’s not the “gimmick instrument” non-Hawai’ians have tagged it. Besides strumming traditional native tunes, Shimabukuro also plays blues, jazz, pop rock-n-roll, and classical pieces like Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” He began at four after watching his mother, a professional singer, playing. Today, his flying fingers can be viewed on YouTube where his clips shot him to international fame. Yet, he remains humble.

“Maybe it’s the Japanese in me,” he offers. “Culturally, you don’t know how to deal with praise or compliments.”

Married and expecting a son, Shimabukuro seems like an average nice guy — until he plucks those four strings.

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