“Un Cuento Chino” (Argentina, 2011): Borenzstein's Insider Take on Externalization
Posted on 29th December 2022 at 16:33
By Sebastian Grace
In this essay, I will prove Argentina's view of itself as a first-world country and China as a third-world country as presented in the film and analyze the associated themes of development vs underdevelopment and how these serve to explore the complexities of a north and south divide.
Un Cuento Chino is a film that takes place in the societal context of Asian immigration to Argentina, through which broader themes of the interaction between local and immigrant communities are explored using techniques like flashbacks to illustrate elements of each character's narrative arc. For example, the life story of the actor who plays Jun is an interesting case study of the societal trends and associated issues depicted throughout the film. Ignacio Huang emigrated with his family from Taiwan to Paraguay, where they lived for eight years before settling in Buenos Aires when he was eleven. This story is typical in Argentina, where a large south-east Asian community has been present for decades. The socio-economic situation of Argentina's Asian population is detailed in the film by the services the Chinese man provides his Argentinian host. Jun cleans and tidies Roberto's yard, repainting it and clearing the rubbish (33:47; time stamps for scenes in the film are indicated in parentheses). The Asian immigrant community in Argentina is often associated as working in service industry professions such as small street grocery markets and dry cleaners.
Jun is treated as backward and unintelligent throughout the film, emphasizing Argentina's view of itself as more advanced than China within the first and third-world framework, even though investments by Chinese state-owned countries in industries such as soybean exports in Argentina are a significant driving force behind the country's economic development, as discussed by Oviedo in “Argentina and China: An Analysis of the Actors in the Soybean Trade and the Migratory Flow.” This is comparable to the racist and divisive debate around restricting immigration in the United States, despite its long history of driving America’s supersonic economic development.
Jun's role in the film is closely tied to how Argentina imagines itself through the eyes of those who produced it. The lead actor, Ricardo Darín, who plays Roberto; the director, Sebastián Borenzstein; and the producers, Pablo Bossi, Gerardo Herrero, and Juan Pablo Buscarini, are all white Argentinians with close establishment ties to the movie industry. They are likely upper class and at least members of the middle class depicted in the film through Roberto's life. The boring normality of this world is like the traditional depictions of American society in movies or T.V. produced in the United States. Jun is the crazy and exotic Chinese element. He is the foreign person who enters the plot to positively disrupt the characters' everyday lives, an infusion of primitive energy. Previously, Roberto's monotonous life was only interrupted by his hobby of collecting weird international stories that could never happen in his microcosm. This 'othering' is a crucial part of how this film imagines Argentina as a first world, developed country, and China and the Chinese as the third world and, therefore, underdeveloped. Jun's later entry into the film is preceded by how the viewer is introduced to Roberto and Argentina: upside down (2:16), indicating that we are on the other side of the world, literally and figuratively. This sensitizes the viewer to a culture shock because it precedes the upheaval of the main character's life and, by extension, illustrates the impact of Chinese immigration to Argentina more broadly.
Jun's role as the 'other' is also emphasized through the film's mise-en-scene elements. Borenzstein depicts the protagonist’s initial encounter by showing the gaze of Roberto and then using a medium shot to introduce Jun as he is being thrown out of a taxi and falling to the ground. (15:49) It is a rough, surprising shot and immediately establishes Jun as an outsider, portraying him as a delinquent. Later, the authorities offer to put Jun in jail for no reason as a solution (22:56), criminalizing him further. This is a contrast to Roberto, who is presented as living a life that he must be in control of, strongly suggested to the viewer by the setting when we are first introduced to him. He is a gray-looking man in a dull shop with light brown neutral fittings that sells boring things like nails (3:22).
In Un Cuento Chino, the commonplace immigrant experience of racism and ignorance is presented with numerous stereotypical comments about Jun’s behavior and relationship with Roberto. For example, when the main characters are searching for Jun's uncle, Roberto asks a Chinese shopkeeper, "He's Chinese, your Chinese, why don't you understand him?" (30:48), illustrating his ignorance of the different Cantonese and Mandarin languages and propagating a 'you're all the same' narrative. Even later in the film, as Roberto and Jun's relationship has seemingly developed, he pulls his eyes in a racist gesture as he mouths out "Chinese food" (49:30). Roberto’s form for this suggests Borzenstein has not chosen the racist gestures simply because of some desire towards character effect. This would be in-keeping with generations of anti-Asian sentiment and racist precedent from before independence in Argentina, as discussed by Bryce in "Undesirable Britons: South Asian Migration and the Making of a White Argentina," who argues "that the dominant vision of Argentina as a white and European nation was built not only on transatlantic immigration but also on Asian exclusion,” discussing attempts in 1912 to ban entry and exclude Asian immigrants from the labor market.
Language barriers and communication are often integral parts of the difficulty inherent to the immigrant experience. Jun only speaks in his native Chinese, meaning Roberto cannot understand him, indicative of the confusion and difference that often leads to conflict and hatred, emphasized by Borenzstein’s choice not to subtitle the Chinese spoken word parts. Deveny discusses the topic of transculturation in "Communication and Character Change in Un Cuento Chino'' suggesting, “Roberto’s encounter with the Other (Jun) constitutes challenges to communication and leads to questions regarding Roberto’s attitude towards the Other, and regarding life in general.” This theme is integral to the film but is made explicit at the dinner with Mari’s friends when one asks Roberto how he and Jun manage to communicate: “Gestures. There’s really not much to talk about," Roberto says (38:44). At the same dinner, one of the friends states they should have made noodles for dinner (38:13) and that they eat scorpions and snakes in China (38:30), evidently racial stereotypes. Similarly, one of Mari's friends says, “Living alone then living with a Chinaman, you're weird” (38:49) as if not living with, or living with anyone outside of the white, Argentinian norm signified by all the characters other than Jun sat at the table is a strange and problematic phenomenon.
The film routinely depicts the Argentine attitude of superiority over the Chinese, despite the reality being the reverse, with China more advanced than Argentina on many metrics including economic development strength. This reflects Leary's argument in "Introduction: Latin America and the Meanings of 'Underdevelopment' in the United States" that in the U.S.," (There is) a long tradition of imagining development as a mirror of American self-regard.” While focused on the United States, this same principle applies to Argentine attitudes presented in Un Cuento Chino. In the first scene, China is shown in a very rural setting with lush nature (00:53). Later, in a flashback, when the whole story of Jun's fiancé’s death is explored, the same depiction of a rural country is presented, this time interspersed with criminality and chaos (1:18:27). Borzenstein chooses to show only the aspects of China that could be found in an objective third-world nation, while conversely, in Argentina, highlighting only the developed elements of the country.
This only changes when the police officer attacks Roberto in the grassy area with scrap metal (1:08:32). This site is less developed, emphasizing, as with the cow rustling scene in China, that violence is for poorer, savage people. Argentina's depiction as more developed and advanced than China is also illustrated when Roberto picks Jun up in the rain at night from a bus stop (19:50). He is his 'savior,’ even though it was Roberto who left him there in the first place, which reflects the standard view of Argentine’s that they are saving Chinese people through their charity by letting them come to Argentina, just as Roberto lets Jun stay in his home. Borenzstein’s choice of sound is also a powerful driver of this theme. At the start of the film, the viewer hears the jungle, emphasizing the wild and the exotic: birds chirping, insects and the lapping water. This leads to the crazy scene with Jun and his fiancée. This sound contrasts the nondescript whimsical upbeat music playing when Roberto is first introduced in Argentina, emphasizing a happy and stable normality.
The view of China through the Argentine lens depicted in Un Cuento Chino indicates the north and south divide element repeatedly present in the discourse around Latin American film. One film, Gregory Nava's El Norte, is particularly relevant in this case. Both directors effectively use location, referring to Guatemala and China. Both are portrayed as vibrant and lush rural areas, free from urbanization and entrenched in nature. But these are only accurate depictions of some of the country. Guatemala and China are both home to large cities, China some of the biggest in the world, while the United States and Argentina have large amounts of rural land conversely. Comparing the two films exposes the conventional sense of a north and south divide as a flawed oversimplification, as all countries have areas that could be considered developed and underdeveloped.
Also, the sense of travel across the borders of different national states being transitional journeys from hardship to opportunity is present in both films. This is depicted as leaving behind a life of danger or insecurity, third-world problems, in Guatemala or China to enjoy first-world privilege in the United States and Argentina. Upon arrival, however, these 'alien' and 'ethnic' people find populations – Americans and Argentinians – that are homogenous and depicted as a fictional representation of the cooperative ideal of a single-race country. Both films then reveal the harsh realities of existing as part of a population that does not match the idealized view of one of these aspirational communities - wealthy, white, culturally rooted, middle class - experiencing oppression and prejudice in places that initially represented hope and prosperity.
In conclusion, Un Cuento Chino presents an immigrant’s immersion in an Argentine middle class that battles towards acceptance through cultural ignorance, advertent racism, and significant arrogance. Jun’s journey of exploration takes place in the broader realm of ‘othering’ Borzenstein creates throughout. Like El Norte, the film propagates the idea of the north and south divide through a first-world setting, Buenos Aires, that is depicted as entirely better off than the more primitive third world, China, and that physical advancement into this space will be inherently beneficial for those involved due to the superficial benevolence, superiority, and privilege of their hosts. Un Cuento Chino compels the viewer to analyze the flawed logic of such biases and traditional perceptions of what a first world or third world is and to understand that both can be seen in nations perceived to be developed and those that are developing.
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