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Counterpunch

Does D-FENS Shatter American Reality or Reflect It? : Portrayal of Store Owner Seen as Volatile Stereotype

March 22, 1993|JEANA H. PARK | Park is executive director of the recently formed Korean American Advocates for Justice

Have we Korean-Americans become society's newest headache? Warner Bros.' latest release, "Falling Down," portrays us in just that way. D-FENS, played by Michael Douglas, goes on a rampage against everything in the city that angers him, including . . . The Korean-American Store Owner.

"Do you have any idea how much money my country has given your country?" D-FENS asks the store owner, Mr. Lee.

"You come to my country, take my money and you don't even have the grace to learn my language?"

"I'm not the thief. I'm not the one charging 85 cents for a stinkin' soda! You're the thief!" D-FENS continues. Then he smashes merchandise with a baseball bat, claiming he is defending his "rights as a consumer," while Mr. Lee cowers in the corner with his arms around his head.

I had to clench my jaws throughout the entire scene to control my horror and disappointment. They had to be joking. Rubbing salt on our open wounds for the sake of the almighty dollar. Immoral. Unjustifiable. Unbelievable. I protest it all.

I protest this film with every fiber of my conscience that winced with each slur and with each swing of that baseball bat. I protest the insensitivity of Warner Bros., the ignorance of director Joel Schumacher and writer Ebbe Roe Smith, and the audacity of Michael Douglas to play such a role.

*

I protest the portrayal of Korean-Americans as rude, money-grubbing menaces. This is a stereotype that has proven to be volatile and destructive, which leads to hate crimes and violence against us and other Asian-Americans. It was this stereotype that helped fuel the tensions between African- Americans and Korean-Americans for years. Recall how the case of Soon Ja Du was so widely heralded as an example of this war, and recall how that incident was so exploited that just the name Latasha Harlins became a focal point for an all-out attack on the Korean-American community. We Korean-Americans were targeted, attacked and suffered the brunt of the damages during last year's civil unrest. And the violence continues, with Korean-American store owners being victims of assault and hate crimes almost every day.

Considering this, it appalls me how Warner Bros. could so easily validate and confirm such a damning stereotype to American moviegoers, and how they could do so when the federal trial of the four police officers accused of violating the civil rights of Rodney G. King has Angelenos at the edge of their seats, fearing another round of destruction to our city and heightened racial tensions.

I was talking about this movie with a friend of mine who asked me, "Would it have been any different if the store owner was an American? " Oh God, I felt as if a vein burst in my forehead. " This is exactly my point! " I wanted to scream at her, " He is an American! Get it through your head! Mr. Lee is an American just like you! "

How much longer must we assert and reassert the fact that we are Americans and we have a rightful place in this society? How often must we drill into people's minds that our almond-shaped eyes and dark hair are not marks of second- class citizens?

"Falling Down" is a story about one man who has had it with the everyday pressures of society. Some may argue that D-FENS is an equal-opportunity slanderer, or that he is so insane that everything he says and does should be discredited.

Wrong again. Viewers may not condone his violence but they understand his anger and frustrations. After all, he is standing up for all of us. He is the modern-day crusader for the rights of all consumers, a fighter against all the social ills we all supposedly face. This movie riles up the viewers and this character becomes something of a hero. Many audiences cheer D-FENS as he goes on this one-man rampage, and aren't the cheers a mindless, if not willful, validation of prejudice and stereotypes?

Media portrayals such as these must stop. Asian-Americans must be presented realistically, not stereotypically, and if negatively, then positively also. Where and when do you see positive, non-stereotypical images of Korean-Americans? Where and when do you see an Asian- American protagonist we all identify with and root for? What do we moviegoers see, other than the computer-whiz nerd, the geisha girl seductress, the foreign investor, the loyal sidekick to the great white man, etc.? I am tired of Korean-Americans and other Asian-Americans being enveloped in such a negative image that we are hated/labeled/rejected before we are known or understood.

I realize that any publicity given to this movie will tend to cause people to want to see it just to know what all the controversy is all about. But think twice before supporting Warner Bros. with your $7.50. It's within your power to do this, "as a consumer."

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