Friday, January 18, 2013

The Secrets of Isis Episode 20: "Year of the Dragon"

Julie Chen wins a science award but when it threatens to expose her father's old school Chinese ways to the students and faculty of Larkspur High she begins acting out, leading to a couple of very nearly fatal accidents.  The first one happens because she's decided to flee a fellow student and unwisely chooses to hide from him in a wrecked car awaiting compaction in a junkyard.  The second comes when she retreats to a meadow for some quiet contemplation over her personal dilemma.  This time she falls into an abandoned well.

Being Julie Chen must be difficult!

On one hand, Julie's sick of everyone patronizing her over Chinese culture and callously assuming she's an expert on all things Asian, but on the other, she feels a deep conflict about her cultural identity.  As a result, she magnifies well-meaning but clueless comments into insults and tries to plot with Rennie Carol to trick her father into skipping the school assembly where she's due to receive her award.  And she constantly has to cheat death.

"Year of the Dragon" (aired October 16, 1976) explores Joy Luck Club territory about as well as you'd expect from a 1970s kids show about a magical super-heroic goddess.  I have to give Isis credit for trying to broach these issues, even if it's in a broad, obvious way.  And once again, all problems are resolved by one person trying to save another person's life.  While I'm sure most parents actually would sacrifice themselves for their children-- as in this case, nearly literally-- the idea that you have to go to such extremes to earn some simple respect probably isn't very realistic or even fair.

When you think about it, Julie's problems could probably have been better handled by that compassionate and clever-unto-herself teacher Andrea Thomas with a few frank discussions and genuine dialogue rather than through physical jeopardy.  But that's not why kids tuned into this show.  Isis has to do her thing twice in every show.  By California statute.  I've read the state codes.  It's in there.  Kind of in the middle, just after the stuff about building standards in an earthquake zone.

Still, let's not be too harsh with Isis.  The 1970s were a time when television-- especially children's television-- had just begun to explore sensitive issues.  With a new story possibilities and responsibility came a lot of inadvertent mixed messages along with the shoehorned-in heroics, the heavy-handed moralizing and forced happy endings.  At least in this case the Chens are genuinely likable-- especially Julie's long-suffering dad-- so I'm not going to begrudge them a jeopardy plot resolution to their issues, especially when it leads to the wonderful spectacle of Mr. Chen clinging to a levitating ladder while his daughter and Isis look on.

Victor Sen Yung, who plays Mr. Chen, had a career spanning decades, from the 1930s into the late 1970s before he tragically died of accidental asphyxiation.  As a young post-grad student at UCLA and USC, he started acting and played "Number Two Son" in several of the Charlie Chan films but was probably best known for his portrayal of Hop Sing on Bonanza.  If his IMDB bio is to be believed, around the time he took the role on Isis, he was actively seeking work outside the acting business.  His portrayal Mr. Chen is sincere and yearning, with a real touch of sadness, which makes me wonder if he was finally sick of typecasting and playing comedic relief and guest spots.

In a rather bizarre incident that took place in 1972, he was a passenger on a hijacked airliner and was wounded when the FBI stormed the plane.  That, along with his WWII service and long acting career mark him as an interesting guy in his own right.

Jeanne "Julie Chen" Joe has had a spottier acting career, with sporadic roles on TV and in films between Isis and just recently.  That's because she's been doing other things like teaching.  Plus, she has a number credits as a production coordinator and assistant to executive producers, working on films as diverse as Angel Heart, First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II.  Okay, okay, those last two aren't so diverse, but she did write a book called Ying-Ying: Pieces of a Childhood (San Francisco East/West Publishing Company, 1982) and its sequel, Ying-Ying 2:  Jasmine By the Bay (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012).  Her portrayal of Julie Chen is spirited and intense, angry yet sympathetic.

There are a few cringe-inducing moments that find some of our regulars inadvertantly expressing white privilege, but overall this particular Isis attempts to instill some racial and cultural sensitivity as part of its more overt theme of being proud of who you are and where you're from, so that's something in its favor.  Don't make assumptions about another person's life based on their appearance or family name.  You don't know what journey they're on, but it's probably different from yours.  Accept what they have to teach you about themselves without imposing your viewpoint on the lesson.

Notes:  There's a short stop-motion action sequence when Isis uses her powers to repair a wooden ladder that"s conveniently lying near the well where Julie's father is trapped.  Doubly convenient is how the rungs just happen to still be lying next to the ladder in the grass, and none have rotted over the years.

Finally, we get to see Rick Mason doing what he does best-- eating.  After hinting at some gourmand leanings in previous episodes, "Year of the Dragon" lets Mason loose on a sumptuous Chinese meal.  You know the Chens had to close early that night after Mason cleaned them out.  I can just picture him after the meal, kicking back on his boat, toothpick between his teeth, opening his fortune cookie and reading the note inside, "There are but two Isis episodes more, and they will consist of a two-parter centered around you, my friend!"

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