Downsizing and Compromising

Written by Daniela Verde 

The film Downsizing directed by Alexander Payne, tells the story of ‘downsizing’, which is a medical procedure that humans undertake in the future as a solution to overpopulation. The procedure involves humans shrinking to a size of five inches tall. The general idea of this solution is that the smaller humans are, the less waste we produce.


The film intrigued me from the start as overpopulation is a very real issue in our present world. It was interesting to see a manifestation of a hypothetical solution for this global problem and how it would function in our society. Overall, the film was a good concept with a wholesome narrative. Before I start, this is not a review on the film. But, I am going to nitpick on one tiny (but, annoying) thing...


Ngoc Lan Tran. A strong, Asian female lead with a disability. Ngoc Lan is a Vietnamese political activist who was arrested for her activism and subsequently, forcibly ‘downsized’ as punishment. She enters the narrative having been the lone survivor of a human smuggling attempt into the United States. Suffering injuries from this incident, she had to get her leg amputated making her disabled.


Ngoc Lan is a rare role to see in entertainment. The character is so unique and complex with a resilient personality. However, when it came to the performance of Ngoc Lan Tran in Downsizing, there was one thing that fell short (pun intended)...


The accent. Ngoc Lan is portrayed with a thick Vietnamese accent. You may say, of course she has an accent because she’s from Vietnam and English is not her first language. That is a valid point. This was also my first thought.


Although, at the back of my head it was hard to ignore that Ngoc Lan’s Vietnamese accent was used a lot in the film for comedic purposes. Is this not another example of Asians being used for comedic purposes in films? A textbook example of this can be seen in Breakfast at Tiffany’s with the portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. Of course, it’s not exactly the same instance as there is no yellowface involved in Downsizing. But, the similarity of the Asian character being heightened for comedic purposes is notable.


Furthermore, I took the benefit of the doubt and assumed the actress is a native South-East Asian (meaning she has an inherited Asian accent). Upon stumbling across an interview of Hong Chau (the actress), it was disheartening to discover that she has a natural American accent. To me, this says she had to ‘put on’ the Vietnamese accent. This supports my own personal opinion that the accent was somewhat used for a gag in the film.


As I said earlier, I am nitpicking. The accent does not completely devalue the complexity of Ngoc Lan Tran as a character. Nor, do I blame the actress for her portrayal as I assume she also has directions to follow. It is the deliberate decision making on the accent and the implications that follow suit. Does the film assume that unless audiences hear an Asian accent they are unable to comprehend the character’s heritage?


Although, it is annoying that the film ticked most of the boxes into creating a complex Asian female character… apart from that one small detail. Taking into consideration that Star Wars, a huge franchise film is able to portray a strong Asian female character with no ‘Asian agenda’.


To put it bluntly, it’s time to shift from compromising when it comes to characters who are people of colour in entertainment.