In one scene of The Jade Pendant, two men are forced to cook a meal despite having little experience, few ingredients, and no recipe. Hastily throwing together sauces and vegetables in a pan, they discover that they have invented chop suey. In times of desperation, the men are able to harness originality and resourcefulness to produce a masterpiece. The same cannot be said of this film.
The Jade Pendant is a movie meant to commemorate the 1871 Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre the same way that the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial was meant to commemorate Black Lives Matter. The lynching of 17 Chinese American immigrants, purportedly the central subject, is sandwiched between two phases of a blurrily choreographed martial arts melee. You might imagine, generously, that this transition is meant to highlight the intensity and brutality of the massacre. Instead, it has the effect of strapping cancer patients onto the rails of a kiddie roller coaster. For ten gratuitous seconds the audience is given the chance to watch as three Chinese men gargle against a length of rope, then the scene hard cuts to the villain playing high-speed patty cake with Peony, the owner of the titular pendant.
For having an all-Asian cast, the film does a remarkable job of erasing any sort of dignified representation from the screen. In an age of Black Panther,Moana, and Gook, imagining complex characters of color should no longer be this difficult. Nevertheless, Peony is the human embodiment of an origami crane, while her love interest Tom’s emotional spectrum ranges from quiet, hissing outrage to impassioned, shouting outrage.
The worst offense is Lily, notably the only dark-skinned character, who exists solely to be slapped, whipped, starved, and molested throughout the film. The pornographic exploitation of every scene Lily is in cannot be understated. At one point, a faceless goon drops his pants in order to set her on fire with a torch. If that sequence of actions makes no sense, don’t worry, nothing the characters do is meant to. It’s as if Mr. Yunioshi and Asa Akira produced children in a semi-fictional parallel universe for the sole purpose of populating the storyboard.
Returning to the massacre, do you remember how white Los Angeles residents did their best to prevent their Chinese brethren from being attacked? Neither do I; going in I was convinced that 500 people, about 10% of the population, participated in the killings. However, since a friendly white police captain wags his finger at a couple of racists in a bar, we are reassured that the law did everything possible to prevent the massacre. In fact, Chinese people were in fact to blame for their own massacre, as a conflict between two aspiring Chinese leaders is portrayed as good enough reason for white men to burn down Chinatown. This combination of blatant misrepresentation and poorly conceived contextualization ends up reducing one of America’s most horrifying racial atrocities to an afterthought.
Historical accuracy is certainly the last of the filmmakers’ priorities: after a thirty year time skip, Tom is shown to have started a large family in Chinatown, conveniently ignoring that the Page Act and the Exclusion Act essentially made starting a family impossible for Chinese Americans. The characters speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese or Taishanese, in blatant disregard of the identity of the immigrants in Chinatown. This oversight was blamed on a lack of Cantonese acting talent, as if Hong Kong didn’t have a vibrant and bustling cinematic scene. I am not sure why the all events fictitious disclaimer was necessary given that every scene could have reasonably been hallucinated by the angry revenant of Thomas Nast. In a time when Asian Americans across the country are demanding that textbooks be rewritten to bring attention to our history, The Jade Pendant is a 90 minute long book burning.
The actual origin of this mess is somewhat enlightening. The principal writers for the script were Scott Rosenfelt and David Assael, known for such Asian American classics as Home Alone, Mystic Pizza, and Baywatch Nights. I am sure they are capable storytellers outside of 19th century Los Angeles, but the inclusion of a soft-core sex scene on a rock set to flute music isn’t doing anything for their credibility. If Ghost in the Shell wasn’t enough to convince you that white filmmakers can do everything imaginable to sabotage Asian narratives, give The Jade Pendant a try.
This film should be a reminder to our community that just because there is a relative lack of Asian American media doesn’t mean we should celebrate mediocrity. It is easy, after having been starved of representation for so long in this country, to cling to anything with a face like ours. But doing this ignores the work of truly brilliant creators: take a look at Justin Chon’s Gook, Ursula Liang’s 9-Man, or Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing for accurate, entertaining portrayals of long-standing Asian-American communities. Moreover, we should not trust the allure of familiarity. L. P. Leung, Godfrey Gao, Brian Yang, and the rest of the team are all partially to blame for this cinematic insult to Chinese American history. To praise this film would be to submit to the degradation, marginalization, and obfuscation of that history, and settle for the meager scraps of screen time thrown to us from Hollywood’s table.
I spent the entirety of The Jade Pendant alternating between fits of uncomfortable laughter and stunned, cringing silence. If you’ve been feeling secure in your Asian-Americanness and are looking for a reminder of what it’s like to be mocked, go watch it. Otherwise, stay away.