Mr. Yunioshi Featurette Decoded with Mark Young

breakfast at tiffany's

Despite the beauty and iconicity of the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there was one thing that stuck out as being a terrible mistake, particularly to Asian Americans—the character of Mr.Yunioshi. Played by Mickey Rooney, the role called for using makeup and prosthetics to transform the White actor into a caricature of a Japanese man. This practice, called “yellowface,” was unfortunately fairly common in early cinema, but Rooney took the act to new lows by affecting a hideous accent and generally making the character an embarrassing buffoon. When producers began planning extra featurettes for the Centennial Collection’s version of the film, Eric Young of Sparkhill saw the opportunity to openly discuss the problem of Mr. Yunioshi.

“It was almost like the proverbial elephant in the room that needed commenting on,” said his brother Mark Young, who eventually produced the segment, Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective.“Breakfast at Tiffany’s is such an iconic film and it just had this mistake right in the middle of it, this character, and here we are in a more contemporary era—it just begs to be addressed and discussed.”

Young knew that he wanted to interview a panel of experts for the featurette, so he started making phone calls to academics who studied representations of Asian Americans in the media. Since it was the beginning of the school year, they were too busy to participate in the project. That’s when he turned to MANAA, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.

“When I was able to reach Phil Lee at MANAA it was like reaching pay dirt, he was so receptive and he invited me to a meeting,” said Young. “When I first met the group at MANAA’s meeting I knew I’d have a nice lively group of individuals to interview, each with a different personality. Everyone’s background was different so we had different voices in discussing the same topic.”

From MANAA, Young found President Phil Lee, Vice President Jeffery Mio, and Founding President Guy Aoki. Since they wanted to include a female perspective as well, they suggested Marilyn Tokuda, an actress who had a long history of acting in films and was currently involved with East West Players.

In the 17-minute segment, stories of reactions to the film and the character of Mr. Yunioshi eventually opened into wider territory.Lee, Mio, Aoki and Tokuda also discuss the Japanese American internment, activism toward redress for Japanese Americans, the perils of being an Asian American actor/actress, and the impact of George Takei’s role on Star Trek for the Asian American community, among other topics.

“I know I’ll get specific answers to specific questions to build my story, but I like to leave room for personal stories or other topics or issues that are important to the person I’m interviewing,” said Young. “I found it very interesting to hear from the interviews what it’s like, what impression the movie made on them, and growing up in the environment with yellowface being part of the culture. Myself, an Anglo, not having that sensitivity but in hearing the stories, I gained a real appreciation for it.”

It may seem strange for a studio to include information on their own DVD that criticizes the film, but Young said that Paramount was open to the idea from the first proposal. They were curious to see how the segment would turn out, but he says that when they saw the final product they were happy to put it on the DVD. For his part, Young is proud to have contributed to a discussion of these important issues.

“For me personally I’ll always remember it,” he said. “It’s a standout both because of the subject matter and the people I met and interviewed for it.”

 

 

An Interview With Mark Young

Q&A with Mark Young about MANAA’s participation in a segment on the new DVD release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Why did you decide to do the Mr. Yunioshi segment?

Well to begin, I work with my brother Eric Young, his company is called Sparkhill. They actually produced all the extra bonus material for the DVD, so I was the producer on this one and it was his idea. To him it was obvious because of the Mickey Rooney character that the film just had, for its time, a mistake that was made. Now with the perspective since then it needed to be addressed. It was almost was like the proverbial elephant in the room that needed commenting on. He presented it to Paramount as part of the overall proposal for the DVD. They encouraged him to go further and see how it would turn out. When they saw the final product they were pleased with it and were happy to put it on the DVD. We were very proud of it, you know. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is such an iconic film and it just had this mistake right in the middle of it, this character, and here we are in a more contemporary era—it just begs to be addressed and discussed.

When you first proposed it to Paramount there was no resistance?

I wasn’t part of that presentation, but Eric indicated that they were willing to give it a try and see how it worked out. Do the interviews, put the piece together and see how it came across. They were quite pleased with how it was put together.

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Controversy Surrounds DVD Release of Movie “21”

Film could’ve been just as successful- and more accurate- with Asian American stars

LOS ANGELES – 21, the movie starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, and Kate Bosworth, will be issued on DVD on July 22nd. The controversial film, based on the best-selling novel Bringing Down The House, told the true story of the MIT professor who taught his students how to beat Vegas at blackjack and make millions. In reality, the professor, the player who scored the most money, and most of the team, were Asian American. In the movie, they were mostly portrayed by white actors- Kevin Spacey as the professor, and Jim Sturgess as the lead member. In this case, the ethnicity of the players was pertinent to the real-life drama. According to House author Ben Mezrich, a white person winning a lot of money in Vegas would raise suspicions, whereas Asians winning a lot would not.

Prior to shooting 21 in 2007, Sturgess had never starred in a film, and Across the Universe flopped upon release later that Fall, barely making back half of its $45 million budget. The British actor was not a household name. The fact that 21 grossed $81 million without big stars demonstrates it succeeded not because of the actors but its concept. Therefore, Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA- the only organization solely dedicated to monitoring the media and its depiction and coverage of Asian Americans), believes the movie could have done just as well with Asian American stars as well-known as or better known than Sturgess (e.g. John Cho, Ivan Shaw, Masi Oka). Chinese American Jeff Ma, the real leader of the team, inflamed Asian Americans when he told USA Today, “I would have been a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me.”

Boycott21 and other anti-21 websites quickly sprang up. After the “white-washing” issue was raised on Entertainment Weekly’s website, producer Dana Brunetti wrote: “Believe me, I would have LOVED to cast Asians in the lead roles, but the truth is, we didn’t have access to any bankable Asian-American actors that we wanted… If I had known how upset the Asian-American community would be about this, I would have picked a different story to film.” But Guy Aoki, MANAA’s Founding President, had spoken to Brunetti about the film in October of 2005. Back then, Brunetti said he did not care about realistic ethnic casting and was merely looking for “the best actor for the role”- a common excuse to cast white people in place of minorities. Says Aoki, “Asian American actors are 40 years behind African Americans in being allowed to play themselves in their own stories. 21, unfortunately, continues that discriminatory tradition.”

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