May/June 2020 for My Sight Is Lined with Visions
Terminal USA, dir. Jon Moritsugu
By Girish Shambu
“… to destroy the legacy of the Asian model minority, Long Duk Dong, and lifetime membership in the Math Club.”
– Jon Moritsugu
Picture this Asian American family sitcom: Mom is a morphine addict. Dad is secretly homicidal. The daughter is a cheerleader who gets pregnant and is being blackmailed over a sex tape. Two sons: one a drug dealer and the other a studious nerd who secretly lusts after skinheads. (Both are played by the director.) A dying grandpa who lies in bed on a pillow that resembles a Japanese flag. When a sleazy lawyer visits the family home, he seduces the daughter in the bathroom, and plots to kidnap and sell her to sex traffickers.
These are the characters who populate Jon Moritsugu’s savage satire, Terminal USA (1993), which evokes the 1970s films of John Waters, while being driven by a political objective all its own. As mind-blowing as it is, the film gains immeasurably in fascination when viewed within its production and institutional context. Jun Okada, in her brilliant book, Making Asian American Film and Video (2015), lays out this context in detail.
Almost as shocking as the content of Terminal USA is the fact that it was produced for public television. Since its founding in 1969, part of the raison d’être of PBS (Public Television Service) was a conscious emphasis on programming that was diverse, especially in terms of race and ethnicity. However, well into the 1970s, studies showed that minorities continued to be under-represented on public television. Thanks in part to the formation of groups such as CAAM (the Center for Asian American Media, formerly the National Asian American Telecommunications Association), minority filmmakers and their work began to receive significant advocacy and support. The result was a movement toward meaningful diversity in PBS programming starting in the 1980s. Hand in hand with this diversity came a push for the “positive image,” a perfectly well-intentioned reaction to the long history of negative representations of marginalized groups.
But the opposite of a negative image is not necessarily a positive one. As Peter X Feng points out, “…the inverse of Fu Manchu (evil mastermind bent on world domination) is Charlie Chan (deferential public servant), but Charlie Chan is hardly a positive image.” This problem of the false positive image is exacerbated in the case of Asian Americans burdened with living up to a “model minority myth” which applauds their academic, economic, and cultural success—thus pitting them against other racial or ethnic groups (such as Black and Latinx people). Success is attributed to individual hard work; structural racism conveniently vanishes from the picture.
An opportunity to break the positive/negative image binary appeared in 1988, when ITVS (Independent Television Service) was formed for the purpose of creating “innovative” content for public television. One of the first ITVS projects was a series called TV Families. Todd Haynes made Dottie Gets Spanked for the series, and Moritsugu unleashed Terminal USA, a full-on attack on the “positive image” and the “model minority myth.” The film won awards at the Rotterdam and Toronto film festivals, but appalled PBS, which aired it in a “self-censored” version.
Given Moritsugu’s own punk/hardcore ethos, it is fitting that Terminal USA ends in a blaze of apocalyptic glory. Reminiscing later on the film’s production, he called it “the most disgusting, worst way to make a movie, with that much money and that many people around.” (The film’s budget was only $360,000.) True to his word, he has gone on to direct a series of films with titles such as Mod Fuck Explosion, Fame Whore, and Scumrock, that are low on budget but never on invention.
Girish Shambu teaches at Canisius College in Buffalo, edits Film Quarterly's online column Quorum, and runs a blog about film culture.