Matt Damon can’t do anything right anymore. Once the golden boy of the Hollywood can-do spirit, he’s more likely these days to make flops or cram his foot into his mouth whenever he talks about social issues. Lean, charmingly mean Will Hunting has become the paunchy apologist for everything wrong with liberal men these days. Even more embarrassing, to a younger audience, he may even be known as Ben Affleck’s less-talented friend.
His latest film, Downsizing, is a Charlie Kaufman-esque sci-fi of the mundane, in which average Americans have the option of becoming tiny for the dual benefit of minimizing humanity’s carbon footprint (PR reason) and upping their standard of living (actual reason). Given the film’s mediocre reviews, I had no intention of watching it. But it does have an important Asian character, played by Hong Chau, and a few reviews by NPR and The Guardian did criticize the White Savior storyline. So on a cold New Year’s Day, I hopped on the bus to head to the nearest AMC.
Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a nice-but-unremarkable physical therapist in Omaha, Nebraska. He’s married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), whose primary characteristic is wanting a better lifestyle than what they can afford. A brilliant Norwegian scientist has invented a new procedure in which humans can be “downsized” into dollhouse denizens. This is supposed to save the planet from overpopulation. Coping with debt and dissatisfaction, Paul and Audrey decide to downsize. But Audrey backs out at the last minute, leaving Paul all alone in miniaturized early retirement. Eventually, Paul meets his neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), an exciting decadent who brings parties and drugs into their retirement community. A little Bangkok into their Boca Raton.
And then there is the Asian character who drew me to this film, Ngoc (Hong Chau), Dusan’s Vietnamese cleaning lady who in her former full-sized life was a famous political dissident in her home country. The Vietnamese government has shrunk her against her will as punishment. Through their blossoming relationship, Paul finds some greater purpose in his life, culminating in a trip to Norway to meet the famous inventor of downsizing and visit the first-ever downsized settlement. Turns out that humanity’s fucked anyway and the select few downsized must become underground vault dwellers for several millennia to ride out the climate apocalypse. Paul is thus faced with the choice of participating in saving humanity, or living out the one life he has with Ngoc.
Downsizing isn’t unwatchable. It’s certainly not a good movie, but I never wanted to walk out in the middle of it. It just feels outdated. If such a thing as Dad Rock exists, then this was a Dad Movie. Dad Rock thinks no good music was made after Pink Floyd. Dad Movie thinks no good political radicalism has happened since Greenpeace.
This out-of-touch quality is most obvious in the character of Ngoc, who is that familiar character: the long-suffering Asian refugee who, against all odds, has made it to America and finds salvation among good-hearted white people. No other Asians exist, except as evil governments or tragically deceased family and friends. Ngoc appears battle-hardened, but she actually has a heart of gold and says adorable/creepy things like “Did we make love-fuck?” Unlike the white male protagonist’s selfish and traitorous white wife, Ngoc has that rustic Asian villager wisdom that allows her to appreciate said white male protagonist’s dormant specialness. This contrast is highlighted by how Audrey’s disfigurement (shaved head and eyebrows, as part of downsizing procedure) is played for laughs in her character’s final scene, whereas Chau’s disfigurement (amputated leg) is played for sympathy and even eroticism when Damon massages it as a prelude to finally making love-fuck with her. Ngoc is, in essence, the prototypical Dad-Movie Asian.
Also, the disturbing implication is that the future of humanity will be 90% Nordic. Given this and the romantic valorization of the Asian woman, Alexander Payne may have accidentally made an alt-right movie.
Much of the racial criticism of the movie has focused on Ngoc’s accent and how it sometimes seems to be the butt of jokes. But the more poisonous impact of this movie lies in its real-life characters. In a delicious twist of fate, Matt Damon — the pony-tailed savior of Asia in already-forgotten The Great Wall — now needs to be saved by Asians from the bewildering anti-Midas Touch he’s developed. Lately, the Downsizing troupe has been trying to salvage its maligned product by touting its inclusion of Hong Chau. While the inclusion of Asians in America’s cultural consciousness is generally a good thing, here, the Hollywood ploy is transparent.
Just watch the video interview that Hong Chau did for The Hollywood Reporter, in which she says that it was distracting to work with Matt Damon because all she wanted to hear were stories about George Clooney and Ben Affleck. This is the same Ben Affleck who has been laser-shamed into hiding after his empty rhetoric of being shocked SHOCKED by Harvey Weinstein was hilariously undercut by video footage of him groping women, as well as numerous stories involving sexual harassment. Chau’s interview sounds like something from the Bennifer era.
And that is the whole point: a desire by the Hollywood fraternity to turn back the clock a little bit, with useful minorities providing cover. A few weeks ago, during the premiere of The Last Jedi, there was a widely shared tweet of Kelly Marie Tran (who was great in the movie) crying tears of gratitude while in the arms of that current paragon of total non-sleaziness: the Hollywood producer.
This isn’t limited to Asians. When did Halle Berry’s critical apex happen? When the then-Hottest Woman Alive fucked a white racist on-screen in Monster’s Ball. How does the James Bond franchise take its imperialistic and misogynist edge off? Not with a shot of Black Bond, but with a dash of Black Moneypenny. How does the British Royal Family keep their heads on amidst increasing populist rage? They take in a black(ish) woman into their ranks.
These incidents wouldn’t be so suspect if it weren’t the American Way to use women of color to justify its acts of transgression. We’ve all seen this feminism of convenience, such as when old right-wing men who want to ban contraception in America suddenly develop bleeding hearts for the women of Islamic world when America’s bomb arsenal goes unused for too long. Or when the type of guys who sneer at “ghetto” black women suddenly become experts in misogynoir in rap when it comes time to look down on black culture.
From Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Malala to Park Yeon Mi, the foreign female victim is often the preferred face to elicit Western sympathy. From La Malinche to Pocahontas, modern Western colonialism has sought to justify its actions through the romance of white men and “native” women. The men are much tricker to absorb and more likely to become freedom fighters or political adversaries. They commit the wrong kind of suicide — bombings and kamikaze — instead of the right kind: for the love of a departing American soldier.
In the last year or two, the White Male Brand has taken a beating. After a period of self-criticism, it will undoubtedly seek to re-establish its preeminence through the aforementioned time-tested methods. Even the recent Logan Paul storm of outrage seems partly fueled by the dawning horror that this uncouth lunkhead could alienate one of this brand’s most loyal customers: Asians.
This is what we have to watch out for. As racism and white nationalism have made American conservatism almost completely unacceptable to Asians and all other peoples of color, the idea of the Model Minority has been adapted for a liberal environment. Whereas our predecessors may have aspired for admittance into tax-hating and black-excluding country clubs, we seek inclusion into the “progressive” worlds of culture/entertainment industries, the true marker of elitism once your caste achieves middle-class respectability. But the reasons for our invitation will be the same: to uphold an unjust status quo.