Sunday, February 8, 2009

Avatar: The Last Airbender The Current Conundrum

[Just trying to spread the word, so forgive me if you've read something similar by me before.]

For the uninitiated, Avatar: The Last Airbender (later : The Legend of Aang) is a TV series set in a world where you have Element-benders, people who can manipulate specific elements at will, with the four main elements being Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. And then you have the Avatar, who has mastery of all four elements, and basically acts as mediator of the four nations. When the Fire Nation decided to launch its campaign for world domination, the Avatar disappeared. 100 years later, a young Waterbender and her brother find the new Avatar frozen in a block of ice, and thaw him out. The series chronicles 12-year-old Aang's (the reincarnated Avatar) journey along with his new friends, as he tries to master all four elements so that he can take on the Fire Lord and bring peace to the nations.

A summary of what's happened so far:

In 2007, news came out that a live-action feature film adaptation is in the works, to be directed by M Night Shyamalan.

In December 2008, the cast list for the four main leads (Aang, Katara, Sokka and villain Zuko) was announced, and the actors are white. Most of the fandom strongly disagreed, accusing the studio and production team of racism and white-washing characters who seem so Asian (proven by the settings, culture, bending techniques, and general appearance of the characters on Avatar; as GanXingba's video says around the 0:48 mark, "short of slapping a sticker on their foreheads"), especially of Sokka and Katara, brown-skinned Inuit-looking kids who will be played by white, very pale (Jackson Rathbone was a vampire in Twilight) actors. The actors would have to go through some extent of brown-/yellow-facing, offensive and unnecessary in this day and age, to look like their animated counterparts.

In response to the initial casting decision, a letter writing campaign called Saving the World with Postage was set up, where it calls for fans to write to the producers, conveying their displeasure in a polite and civilised way. Letter-writing guides and information on the movie are pooled there (including casting calls), so do go and check their blog out here. Their visual essay is a particularly excellent way to get an idea of what the show looks like without going through all three seasons' worth of episodes.

Also, recent casting calls for extras are especially looking for actors of other ethnicities, and that they should come "dress(ed) in traditional cultural ethnic attire." The same article also highlights the cultural insensitivity of the casting director when briefing the prospective extras, as she confuses kimonos for hanboks, and even asks casually-dressed actors who come with scarfs "to put it over (their) head so (they)'ll look like a Ukrainian villager or whatever."

[Seriously, man, that's what she said.]

Earlier this week, Jesse McCartney dropped out of playing Zuko (schedule conflicts), and was replaced by Dev Patel.


I won't repeat what I've typed in my other post (about Patel's casting), but I will reiterate that nothing has been righted. Yes, there is diversity in the cast now, but not the right kind. An Asian actor among the white leads doesn't make it right. It certainly doesn't change the fact that two Inuit kids are being played by very white actors. And it sure as hell isn't adhering to the source material either, since Zuko's appearance is definitely changed with Patel's casting.

[I won't even begin rantingtouching rumors that Shyamalan will be portraying Uncle Iroh. It's pointless; he's the director, he can play Fire Lord Ozai and make him win if he likes.]

To be frank, I didn't really have a problem with the initial casting (except for McCartney, whom I feel can't pull off Zuko), even though appearance-wise, they weren't really suited for the roles. And now, they've made it worse by casting a dark-skinned Asian actor for a character that is originally fair-skinned, which would inadvertently lead to changes in other characters (this news brief says that they are already looking for actors of Indian descent.). To me, the source material is the most integral part of movie adaptations. If you're not going to respect or stick to it, then why bother calling it an adaptation? It'd just be The Last Airbender in name, rather than a true adaptation of the TV series. They might as well add a "loosely based on" tag in the opening credits, because at the moment, that looks like the direction they are heading.

[On a final note, I will also repeat is that I have nothing against the actors that've signed on to the movie. I guess that for them, it's one of those "wrong placemovie at the wrong time" issues.]

Anyway, for those of you like-minded individuals who also have a problem with the casting and would like to do something proactive about it, do check out the Aang Ain't White blog (I mentioned it earlier, but here's the link again for your convenience) to see how you can lend your support to these guys (nothing monetary, don't worry) in fighting the good fight.

Thank you for your time =)

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