Review: The Whitewash by Siang Lu

Cover of The Whitewash

Siang Lu’s delightfully satire, The Whitewash, is part entertainment essay on the history of Asian cinema and the Hollywood beast, part farce about the spectacular failure of a breakthrough, big budget Asian-led extravaganza, part love letter to Asian cinema and even part (a small part) romance – and the whole package is fabulous, snarky fun.

The premise is that we’re seeing the transcripts of the interviews (and secret recordings) of all the players involved in the crafting of a Hollywood blockbuster. The film, Brood Empire, is meant to be based on a famous Chinese “Brando X” book series about which initially ripped off the James Bond franchise and then took off in a startlingly original direction. We see the promising start of casting and filming and watch as the whole thing fractures and crumbles.

Its development – and failure – are tracked through the eyes of the Hong Kong movie star, JK Jr, and his white stuntman Chase, the Chao dynasty of film makers, the producers, directors, the dodgy journalists of a click-bait online magazine Click Bae and the latter’s put-upon lawyer.

The epistolary nature of the book isn’t new, but taking the entries from verbal source material gives the entries vivid energy, texture and fresh life. The characters leap off the page as individuals in all their messy glory.

The tale speeds along, with vastly entertaining contradictions and brilliant use of footnotes. It’s also underpinned with both knowledge and succinct opinions on the history of Asian cinema, Hollywood appropriation and whitewashing of the martial arts genre, and film-making in general – delivered with great charm and affection as well as clear-eyed and wicked wit that deconstructs all the artifice, hope, self-delusion and joy of the industry, with a particular eye on revealing Hollywood’s persistent history of whitewashing, white saviours and overall racism.

The Whitewash references many of the “kung-fu” and other action films of my youth and up to more recent films, including Top Gun: Maverick, The Eternals and Shiang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. In fact, the invented cinema history of JK Senior’s TV shows, the films made by the Chao family and previous attempts to film the Brando X books are so seamlessly interwoven with real films that I had visit IMDB to check the provenance of some films and performers to see where the lines were really drawn.

The Whitewash is a delicious satire which manages to be fond and funny as well as wickedly scathing, yet even-handed in its dismantling of the poor decisions, bad luck and general blame attached to the spectacular disaster that is the failure of its fictional film (which I very much wish, along with its fictional predecessors, existed for me to watch.)

I sometimes felt that Siang Lu had started out to write an informed essay about racism and Hollywood but his sense of the absurd guided him towards this fictionalised demonstration of his points. However it began, this book is an excellent result.

To add a final bit of metatextuality, Siang Lu has also created “the Beige Index”, a website which provides a measurement of ethnic representation in IMDB’s Top 250 films, over time. If you’re not sure the fiction proves his case, perhaps the statistics will.

The Whitewash – blurb

It sounded like a good idea at the time: A Hollywood spy thriller, starring, for the first time in history, an Asian male lead. With an estimated $350 million production budget and up-and-coming Hong Kong actor JK Jr, who, let’s be honest, is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but probably the hottest, Brood Empire was basically a sure thing. Until it wasn’t.

So how did it all fall apart? There were smart guys involved. So smart, so woke. So woke it hurts. There was top-notch talent across the board and the financial backing of a heavyweight Chinese studio. And yet, Brood Empire is remembered now not as a historical landmark of Asian representation that smashed the bamboo ceiling in Hollywood, but rather as a fiasco of seismic proportions.

The Whitewash is the definitive oral history of the whole sordid mess. Unofficial. Unasked for. Only intermittently fact-checked, and featuring a fool’s gallery of actors, producers, directors, film historians and scummy click-bait journalists, to answer the question of how it all went so horribly, horribly wrong.