What’s the deal with Asian Films?

It’s the quintessential topic on everyone’s mind; as our society grows and our demands shift, artists of all disciplines are handed the challenging responsibility of telling mankind’s stories honestly and with authenticity. We crave for diverse stories that enrich our lives, expand our worlds, that move us from one state to another, and this means less stories about yet another mediocre, middle-aged white guy. In what we can hope is a response to these growing demands, the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Awards (Australia’s Oscar) recently announced the nominees for their new 'Best "Asian" Film' award as a result of their Asia International Engagement Program.

Australia is finally taking some long overdue strides in the right direction by embracing and celebrating the multiculturalism we are so well-known for internationally. This direction proves a sound and proactive move by AACTA, not only by altruistic measures but also ensures the longevity of our nation’s entertainment industry. In recent years, it’s become apparent that Hollywood no longer remains the capital icon of the screen industry and without adapting, will lose its hold as a cinematic leader. Niall McCarthy's 2014 article in Forbes stated that in 2012, Bollywood was able to successfully produce one-thousand six-hundred and two movies, followed by China at seven-hundred and forty-five with Hollywood coming in at fourth (476). Other sources claim that Hollywood made 668 (six-hundred and sixty-eight) movies in that year but on an average, Bollywood would still be able to trump its western counterparts with an average of over one-thousand movies per year.

In recent years, the growing population of Chinese and Indian immigrants within Australia has led to movies from diverse backgrounds to triumph at the box office. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Asian countries had the largest growth of immigrants in the past year with Japan at 24%, China at 8% and India at 6%. As diversity grows within the Australian population, this new multicultural audience is demanding a similar shift in the entertainment sector; a shift that has presented itself in this inaugural award. With continued efforts to strengthen the foundation for significant changes in the future, an increase in quantity and quality of cross-cultural productions between Western and Eastern filmmakers, is guaranteed, ensuring modern Australian stories of a high calibre are brought to Australian audiences.

This decision not only proves beneficial to the larger industry but fills some current holes in the career progression for many filmmakers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Presenting this award would be an opportunity for filmmakers to showcase their works on a larger scale, filmmakers whose work has until now, been denied mainstream legitimacy and merit. The recipient for this award will be chosen by a diverse grand jury of some of the best actors and directors from all corners of the globe. Led by award-winning actor Russell Crowe, the jury includes internationally acclaimed artists, Kim Ki-Duk, Shabana Azmi, Ye Lie, Lu Chuan, Gary Kurtz, Anupam Kher, Adam Torel and Margaret Pomeranz. With this group of stellar screen practitioners, the recipients of the award will meet the exceptional standards of excellence that Australian audiences have.

This award, it’s intentions and its benefits seem impeccable, on the surface level. However, from the first announcement, a question has lingered at the back of our heads, unanswered and perhaps unvoiced. Why “Best ‘Asian’ Film”? What does being “Asian” have to do with making good films? It seems that in its attempt to narrow the representation gap within mainstream Australian works, AACTA marginalised this group of artists by relegating them-by name- to a category that is defined by being "diverse" (read as 'not white'). The name itself screams ‘RACE CARD’. If you were to question most creatives within the industry, on what makes a good film, one can be sure that ‘race’ won’t be their answer. As important as diversity is, it shouldn’t be forced to happen, but rather allowed to just be. It is the utmost responsibility of every filmmaker and artist to speak to their society, and thus, by default, must engage with and acknowledge the diverse facets of humanity, and that’s not limited to race.

By labelling it as an “Asian” film category, it begs the question of what it means to be ‘Asian” and what makes a film “Asian”? By following this line of enquiry, these benign intentions paradoxically, achieve the opposite of the multicultural goal set out. A film with a complete Black, Caucasian, Asian or Brown cast is not diverse nor does the creation of a film and its subsequent labelling as “Asian” solve the ‘diversity problem’. Diversity cannot be achieved in homogeneity. This approach assumes that audiences walked out of ‘Enter the Dragon’ and said – “Wow, that’s a really good Asian film” or leave films like ‘La Vita e Bella’ or the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise valuing them on their caucasoid-ness, or any other cultural markers. We know in our hearts that good cinematography does not lie in the country or race of those who made it, but on the artistry of the creatives and the rich stories that were shared.

To create an award based on monetary incentives and the growth of ethnic groups within Australia might in the short-term promote diversity, but in the long-term would continue to marginalise films and artists from non-Anglo backgrounds. The focus should be on cultivating a mixed group of minds and experiences to make sure that the story being told is done justice. So that merit isn’t awarded for being of adequate Asian background, we should look to rewarding exceptional films of any and all backgrounds, period; because if Best “Asian” Film is AACTA’s answer to solving racism in the industry… We’ve still got a long way to go.

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