Slaying the Dragon. Directed by Deborah Gee. New York: Women Make Movies, 1988. 58 minutes.
Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded. Directed by Elaine H. Kim. New York: Women Make Movies, 2011. 30 minutes.
Re:Orientations. Directed by Richard Fung. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2016. 68 minutes.
The first time I saw Slaying the Dragon was in 1989 at the University of California, Santa Barbara; I was a first year student in my first Asian American studies class. Watching this film was a transformative experience: I left that classroom feeling angry, empowered, and desiring to learn more about Asian American history and cultural representations. There are so many firsts when discussing Asian Americans in media, especially when the subjects are Asian American women and queer Asian Americans, the subject of Richard Fung’s Re:Orientations. Fung’s original documentary, Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians followed fourteen gay and lesbian Asian Canadians and was the first North American documentary to focus on Asian diasporic queer people.1 Thirty years later in Re:Orientations Fung returns to seven of his original subjects, adding interviews of younger queer and transgender Asian Canadians.2 Like Re:Orientations, Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded builds on and updates the original theme of Slaying the Dragon, namely the analysis of Asian female representations in television and film, particularly in terms of either confirming or refuting stereotypes. In re-watching both Slaying the Dragon (the original and updated versions) along with Re:Orientations, I am struck by how far our society has grown in its capacity to create spaces for Asian American women and queer Asian North Americans yet also how much further our culture needs to go. This makes all three films excellent teaching tools for diversifying one’s syllabus and addressing social justice issues and Asian representation in North American society.
Fung catches up with his subjects from Orientations, juxtaposing their young queer selves with the thirty years that have elapsed—the various directions and places their careers have taken them, the causes they have newly taken up or continue to champion, and the partners, wives, and husbands who share their lives. Fung’s film portrays seven individuals, which is a key strength of Re:Orientations: these people are neither interchangeable nor a monolith. For instance, Prabha Khosla’s adamant antimarriage stance is contrasted with Alan Li’s marriage and the lessons he learned during the AIDS crisis when same-sex partners were denied hospital access to their loved ones. For Khosla, marriage is antiqueer; for Li, marriage is a human right. Another strength is the space Fung gives for these older subjects to contemplate the next stage of their lives. We do not often see or hear about older queer people and the legal and logistical issues that aging brings. Hearing them talk about the challenges of growing old as a queer Asian Canadian is really quite poignant and powerful.
Teachers interested in Fung’s documentary would benefit from framing Re:Orientations intersectionally; these men, women, and transgender Asian Canadians should be understood through their sexuality, ethnicity, race, nationalities, class, religions, and gender—all informed by the power structures that circumscribe their lives. Readings by critical race feminist scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Trina Grillo are essential for illuminating the many axes of privilege and oppression that the subjects of Fung’s documentary have had to navigate, and David Eng’s work will also provide important context for teaching queer Asian North Americans within an Asian diasporic lens.3
The Asian diaspora is on full display in both Slaying the Dragon and Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded. In contrast to Re:Orientations, which featured Indian, Filipino, and Vietnamese Asian Canadians, Slaying the Dragon focuses almost solely on East Asian Americans—an oversight that Reloaded rectifies. Therefore, these two documentaries would function effectively as companion pieces, though Reloaded is a more classroom-friendly film at thirty minutes. For instructors looking to provide background about how Asian female stereotypes, such as the oversexualized dragon lady, began or about the relationship between the many US military interventions in Asia and the gendered representations of Asians in US media, Slaying the Dragon should be required viewing. Space constraints will not allow me to do justice to summarizing both films, but their power lies in the visual images and interviews with Asian American actresses, filmmakers, and scholars. We are a media-obsessed society, and the films illustrate how our assumptions about Asian Americans are largely driven through their portrayals in film and television; it has sadly not been until the twenty-first century that Asian American filmmakers, television producers, and internet personalities have broken into mainstream culture. And though Reloaded offers more contemporary examples from film and television, even in the space of seven short years much has changed: Fresh Off the Boat, the first TV sitcom to feature a predominantly Asian American cast since All American Girl, is in its fifth season; and Crazy Rich Asians, the first film with an all-Asian ensemble cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993, broke box office records, demonstrating that there is an audience for Asian diasporic English-language films.
While the amount of scholarship on Asian American women and media representations has jumped exponentially since the first Slaying the Dragon, I especially recommend Yen Le Espirtu’s work, which establishes necessary grounding in gender and racial politics, and Gina Marchetti’s intersectional approach to Asian American portraits in Hollywood cinema, which provides the scholarly touchstone for both films.4 And Fung’s film, through its context, nuance, and narrative complexity, also serves students well as an example of how innovative filmmakers who take an intersectional approach to their subject matter can use this medium to create careful and caring portraits of people whose humanity is often left out of mainstream media.
1 Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians, directed by Richard Fung (New York: Third World Newsreel, 1986), 56 minutes.
2 Fung notes that of the fourteen original subjects of Orientations, three have passed away, and the remaining four either could not be found or refused to participate.
3 Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241-99; Trina Grillo, “Anti-essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House,” Berkeley Women’s Law Journal 10, no. 1 (1995): 16-30; David Eng, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
4 See Yen Le Espiritu, Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Laws, and Love, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Gina Marchetti, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkley: University of California Press, 1994).