"Aloha" and the History of The "Asian/Pacific Islands" Hollywood War Movie

I love Bradley Cooper. I love Emma Stone. I do not love Aloha. Neither does Hawaii. (You can read Sony’s “We have our own Hawaiian supporters so the film’s not offensive” defense here.) It’s one of those movies you know everything about it without having to watch it. Just viewing the trailer is enough. And, if you’ve viewed other films set in “exotic” Asian or Pacific Island locales with their own cultures, people, and ways of life, then you probably know everything Aloha will throw at you. 

Hollywood has a love affair with setting war movies in these types of places. I’m sure Cameron Crowe and approved of this film felt like Aloha would be a film that would harken back to “the good ol’ days” of ’40s and ’50s war flicks, in which the white war heroes would traverse the globe, land in Japan or Hawaii for whatever reason, “interact” with the locals (meaning go to a teahouse or be visited by a geisha girl, whom they would erroneously call a geisha, because there’s a huge difference), have songs and dances with the white guys and gals on base, find the love of their life (usually not a white girl in these movies; since the protagonist is usually a man, he’d marry a local Japanese or Hawaiian girl, with the film faithfully setting up the stereotypes that Asian women are docile and subservient), and credits would roll.

There are three good examples of this type of film in my present memory. Sayonara,starring Marlon Brando as a military man in Japan, actually goes a long way in showing, on some level, some reality to the situation of being in a foreign country and falling in love with both a significant other (who happens to be the headliner at a Takarauzka Revue-esque theater) and the culture. There are issues, such as Ricardo Montalban in yellowface, but for a 1950s film, it’s rather progressive. I was surprised.

South Pacific also seems to want to go towards the Sayonara approach, which includes openly discussing discrimination, racism, culture shock, and interracial relationships. Of course, there’s still some critique that could be made of Nellie, the main (white) character getting happy ending and overcoming racism and Liat, the sexualized Polynesian girl, getting the short end of the stick and left pining forever, along with many other issues. Also, Juanita Hall, who plays Polynesian character Bloody Mary (Liat’s mother), is actually African-American and Irish, so there’s that. It means well, and was seen as a sign of progression for the times it was made in, but there are some things that could have been done better.

The last example, and probably the lesser of all three, isThe Teahouse of the August Moon. Like Sayonara, Teahouse stars Marlon Brando, but in this film, Brando is in yellowface, something I believe he later said he regretted. Also, the submissive Asian woman and the jokey, emasculated Asian male stereotypes are in full effect.

The other type of old-school war flick would have white folks on an “exotic” locale, but only focus on their problems to such a degree that they could have been anywhere. In this type of film, the locals would only be used as a backdrop, coloring the scene, if you will, while the main action happens with the white people, who are given humanistic roles. It might as well be a sci-fi film with how much the film tells you to identify with white characters and to only see the actual denizens of the country as outer space aliens. One example of this is From Here to Eternity, another film that’s actually pretty good, but can stand for some criticism.

Aloha seems to dabble in the tropes exhibited by the second film example, which is apparent just by looking at the trailer. See for yourself here:

If this script was a dusted-off mid-century script that was re-jiggered for modern day, I would believe you. Everything about this trailer is old, from the lily white Air Force, to the lack of seeing actual Hawaiians in Hawaii, to the Hawaiians we do see doing the hula in a scene that only bolsters the white leads, to a suspicious usage of the shaka sign, probably only used because of “When in Rome…” ideology.

It’s also clear that everyone in this film (including Cameron Crowe) took this film as a job, not as a creative career choice. This isn’t an auteur film by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m sure everyone involved knows just how tired this type of film is. But, people want to get paid; arthouse films and Oscars don’t pay the bills, after all. So what’s the harm in doing a stupid little movie for a big paycheck?

If you view the film in that sense, it’s “harmless.” But if you view it in the sense that it’s a set of images made for mental consumption, and that humans aren’t very good at filtering out stereotypes and perceived ways of thought, then it’s very dangerous.

What do you think about the narrative of Aloha? What do you think about the other examples listed here? Give your opinions below!