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This Story Is About You, But Not For You: A Review of “Made in China”

February 6th, 2020     by Gelaine Santiago     Comments

Illustration by Katie Chin

I’m an Asian woman who speaks French. Although this isn’t really that rare, a lot of people are genuinely surprised to meet an Asian French speaker. My partner is Québécois so we travel to his home, Quebec City, often, and my initial encounters with people often go like this:

They eye me apprehensively, unsure whether to address me in English or French. I take the initiative and greet them with a robust, “Salut! Enchanté. Je m’appelle Gelaine.” We exchange kisses and greetings. They say something like, “Oh! You can speak. And you can speak so well.”

And before another word is said I can already feel it coming.

“But where are you from?”

“Toronto,” I respond. “I learned French in school and then took extra classes.”

“Oh, but where are you really from?”

“Toronto. I grew up there.”

“But where are your parents from?”

One person even went so far as to ask me – within seconds of us meeting – “Were you adopted? Why do you speak French?”

I guess I can’t really blame them. After all, there’s a lack of Asian representation in general within mainstream media. And when it comes to French media? We’re practically invisible.

It’s not, however, that the Francophone community isn’t diverse. It’s that people’s perceptions of who gets to be considered part of the Francophone community is still limited to an exclusive few.

So when my partner shared the link to the CinéFranco Film Festival and suggested we check out the French film Made In China I was SO excited. FINALLY, a chance to see part of my story reflected in, hopefully, a nuanced and heartfelt way.

Made In China is a 2019 international French film about François (played by Frédéric Chau), a man of Chinese descent who grew up in Paris. After the death of his mother, François gets into an argument with his father and becomes estranged from his family (and consequently, the Chinese part of his identity) for many years. When his French partner, Sophie, announces they’re going to have a baby, François is pushed to reunite with his family and make amends with his father.

The film touches upon themes of family, belonging, and identity as François struggles to come to terms with his desire to fit into French society while still embracing his Chinese heritage. He’s joined by his best friend Bruno (played by Medi Sadoun) on his journey towards reconnection. It’s the first comedy ever made about Chinese people in France.

On the surface, this seems like the kind of coming-of-age, family dramedy that’s totally my jam. When I found out Frédéric Chau also co-wrote the film and based it loosely on his own experiences, I was even more excited. I hoped this movie would bring society one step closer towards more nuanced conversations about identity and belonging in the Francophone community. I hoped it would help expand people’s perceptions of who gets to be French or Québécois, or even who gets to speak French. And finally, I hoped it would just make me feel a little more seen and less like an anomaly.

We invited my sister (who also speaks French and is raising her children bilingual) and a friend to join us, and we all chatted excitedly as we waited for the film to show. I was curious about the other moviegoers and who they were. Would they look like me? I wondered. Would there be others here with stories and experiences like mine? Did we all come to this film for the same reason?

I eagerly scanned the theatre hoping to find a yes to my questions, but as the seats gradually filled, I found myself submerged in a sea of white hair and white skin. Within this theatre, even in a city like Toronto, my group and I were among the few non-white folks in attendance. We were also among the youngest. My heart dropped.

The lights dimmed, and our attention was directed up to the front where two CinéFranco organizers stood to introduce the night. They spoke about the inspiration behind Made In China and praised the filmmakers for shooting some of the scenes in Paris’ Chinatown. The organizers’ heartfelt enthusiasm did little to change the fact that they reflected the whiteness and sameness of their audience. I felt even more disjointed.

When the film finally begins, it opens with François and his (non-Asian) friend Bruno in a car in Paris and almost immediately, it makes a stereotypical joke about Asians: Bruno forces François to pretend he can’t speak French in order to get out of a speeding ticket. Ha ha, Asians are bad drivers. Ha ha ha, this man is a foreigner. I shook my head while the audience laughed around me.

And the audience kept on laughing.

They laughed through the racial tropes and racist jokes from Bruno; his comments about Chinese food being inedible and quips about all Asians looking alike.

They laughed inappropriately at François’ grandmother whenever she spoke, her French laced with her Chinese accent.

They laughed when François shared an intimate moment with his father, confessing how he was bullied in school and called the French equivalent of “Chink”, a derogatory term used toward Chinese people.

With each laugh from the audience, I felt myself shrink a little.

I quickly realized this space wasn’t made for me. That even in this film, where stories like mine were supposed to be at the centre, we were at the margins. Again.

The butt of another racist joke.

The guest who was welcome as long as we didn’t raise our voices.

I thought, How is it possible that a film that’s supposed to be about someone like me just made me feel even more invisible?

The experience was perplexing, though I don’t want to write off Made In China. There were some parts that felt genuine and heartfelt, like the scene of François smiling as his family sang together, Chinese words filling the car as they drove through the French countryside. I loved the interactions between François and his partner Sophie; their scenes together were genuine and loving, and actually hilarious. I wanted more of that. But, like an expat living in a “developing country,” the audience is never required to venture too far outside of their comfort zone. François’ journey of reconnection is always cut short and punctuated by his friend Bruno.

Bruno’s presence in almost every scene is hard to ignore. Although the actor Medi Sadoun himself is of mixed race (he’s born in France to an Algerian father and an Italian mother), he passes as white and his character Bruno is written like a white guy. And this makes all the difference.

As you watch the film, you realize Bruno’s wisecracking jokes and overbearing presence aren’t just for comedic relief. Instead, his purpose is far more insidious. He’s there to reframe the narrative. He’s there to take away attention, to make the story of a Chinese man more palatable to a white audience.

For example, during his attempts to reconnect with his father, Meng, François attends a meeting and learns about his father’s work in the Chinese community. His father is the leader of a community association that provides tontines (business loans) to newcomers, because otherwise Chinese immigrants in France could never qualify for bank loans. The reason for tontines existing is dark and rooted in racism within France’s financial institutions, but the audience never has to feel uncomfortable for too long. Because, lo and behold, Bruno appears ready to save the audience from its discomfort. Bruno begins questioning François immediately. He asks if he, a non-Chinese man, could participate in these tontines because he has business ideas, too. He asks François if this is the reason why Chinese people are able to buy restaurants and theatres and become rich. Rather than empathizing or even acknowledging the immigrant Chinese community’s resilience in the face of racism, Bruno’s questions refocus the narrative on him, the white guy, and why white people are being excluded by the mean, selfish Chinese.

In another scene, François is at his cousin’s wedding, and we’re given glimpses into a beautiful traditional Chinese ceremony. Bruno, of course, is there, whispering into François’ ear. He comments on how beautiful Lisa is (played by Mylène Jampanoï) and how he loves her hair, perpetuating the fetishization of Asian women. He also comments how Félix (played by Steve Tran) looks just like the Gangnam Style guy, again reinforcing the racist notion that all Asians look alike.

“I thought François’ cousin Félix would eventually call Bruno out,” my sister shared at the end of the film. “There were times Bruno would say really racist things and Félix would give him a deathly stare.”

I thought the same, but no such confrontation happened. Instead, the film never gets too nuanced or too real. It ends in a neat bow with a family reunion, a newborn baby, and Bruno snagging the hot Asian girl.

In some ways, it felt like Made In China was a film split into two. In the very real way people from two or more cultures struggle to reconcile their hyphenated identities, Made In China couldn’t seem to reconcile the nature of telling the story of a Chinese person with its desire to pander to a white audience. Because of that, so much of this film just felt watered down, the way Chinese dishes are removed of spice and heat and history to be made palatable to mainstream consumers.

Part of me can’t help but wonder, “what exactly went on in the editing room?”

When we talk about representation, people often equate it with concepts of diversity and equality. Usually, people argue that representation is simply about more.

More people of colour. More queer and non-binary folks. More women.

More Asian people in cinema. More stories that challenge mainstream narratives.

Yes, more is important. But what’s also important to understand is that true representation isn’t just the presence of something, but the ownership of it.

Frédéric Chau may have co-written this film, but who financed it? Who called the shots at the end of the day?

Who decided that to be taken seriously as a French film, it had to focus its attention on a white audience?

How different would my experience watching Made In China have been, for example, if that theatre had been filled with different kinds of people?

That brings us to even bigger questions. Like, who owns the platform our stories are being shared on? Who are the organizers behind CinéFranco film festival? Whose dollars are given priority over others?

Made In China represents a big step forward for Asian representation in French cinema, but there’s a long way to go. As long as the same people are in charge, they’ll continue to uphold the same old standards.They’ll continue to create for people who look just like them. And our stories will be relegated to just another thing to be consumed.

To be watched from the sidelines.

To be the butt of another person’s joke.

About the Author: Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and an advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., a fashion company that works with artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first socially conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She writes about purpose-driven entrepreneurship, meaningful work, and how they intersect with feminism, culture, and representation.

Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and www.gelainesantiago.com

Pronouns: she/her

Tags: asian representation, chinese, cinema, film, film review, french cinema, made in china, media savvy, race and racism

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