Go East, Young Man: Welcome to the Age of Appropriation

Andrew Lam

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Many years ago, before the age of cyperspace, I found a Japanese manga series at a specialty bookstore in San Francisco. Created by Yukito Kishiro, Battle Angel Alita is the story of a post-apocalyptic world where humans scavenge to survive, many using robotic technology to replace lost limbs. These semi-automated humans live in a ruinous metropolis called Scrapyard, which smolders beneath the fabled floating city of Tiphares.


Fast-forward two decades and Tiphares is renamed "Elysium," one of this summer’s box-office hits. The film stars Matt Damon as Max, a reluctant hero trying to knock down the doors of "Elysium" to gain access to life-saving technology. In the process, Max becomes the key to bringing Elysium and its privileged elite down to earth.


Elysium is the latest in a series of American productions that show how the Information Age has become the Age of Appropriation, one in which ideas and stories exist side by side for the borrowing, the taking, and ultimately, the mixing. What it also shows is that after almost a century of imitating the West, the tables are indeed turning and Hollywood is increasingly looking east.


At first it was a trickle. The 1954 film “Seven Samurai,” by legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, became the star-studded “Magnificent Seven,” by John Sturges. Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961) turned into Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars.” Then came the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 cult classic “The Matrix,” which defined a generation. Based on the Japanese manga series “Ghost in a Shell” and starring Keanu Reeves as the messianic Neo, the film initiated a torrent of cinematic influences originating from Asia.


The martial arts genre, especially, has long held sway here. Over the decades it has found great enthusiasts, more notably among them famed directors like Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino of “Kill Bill” and “Pulp Fiction” fame was “inspired” by Hong Kong director Ringo Lam’s much earlier “City on Fire,” which became the 1992 film “Reservoir Dogs.” While he later claimed it was an homage and not stealing, the reality is that in the Age of Appropriation, the line between the one and the other is fading.

No wonder, then, that there’s an army of Hollywood executives busy scouring East Asia – primarily Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea – for potentially successful remake opportunities.


Korea’s horror genre, especially, seems ripe for the picking. The Guard Brothers turned “A Tale of Two Sisters,” by Kim Jee-Woon, into “The Uninvited,” Young-hoon Park’s “Addicted” became Joel Bergvall and Simon Sandquist’s “Possession,” and Alexandre Aja shortened Sung-ho Kim’s “Into the Mirrors” into “Mirror.”


Clearly, ours is an era increasingly defined by the hybrid space in which re-invention and remake is key. But it is also one in which America is no longer the sole source for inspiration. Like Kwai Chang Caine, the wandering hero of the 1970s TV series “Kung Fu,” Hollywood is now infused with an essence that is undeniably Asian.


But it was only a matter of time. America’s birth, in essence, was the vision of the Far East, with Native Americans being mistaken for Indians. Ever since, a hunger for Asia and all its mysteries has endured.

Asia entices. Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior, once noted that, “To this day when in need of aesthetic and moral strength, American poets find it by questing eastward ... Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman reached for spiritual states that they could see in Hinduism and Buddhism. The Beats went to Japan and India and brought back modern poetry.” To her list we can add Isherwood, Maugham, Huxley, and Hesse, and a horde of other important thinkers, writers, and artists and, now, filmmakers.


Back when the Internet was but a brook and not a raging river, Asia was still far away. Those of us who longed for her read manga and watched anime series on DVDs to get our fix. We were a nerdy bunch. But in the Age of Appropriation, when so much in the West is being inspired and borrowed from elsewhere, we take solace in seeing the center of gravity shifting from its Eurocentric moorings, going slowly but surely eastward.


Author Bio:

Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and, his latest, "Birds of Paradise Lost," a collection of story about Vietnamese refugees in the Bay Area.


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