Written by Jack van Beynen, MAY 4, 2017 on Stuff, Entertainment
OPINION: The Legend of Monkey could be the best thing to happen to New Zealand telly in a long time.
The show, a remake of the 80s cult classic Monkey, has all the ingredients to be a real success.
A New Zealand-Australia co-production, Legend has some serious money behind it. In Netflix, it has an international distributor with the global reach most Kiwi shows can only dream of.
Then there’s the talent. The series’ lead director is Gerard Johnstone, who helmed the excellent Terry Teo.
It’s written by veteran Australian screenwriter Jacquelin Perske, who among other credits did Little Fish, a really good Aussie film about heroin addicts.
It has two Kiwis in lead roles: Terry Teo‘s Josh Thomson, and Luciane Buchanan from Filthy Rich.
Legend also has the ability to hit several key age demographics – you can imagine Generation X parents with fond memories of the original sitting down to watch it with their kids.
Where it threatens to come unstuck is these pesky accusations of racist casting.
A petition on website Care2 is urging a boycott of the show because of its “whitewashed” cast.
For the unitiated, whitewashing is when screen adaptations case white actors in roles that were a different ethnicity in the source material.
Notable recent examples include Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell and English actor Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson in Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon.
She points out that the story is based on 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West, but doesn’t feature any Chinese actors.
I’m not arguing that whitewashing isn’t an issue; if these under-represented ethnic groups say they’re pissed of about it (and they do), then that is a problem, and white guys like me should probably shut up about it.
But I’m not sure it’s an issue for The Legend of Monkey.
The petition against it was started by Lucy Linaj, a 23-year-old Asian-American who says fans of the original show are “extremely disappointed in Netflix for not casting any Asian characters” in the remake. At the time of writing it had been signed by over 9300 people.
“You can’t embrace an identity that you always see represented as the perpetual Other,” Linaj told Care2.
“Media producers who replace Asian characters with White actors reinforce the idea that Whiteness is the standard and European features are the epitome of beauty, thereby convincing non-White children to loathe their own appearances and develop self-hate.”
What Linaj seems to be missing is that three of the four cast members revealed for The Legend of Monkey aren’t white.
Kiwis will know both Thomson and Buchanan are Tongan. The assertion that there are no Asian actors involved at all isn’t quite correct either; Chai Hansen, who plays Monkey, is Thai-Australian.
The idea that Legend is promoting European features as the ideal doesn’t hold up when you consider three of four leads aren’t European. Somehow, I don’t think looking at Josh Thomson on telly is going to convince anyone to loathe their own appearance.
Further criticism of Legend‘s casting came from a source closer to home. Massey University’s Professor Paul Spoonley told Newshub the show needed to be “much more sensitive” in its casting.
He said he thought casting non-Asian actors in a story with a Chinese origin might put off Asian viewers.
“The Asian communities both inside New Zealand and internationally are a huge audience. They’ve got a lot of spending power, and they are a critical audience for these kinds of productions. So why wouldn’t you think about that audience?” he said.
“It’s naive and it’s really perpetuating stereotypes that you can’t have Asian actors in these roles, or you don’t have suitable Asian actors to do this. I don’t think either is true in 2017.”
If this was a show set in a historically-accurate version of medieval China, then I think Spoonley would have a good point. But all the indications are that it isn’t – the press release makes numerous references to the show’s “magical fantasy world” which will “not be like anything we’ve seen before”.
I get the feeling that this is going to be more of an exercise in replicating the experience of young New Zealanders and Australians watching the original Monkey. That’s a story that is far more relevant to a Kiwi and Australian audience than a Chinese one, and I don’t think you need an Asian cast to tell it.
Of course, a lot of that is supposition, which points to another problem with these accusations of racism – all we’ve seen of the show is a single publicity image. Surely its a little early to even talk about this stuff?
The Legend of Monkey could well be awful and racist and everything its critics have accused it of. Certainly if it opens to Thomson speaking in a hammed-up Chinese accent, I’m turning it off.
But I don’t think that’s likely. In fact, I think this Monkey might just be magic.