Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded: “Things Change A Lot”
New York University, 27 October 2011
The screening and panel discussion of Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded, co-sponsored by the NYU Asian/Pacific/American Institute and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, reflected the importance of “reloading” an analysis of popular representations of Asian women. The film covers a range of issues very succinctly, reflecting on the progress and/or lack thereof that might be seen in the decades between this and the original 1988 documentary, and presenting contemporary issues and strategies that have arisen in the period between the two films. The documentary was screened after a brief introduction from director and producer Elaine Kim, professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley; it was followed by a panel discussion, moderated by NYU’s Gayatri Gopinath, and featuring Kim, comics guru Jeff Yang, and Benjamin Han, a doctoral candidate in Cinema Studies at NYU.
Both films were produced by Asian Women United, a project-driven activist organization co-founded by Kim in 1981. While the original Slaying the Dragon, released in 1988, was produced with a $300,000 budget—now the equivalent of $800,000—the sequel was produced with $15,000. As Kim stated, they “couldn’t get any funding” for the sequel, because “race and representation of Asian women is kind of an old idea.” Of course, the irony of this statement reflects the intervention of the documentary, which demonstrates, as the saying goes: “the more things change, the more they stay the same”—and, as Kim put it, “things change a lot.” The film presents the prevalence of multiculturalism onscreen as one example of changes in representation in the last 20-odd years, and suggests that while the fact that there are “more brown faces” onscreen now than in the 80s might seem “comforting” in the context of the documentary’s interest in representation, the characters being portrayed are “still white characters,” whose cultural history and experience is erased in the service of presenting “universal” (read: white) experience, demonstrating the “interchangeability and commodification of race” in our current moment.
The tension between universal and particular experience was discussed as a perennial issue for Asian-American writers and performers, who struggle to, as Jeff Yang put it, “depict characters in a way that allows them to live in their skin without being defined by that skin.” Kim offered films like The Motel, Robot Stories, and Colma: The Musical as examples of films that “address and embrace race without being obsessed by it,” while Yang suggested the Harold and Kumar trilogy as another example—yet, as Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded suggests, and Kim reminded us, the strides in representation for Asian-American men onscreen are not yet similarly reflected in roles for women. Of course, these struggles are in large part due to the fact that such stories “haven’t yet been given the budget, the resources, or the freedom” for such complex depictions.
The lack of budget for Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded resulted in a DIY ethos, and led to a number of conceptual choices that differentiate the sequel from the original documentary, in ways that were both necessary and strategic, and reflect the film’s interest in the ways new media and technology productively complicate representation and the primacy of mainstream culture. While Slaying the Dragon was recorded on 16mm film and ran 60 minutes, the sequel is a concise 30 minutes. The shorter running time was certainly not due to a lack of content; rather, Kim wanted to ensure that the film was a functional length for use in classroom contexts, while still allowing time for discussion. Kim’s pedagogical focus can also be seen in the formal composition of the sequel, which was recorded digitally, rather than on film, and was put together on the filmmakers’ laptops. Kim described the process of making the original documentary on 16mm as ultimately finite: “as soon as you make it, that’s it.” In contrast, Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded is a dynamic site that welcomes commentary, response and contribution. Kim described it as an “agglutinative project,” because, ideally, the film will continue to expand through feedback and discussion in order not only to reflect the continued evolution in representation of Asian women, but also to keep such conversations alive.
Julia DeLeon is a PhD student in Performance Studies at NYU.