Review: Wasabi (2001)

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Gerard Krawczyk’s Wasabi, to put it simply, is forgettable. It has its funny moments, but its use of tired slapstick cliches that exaggerate action sequences and make fun of dim characters can be both tiring and annoying—-usually both and at the same time.

The plot kicks off when police officer Hubert Florentini learns that his Japanese ex-girlfriend is dead and that they have a teenage daughter together. This discovery brings Florentini to Japan where he uncovers the mysterious death of his ex and tries to establish a relationship with his newfound daughter.

Florentini’s unexplained affection for his ex is an early red flag. The first act of the film shows us how the the Frenchman is so enamored by a Japanese woman who left him almost two decades ago. There is little back story to prove that their relationship is rooted in something deeper other than Florentini’s longing for what’s absent, which unfortunately (accidentally?) paints the protagonist as a white male fetishizing his Asian ex-lover.

Yumi the daughter is played by Japanese actress Ryoko Hirosue who speaks French in most of the movie. And while around 80 percent of the entire film is set in Japan, everyone surprisingly speaks French including bank officers and the Yakuza gang leader.

The only character who doesn’t speak French is Yumi’s grandmother. Her non-fluency in the language is of course used as a comedic device. In the only scene she’s in, she awkwardly stands behind a traditional Japanese partition door and when Hubert’s sidekick asks her if he could use the washroom, she answers politely with a bow.

This misunderstanding is central to the film’s portrayal of Japan. While Franco dominance is expected in a French film, the problem lies on the movie’s depiction of Japan as a caricature and as the “Other” even in the country’s own territory.

The title alone, named after the pungent Japanese condiment, implies the film’s intention to highlight the foreign and exotic traits Japan is known for. There is even a specific scene in which Hubert eats a handful of wasabi without flinching. His sidekick, on the other hand, visibly struggles with swallowing the sauce.

This scene demonstrates two typical reactions of foreigners looking into Japan’s culture: that of total acceptance due to sheer awe and amazement, and that of repulsion. But Wasabi merely goes over these opposite absolutes and only scrapes the surface level of a culture that is so easily reduced to quirks and stereotypes.

In the end, Hubert still wins and frames the gang while taking their millions to fund his and Yumi’s life. The white guy always wins, they say, and sadly Wasabi does nothing to subvert this and many other cliches.

 

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