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Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs
Monday, November 3, 2003
 

Sacramento Bee/11-2-03

Porn as commentary
Film on Asian issues grabs attention, stirs debate
By Dorothy Korber

 

The professor sat in his jumbled, book-lined office, flipped open a laptop computer and displayed his latest scholarly endeavor: an 11-minute film that juxtaposes grim facts about the subjugation of Asians against graphic images of the lustiest sex imaginable.

He calls it "Yellowcaust: A Patriot Act."

Darrell Hamamoto, an associate professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis, is both racial provocateur and unabashed pornographer. He aims to make a social point with his short film -- and to turn a handsome profit with a 50-minute, pure porn version of it.

If that makes people squirm with outrage, all the better. Hamamoto embraces controversy, revels in being the bad boy of academe.


"I refuse to allow Asian Americans to be passive victims," he said. "There has been a slow-motion, 100-year holocaust of the Asian people. The text of the film talks about genocide and dislocation against Asians by the U.S. military -- it talks about U.S. Marines killing 200,00 civilians in the Philippines in 1898, on through Hiroshima, the Korean War and Vietnam.
"This text crawls across the bottom of the screen. But the visual portion is a full-on sex scene between an Asian man and woman. The contrast -- these evil facts and hard-core porn -- creates a dissonance. It's political theater."

"Yellowcaust" will be screened Monday as part of the Hawaii International Film Festival, together with a documentary about its making. That film, "Masters of the Pillow," was directed by James Hou, a former student of Hamamoto's. They plan to submit the two films to other film festivals around the world, including the renowned Sundance festival.

Hamamoto said no UC Davis resources -- or students -- were used to produce his $7,000 erotic film, shot in a day in a Torrance hotel room. The cast consists of a 20-year-old Cambodian American woman who is a porn professional and a 24-year-old Korean American man, a newcomer to the screen.

Still, there are some connections with his job. The professor, who is 50, says the idea of an erotic film sprang from his students' frustrations over American stereotypes of Asian men as sexless and Asian women as sexually submissive.

"I teach, but I also listen," Hamamoto said.

In September, Hamamoto showed "Yellowcaust" on campus to a summer school class, allowing students to skip the screening if they wished.

And now a word from the university.

Hamamoto's dean, Elizabeth Langland, said the tenets of academic freedom entitle professors to express themselves freely. She noted that Hamamoto laid out his pornography strategy in a scholarly paper in 1998. (The essay's title is an obscene pun on "Joy Luck Club.")

But, Langland stressed, the professor must not claim that UC Davis endorses his commercial enterprises: "We asked Dr. Hamamoto to be explicit in explaining that his film does not express the university's position and was not financed by the university."

Addressing historical wrongs is just one item on Hamamoto's busy political agenda.

He also wants to inject Asians into American popular culture -- particularly Asian American men, whom he says are usually characterized as nerds or servants, if they appear at all.

One example of this invisibility, he contends, is the absence of heterosexual Asian American men in American pornography.

"I've written thousands of words, whole books, about our exclusion from American culture," Hamamoto said. "I began to realize: Nobody's listening to me. I decided, 'Darn, we're going to stop begging these people for attention.' Well, this project has done more to draw attention to the issues than all of my other efforts combined."

His long-range goal is to create an Asian television network along the lines of Black Entertainment Television. The plan is to use earnings from his commercial porn movie, titled "Skin to Skin," to bankroll a new Yellow Entertainment Network -- YEN TV.

Hamamoto's goals may be laudable, but some experts on race and popular culture question whether pornography is the best vehicle for attaining them.

Larry Hajime Shinagawa, like Hamamoto a Japanese American, heads the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College in New York. Shinagawa agrees that it is important to address the skewed idea of Asian sexuality in American culture. But he suggests that love is more important than sex.

"In some ways, the use of porn is provocative and imaginative," Shinagawa said. "But deep down inside, I think that we're not getting at the really core issue here: that there is no venue to talk meaningfully about love. When is there going to be expression of love and faith and character and true understanding -- a realistic portrayal of Asian Americans?"

Sociologist Laura Grindstaff, a colleague of Hamamoto's at UC Davis, studies American popular culture, with a special emphasis on gender and race. She said Hamamoto is carrying on a long tradition of using pornography as social criticism.

"I know Darrell, and he's pretty much an in-your-face, button-pushing kind of person," Grindstaff said. "You have to admit, this is quite an ingenious way to get attention and make a serious point at the same time.

"Ultimately, these are political issues that are important to air. Lots of scholars have been arguing these same points for some time and no one paid any attention. If Darrell wants to use a sensational vehicle, more power to him."

Still, she said an important question needs to be asked.

"In his focus on Asian men and their oppression, what is he saying about Asian women?" Grindstaff said. "Doesn't this feed into stereotypes of her as the sex-kitten prostitute? Maybe pornography is not the best way to address those stereotypes. Just putting those visuals out there can be problematic."

Film producer Janet Yang understands the challenge of putting any Asian message "out there." Now president of her own company, Manifest Film, she has produced such films as "The Joy Luck Club" and "Empire of the Sun."

She also was involved in the production of "The People vs. Larry Flynt," a biography of the famed Hustler magazine pornographer -- and one of Darrell Hamamoto's personal role models.

"Pornography is one of the red-hot issues that splits people," Yang said. "I think, as an Asian woman, there's a big fantasy factor for white men that is driven by American porn. But, you know what? I don't have to agree with the professor's methods, but what he's saying has sound business value. Porn is tremendously profitable.

"It sounds like he is trying to create entertainment for Asians, and that's not too different from what I want to do."

The professor is definitely enjoying the attention. He's been interviewed on Fox TV, profiled in salon.com, lambasted by Ms. Magazine. Last week, Comedy Central's satiric "The Daily Show" asked about doing a segment on the "porn prof."

Hamamoto, who has studied icons of popular culture for years, is suddenly an icon himself.

"I'm a pioneer who has never been afraid to risk controversy," he said. "We need access, and if the Man, with a capital M, doesn't give it to us, we have to take it ourselves. That's what every immigrant group has done since the founding of America. Everyone but Asians. Until now."