Karl Lagerfeld, head designer and creative director for Chanel and Fendi, has now forayed into filmmaking with his recent short film, “Paris-Shanghai: A Fantasy.” The film, which is about a fictitious trip Coco Chanel makes to Shanghai, is heavily populated with white supermodels, boring, mechanized performances, weird mashups of accented dialogue, and Asian stereotypes galore.
Most importantly, the short film is a ridiculous attempt at yellowface. It deploys every Asian stereotype in the book, and unsuccessfully uses low-key black and white visuals (I think Lagerfeld was aiming for film noir here) to position the white supermodels at “home” in the Shanghai Express, the Imperial Court of China, and various other underground Chinese bars, nightclubs and parties.
Lagerfeld defended yellowface by plaintively explaining, “It’s a homage to Europeans trying to look Chinese.” Whatever that means!
The fantasy of the film has little to with Coco Chanel in China. It does however, have a lot to do with racialized fantasies that allow white women (especially privileged, upper class white women) to appropriate, perform and masquerade as women of color, without experiencing the particular discriminations, historical traumas or burdens of their lives.
On a more positive note, Henry David Hwang’s newest play, YellowFace, does a fantastic job of exploring the permutations and fluidity of race, especially as it applies to the world of theater or performance. Watch Hwang talk about yellowface, and his play here.