By now, most movie fans probably have heard of “Tár,” the film where Cate Blanchett plays a world-famous, out-lesbian symphony conductor, who sexually harasses young protegées, which leads to her eventual career downfall.
Fans have widely — and justly — praised Blanchett, who plays Lydia Tár, for her tour de force performance. Blanchett, already a two-time Oscar winner, went to great lengths to portray Tár, learning to conduct an orchestra and speak German.
However, the movie also uses anti-Asian stereotypes to illustrate her downfall, which left me deeply uncomfortable.
It’s something comedian Hasan Minhaj called out in his monologue for the Independent Spirit Awards last week: “‘Tár,’ a movie about how the worst thing that can happen to a White woman is being forced to work with Asian people.”
In the film’s final act, Berlin orchestra officials no longer allow Tár to conduct after her prior harassments are publicized. Instead, Tár takes a conducting gig in an exoticized, unnamed Southeast Asian city. This job is depicted as inferior to Berlin and is meant to signify that Tár’s career has hit the skids. Director Todd Field could have placed Tár in a less prestigious gig in the U.S., but sending her to Southeast Asia highlights her decline at the expense of Asians.
He originally wanted to film in Manila but couldn’t due to COVID-19 regulations. Instead, he filmed in Thailand and tried to make it resemble the Philippines. However, the scenes mix different Asian cultures. For instance, from Tár’s bedroom window of her hotel, she sees a golden-roofed Thai temple amid a shabby exterior. Characters speak in accented English or in untranslated language, identified as Tagalog in the streaming version of the film, while street signs are written in a non-Roman alphabet not found in the Philippines. Chauffeurs no longer drive Tár in limos or luxury SUVs despite their availability in Asian countries; instead, she rides in a crowded open-air bus.
Treating the many Asian cultures and nations as generic, interchangeable and inherently poor is racist and anti-Asian.
In a key scene, Tár goes to a massage parlor that’s a front for a brothel. As a White woman, she’s so appalled by the degradation of Asian women, she runs onto the filthy street and vomits on-camera.
As her final humiliation, Tár must conduct an orchestra in a rundown, surrealist venue. Tár descended from the pinnacle of fame to a kind of conductor hell, performing for an audience of Asian cosplayers at a video game concert. The overall effect equates Southeast Asian culture, cityscape and people with a White person’s fall from grace.
Earlier scenes depicting upper-socioeconomic class status and prestige are set in predominantly White spaces in New York or Europe. From the opening scene of a packed audience listening to a New Yorker reporter interview Tár onstage to the pristine hallways of the Berlin symphony, full of well-groomed and predominantly White musicians, these cultural signifiers of high society are not subtle.
The film embraces Asia as the “other,” an opposite to Tár’s prestigious Berlin life. This depiction echoes historical, dehumanizing tropes about Asia (in general) and Southeast Asia (in particular) that have fueled U.S. imperialism since the 19th century, including Asians in an inferior, subservient role where they need western and White cultural institutions or Asians providing cheap labor, like sex work.
Since the era of silent movies, Hollywood has perpetuated anti-Asian stereotypes, excluding Asians from telling their communities’ stories and even using White actors in yellowface with taped eyelids, wigs and other prosthetics. White actresses have even won Oscars for playing Asian women: German immigrant Luise Rainer won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of O-Lan in the 1937 movie “The Good Earth.”
This racist tradition of casting White people to play Asians continued into the 21st century where A-list stars played Asian characters, including Emma Stone in “Aloha” (2015) and Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell” (2017).
And a 2021 survey from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment and Gold House showed nearly half of the top-grossing U.S.-made movies between 2010 and 2019 used Asian characters as a punchline. The 2020 Oscar Best Picture nominee “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” featured a fight where an aging White stuntman (Brad Pitt) knocks a young Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) off his feet. The director portrayed the already stereotyped Lee as a racist who mocks Muhammad Ali, a characterization that Lee’s daughter, Shannon, criticized.
But perhaps the worst stereotype of all has been the silent, subservient Asian, which “Tár” perpetuates. While White musicians and Tár’s associates speak up about her problematic behavior and are allowed agency to either quit their jobs or express disdain, the movie doesn’t allow Asian characters to speak up for themselves. The handful of Asian extras in the Berlin orchestra have no lines, and Tár’s hosts in Southeast Asia do not express anything other than acquiescence to the disgraced conductor.
The problem with these stereotypes is they often lead to racist actions. According to StopAAPIHate.org, there have been nearly 11,000 hate incidents against Asians in the U.S. since March 2020.
Frankly, I’m so exhausted from the waves of anti-Asian hate, I didn’t want to write this article. I’ve had to report 11 hate incidents myself. I’m still grieving from the mass killings during the Lunar New Year holidays at Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay in California. I’m also struggling to protect my 90-year-old immunocompromised immigrant father from the Covid-19 pandemic and the anti-Asian hate attacks on Asian seniors.
I don’t want to play watchdog to Hollywood racism. I tuned into “Tár” because I wanted to see another stellar performance by an actress whose past work I’ve admired. But I am forcing myself to write this essay because silence is not an option. Silence will not protect me, my family or my community.
Hollywood is one of the biggest influences on American soft culture power in the world. It is high time for Hollywood to stop spreading anti-Asian stereotypes that only fuel anti-Asian hate.
May-lee Chai is the author most recently of the short story collections, Tomorrow in Shanghai and Useful Phrases for Immigrants, winner of an American Book Award.