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AAPI casting an afterthought in Tar with Cate Blanchett

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter

To be clear, the Cate Blanchett film Tár doesn’t have any person of API descent in a prominent role and this makes the ending problematic. If you haven’t seen the film, there will be plenty of spoilers, but the gist is the presence of people of API descent isn’t as important as the placement.

Director/writer Todd Field has created a universe that seems like it could be reality. Much of what we learn about his protagonist, Lydia Tár (Blanchett), is from a glimpse of her faux Wikipedia entry. T́ár is 49, in a stable lesbian marriage with a fellow member of the Berlin Philharmonic where Tár is a conductor. Tár is a genius following in the footsteps of her mentor, Leonard Bernstein and part of that legacy is completing the Mahler cycle. The COVID-19 pandemic postponed her completion and now, with things opening back up, she’s furiously preparing to conduct Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. At the same time, she going to publish an autobiography, Tár on Tár.

There are a few glitches on her path to glory. First, she’s haunted by a past indiscretion. Second, during a master class seminar where she is a guest lecturer on conducting, Tár has an encounter with a self-proclaimed BIPOC pangender person who challenges the legacy of classical musical giants like Bach. While Tár doesn’t say anything overtly racist or biased, a cleverly edited video emerges, damaging Tár’s reputation. Cancel culture has come after her. She must lay low and to do that, she ends up far away from the Berlin Philharmonic–in the Philippines conducting a score from a composer in Osaka, Japan.

The casting and the Field’s script make the Philippines seem like a punchline in a cancel culture joke. It didn’t have to be so. One of Tár’s many fantastic achievements is that she is an EGOT, a recipient of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards. While there are female EGOT holders, none of them are musicians or composers. However, the youngest person to ever complete an EGOT is hapa Filipino, Robert Lopez. If Field had featured Lopez or his work (e.g. Frozen or The Book of Mormon), the interpretation might have been different yet the casting of Tár places API faces as the other. It is not clear if Field is aware of Lopez’s heritage nor if he expects the audience to be aware of this.

The pangender person, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), is racially ambiguous, but does not appear to be API. Yet the musicians of the octet he conducts at are of East Asian descent. They are, however, just background players in the action.

What is particularly problematic is the casting of the Berlin Philharmonic which does have musicians of East Asian descent in prominent positions. In the First Violin section of the actual Berlin Philharmonic, there are two first concertmasters: Noah Bendix-Balgley and Daishin Kashimoto. Kashimoto was born in London, but raised in Japan, Germany and the US. He was at Julliard in 1986 for pre-college. The Tokyo-born Kotowa Machida is also in the First Violin section. In the Second Violin section, Yokohama-born Marlene Ito is one of two First Principal violinists. In the Viola Section, Osaka-born Naoko Shimizu is the First Principal Viola (with Amihair Grosz). Seoul Kyoungmin Park is also in the viola section.

If the film Tár had cast these positions with API faces, the ending would not seem to cast the Philippines or Japan or cosplay in such a lesser light than the esteemed Berlin Philharmonic. The film had the opportunity to show the diversity in the actual orchestra to people unfamiliar with the Berlin Philharmonic. Instead, there’s a distinctive feeling of othering, as if people of API descent are outsiders or bystanders to the higher levels of the classical music world, at least in the world Field has created for Tár. Representation matters and while API faces are present in Field’s film, their placement is problematic.

For a longer essay on Tár, visit my blog: AgeOfTheGeek.org.

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  1. You do realise this is the actual Dresdner Philharmonie playing in the movie. They didn’t “cast” the musicians, they worked with the actual orchestra. How would you suppose they swap in certain faces to reach the quota?


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