Friday, March 31, 2006

M. Butterfly goes to White Castle

David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly is a masterful post-modern play. Hwang completely inverts the Madame Butterfly myth to subvert, expose, and destroy it.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is a solid companion to Hwang's play. We begin with the inversion: what appears to be a typical white guy buddy movie gets abandoned as we follow the Asian-American "supporting" characters. But this becomes not so much an inversion, as every cliche of the raunchy buddy movie gets screen time, but these cliches are experienced by two Asian Americans (two Asian Americans seeking not something particular to their race, but simply seeking the same things any white, black, or other pot-smoking buddies seek in a buddy film). And as Harold and Kumar make their way to White Castle, they are essentially second-generation immigrants crossing the landscape of America: they confront members of an Asian American club that seem to fit the stereotype of the studious nerds, they deal with racist punks, they deal with the police, they deal with parental pressure. Throughout all sorts of racist and stereotypical words and images are shown...but now we are seeing them from the side of the Asian Americans who don't act remotely like any stereotype. They are simply young, high, hungry males--which is enough to show the ridiculousness of the stereotypes.

Stephen Holden of the NY Times wrote a solid review of the film (the Times has made the review very difficult to link to, so you can search for it yourself under "Reviews" on the Movie page). Holden begins,

The stoner, gross-out comedy ''Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle'' has one foot here and one foot there. The here is a politically savvy universe where the title characters, 22-year-old New Jersey roommates who are Chinese-American and Indian-American, puncture ethnic stereotypes. But the other foot is rutted knee deep in the muck of perpetual puerility according to Hollywood.

Holden's assessment is spot-on. There's subversion of stereotypes...and there's also Neil Patrick Harris sniffing coke off a stripper's ass. You laugh...but then you realize that you are able to laugh with the Asian Americans as they deal with the stereotypes that you may yourself occasionally hold (think Asians are smart? Good at math? Hard working? That Indians run convenience stores, or become doctors, scientists, or computer experts?)

In the end, M. Butterfly is far out of Harold and Kumar's league. Hwang is a first-rate playwright. But Harold and Kumar are reaching an audience that Hwang might not.

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