Attempting the ‘Impossible’: why does western cinema whitewash Asian stories?
I found the film compelling and disturbing. Compelling because I live in Japan, having moved here (for my current stay) just after the March 11 disasters. When watching this film, I quickly realized wasn’t yet psychologically ready to watch a film about a tsunami. Disturbing because the film focused not on the far greater tragedy of the more numerous deaths of the local population, but on the suffering of whites on vacation. To make matters worse, the film changed the names of the Catalan characters, making Tomás into Thomas, etc., as if Catalans or Spaniards (still) aren’t quite white enough to attract a global audience.
My Japanese students have told me that when they’re used to seeing a white man, and only white men, in a ‘universal’ role, in which his suffering is supposed to represent the suffering of all humanity. A Japanese woman or man in that same role, for example, would represent her or himself only. If we’re lucky, the person’s struggles might represent the Japanese people more broadly, but this connection would not extend globally.
Yes, another film where the heroes are white characters.
While I have not seen The Impossible (yet) I’ve been curious about the storyline, especially since it’s set during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which killed at least 227,898 people. It left a devastated coastal Asia in the south east, and many bodies still have not been found.
With this historical background & irrevocably high scope for film drama, The Impossible “concentrates not on the plight of the indigenous victims but on the less harrowing experiences of privileged white visitors. The film’s winsomely western family, headed by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, experience little more than separation anxiety and survivable injury before jetting safely homewards.”
(below is the entire blog post from The Guardian UK’s film blog)
This scenario has provoked outrage, not least on this site. The New York Times found the film “less an examination of mass destruction than the tale of a spoiled holiday”. Still, the indicted parties have alibis to hand.
According to Watts, “Fifty per cent of the people that died in Thailand were tourists.” Good try, but perhaps a little disingenuous. Holiday paradise Thailand, with its 5,400 deaths, was actually at the margins of the tragedy. Indonesia alone suffered 130,700 deaths, largely of low-income Acehnese people; the figure for the UK, whence The Impossible’s family appears to hail, is 149.
McGregor has filed a different defence. “Naomi’s character is saved by a Thai man, and taken to safety in a Thai village where the Thai women dress her … In the hospital they’re all Thai nurses and Thai doctors – you see nothing but Thai people saving lives and helping.” Does this make matters worse? Those who are protesting don’t want to see non-whites patronised with background roles as saintly ciphers; they want them to play mainstream parts as three-dimensional protagonists in what is, after all, their story.
As it happens, The Impossible’s director, Juan Antonio Bayona, was inspired by the tale of a real-life family. However, this family was Spanish, not British. So, it seems, even Catalan people like the woman Watts actually plays aren’t considered mainstream enough, even for what is a wholly European film.