Rising Sun: Kaufman’s Drama, Charged with Racism, Starring Sean Connery

Several Asian groups are protesting the alleged racism of Philip Kaufman’s drama, Rising Sun. There’s so much hype these days about movies that Rising Sun is weighed down by unwieldy excess baggage.

As soon as Fox bought the screen rights to Michael Crichton’s 1992 bestseller and assigned its direction to Philip Kaufman, there were reports that the movie was xenophobic. Kaufman now seems to get undeserved criticism fro making a racist picture.

Kaufman, a maverick and one of the most intelligent directors in Hollywood today, found himself in a no-win situation. I have no doubts that if his movie followed the book by the letter, it would have been even more racist. After all, Crichton himself has described his book as a “wake-up call” for the U.S., a country in danger of becoming a second-rate power as a result of Japan’s unethical business mores. the book’s pointed attack on U.S.-Japan trade policy.

You may also remember the well-publicized departure of Crichton and his co-writer Michael Backes early on, because of “artistic differences” with Kaufman. The director and co-writer made major changes that irritated them. The two changes actually revolve around ethnicity.

The casting of Wesley Snipes as the cop was criticized because reportedly there are no black officers in the real special LAPD unit. The other, more controversial, change concerned the identity of the villain–in the book, but not in the movie, he is Japanese.

Kaufman believes that adapting a text to the screen almost requires its violation. In this case, he tried to make a more accessible and palatable movie. He watered down the controversial aspects about Japanese influence in the US. He has soft-pedaled the book’s alleged Japan-bashing, its critique of Japanese aggressive business conduct and mores, its racist attitudes, Japanese conglomerates and softening the ideological roughness of Crichton’s book.

Just imagine if the killer were Japanese, what outrage it would have enticed. Known for his liberal politics, Kaufman wanted to make a film that would not increase xenophobia, but open discussion between the two nations. As far as I could tell the Japanese as well as the other characters are not black and white; they are diverse

Backes is quoted to have said: “Phil (Kaufman) likes more complex solutions. Crichton and I would have wanted a little more black and white.” Should a director be charged for trying to make a material more complex–and more morally ambiguous As co-writer, Kaufman is also charged with neglecting character development. I would like to remind all those critics of another blockbuster based on Crichton’s bestseller, Jurassic Park. Is there any character development or character depth in Spielberg’s mega-hit.

Technically, the movie is flawless, due to Michael Chapman’s sharp cinematography. There are some amazing–and scary–sequences that show the possibilities of altering video evidence by using the computer.

Fox executives should have known the moment they asked Kaufman to direct that it wouldn’t be a conventional thriller. After all, this director has built a career out of subverting established genres. Knowing Kaufman’s work–and a bit of his personality–I suspect that he would have never taken such a project if the studio’s intention was just to make another murder mystery thriller.

Those of you who have read the novel know that a lot of Connor’s wisdom is conveyed to Smith in intimate sessions and they often take the form of instruction. Kaufman minimizes these interactions, realizing that they would be preachy, didactic and ultimately boring for moviegoers. The book contains extensive documentation and footnotes. But once again, how do you visualize footnotes and explanations without making a dull movie

The story is told in flashbacks, while Smith is recounting the mystery to some police committee, but I didn’t find this strategy confusing; the transition in time was always clear. Sean Connery is an invaluable asset in this movie. Here is another case of an actor who gets better and better as he ages.

Crichton has reportedly written the book with Sean Connery in mind–he even gives him the name of John Connor, the hero’s name in Michael Crichton’s own 1979 film, “The Great Train Robbery. Connery brings authoritative, fatherly appeal to the role, issuing sage aphorisms and expressing scorn, approval and bemusement

The movie does have problems. There are several plot holes in the script and some implausibility’s. Some of the interaction between Connery’s sempai (mentor) and Smith’s kohai (protg) is still too didactic and also reminiscent of the camaraderie all-familiar to us from the policier genre.

Kaufman would have never made a routine film about murder and intrigue in a Los Angeles headquarters of a Japanese conglomerate. Now he is accused of softening the political edge of the novel because of external, commercial pressures from the studio (all denied by the director).

Kaufman has persistently claimed: Rising Sun represents his subjective interpretation of the book.