Michelle Yeoh’s character, Wai Lin, in the Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ is the focus of this post. This film was released in 1997, which places it just before the turn of the century. Granted that analyzing a female character in a Bond film cannot possible serve any purpose, considering very few ‘Bond girls’ have managed to hold their own in those films, I thought it worth the effort just because this is not a typical martial arts film featuring an Asian actress. Having said that, Yeoh’s character is not exempt from the painful stereotypes that are usually attributed to that ethnic group. Wai Lin is a Chinese spy and is skilled in martial arts. Suffice to say, she has ample opportunities in the film to showcase her martial arts prowess, especially on the occasion when she comes to Bond’s rescue. Compounding matters is the fact of her being shown as being initially icy towards Bond’s seductive gestures but they later on end up being lovers. Her character was met with a lot of critical acclaim and has managed to make its mark in the genre of Bond films. Despite being subject to the stereotype of being adept in martial arts, the character does show several progressions in terms of the profession she has chosen to pursue in the film. There is, however, that element of mystery and suspense associated with her profession, that frequently (and I say this loosely) gets associated with women of color.
In hindsight, this character was actually one of the better ones, as Bond girls go. She does have a better developed character and does not serve purely as ‘eye candy’. As with most Bond films, the female actor cast alongside the male protagonist is more frequently than not non-American. The pitfall Yeoh’s character has to face is the fact of being ‘Orientalized’ and ‘exoticized’ (Said, Edward). However, as a free-standing example of being an Asian actor in a mainstream American movie, the role does not inspire much confidence. As Laura Mulvey has stated in her paper ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975):
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combined spectacie and narrative. (Note, however, how the musical song-and-dance numbers break the flow of the diegesis.) The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, , yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative. As Budd Boetticher has put it:
“What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.”
This character did not really stir any particular emotion in me and does not really invoke any of the readings I did for this research. I might refer to it again to paint the bigger picture of representation of Asian women in American media, but unfortunately, it doesn’t do a very good job of standing on it’s own.