‘Paris, 13th District’: The Asian Question in the Asian Quarter of Paris

This beautifully shot black-and-white French film “Les Olympiades, Paris 13e” or “Paris 13th District,”  is an episodic tale of about lust and love amongst the young and beautiful singles in Paris. It comes to Los Angeles at a time when a certain director (Paul Verhoeven ) has complained about Hollywood puritanism and I have just had a Twitter discussion about Hollywood and the pressure on young actresses to appear naked. There is a lot of nudity in “Paris, District 13,” and while the gaze is reportedly not totally male, there seems to be much more attention paid to female breasts than the male anatomy.


Significance of 13th Arrondisement

It’s important to remember that the French colonized and controlled parts of Asia. The French Indochina (1887-1945; 1945-1954) included Cambodia, Laos (from 1899), the Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan (1898-1945) and parts of Vietnam. The First Indochina War (1946-1954)  pitted France (with US and Republic of China support) against DR Vietnam (with Society, People’s Republic of China and Polish People’s Republic support). We know the Second Indochina War as the Vietnam War (1955-1975) was the US, South Vietnam, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Laos, Cambodia, Khmer Republic, Thailand, and the Philippines against North Vietnam, Viet Fong, Lao, Khmer Rouge, China, the Soviet Union and North Korea.

Because of France’s involvement in Asia, it is natural that there should be immigrants from its colonies. In Paris, the immigrants from Asia settled in certain areas. And that is what the movie’s title references. Paris is divided tiny 20 arrondissements or administrative districts. The 13th District is called Gobelins, and is on the left bank of the River Seine. It has a high concentration of Chinese and Vietnamese businesses and is the home of the Quartier asiatique or Asian Quarter. Also known as the Triangle de Choosy or the Petite Asie (Chinese: 巴黎唐人街, Vietnamese: Phố Tàu Paris), it is, according to Wikipedia, the largest commercial and cultural canter for the Parisian Asian community. (Other Asian districts included Belleville in the 20th arrondissement which has a concentration of people from the Chinese coastal city of Wenzhou and surrounding southern Zhejiang province; the 3rd arrondissement near the Musée des Arts de Métiers, has a longer history, beginning in the early 1900s with leather and porcelain-related immigrants from Wenzhou, and the Rue Sainte-Anne area in the 1st arrondissement where Japanese and Koreans have settled since the 1990s.

Despite this long history (naturally, not as long as contact between France and Africa), French Asians do suffer from the forever foreigner problem. Anger gave way to a protest in 2016 after the August death of a 49-year-old father-of-two, Zhang Chaolin. He had been attacked by three teenagers, allegedly intent on robbing Zhang’s friend. Yet these attacks are not uncommon, “driven by the perception that Chinese people are weak, will not fight back and carry a lot of cash.” Zhang was attacked outside of Paris, in the suburb of Aubervilliers, (Île-de-France region in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, France).

There are some serious issues for French Asians, but “Paris 13th District” doesn’t deal with them.

The film also sets the action in a district of residential towers, Les Olympiades (or le village des Olympiades) which were built in 1969-1977).  Olympiads is also a Paris Métro station.  As you might have guessed the names refers to the Olympic Games and the eight tallest towers are named after cities that have hosted the Olympic Games: Anvers (Antwerp, Summer 1920), Athènes (Athens, 1896, 2004), Cortina (Italy, 1956 Winter), Helsinki (Finland, 1952), Londres (London, 1948, 2012 Summer), Mexico (1968), Sapporo (Japan, 1972 Winter) and Tokyo (1964, Summer).

Fernand Léger  (1881-1955) is mentioned in passing in the film. Léger was a French painter, sculptor and filmmaker. Born in Argentan, Orne, France, he developed “tubism,” which is like cubism except is emphasizes tubular shapes. He is also considered the forerunner of pop art. During World War II, he taught at Yale University.

The Plot of ‘Paris, 13th District’

When we first meet Émilie Wong (Lucie Zhang) she is naked and seemingly alone in a spacious neat apartment, singing into a karaoke microphone. A man’s voice offers her yogurt. She’s not interested, but lies on top of him, an attractive Black man, Camille Germain (Makita Samba), so that we get a frontal view of her and yet he is modestly covered although seemingly naked.

She works at a call center for cellphone services. She speaks Chinese to her mother who is in London where her sister lives. Her parents have gone to London to help with her sister’s twin babies.

The film then flashes back to show us how Émilie met Camille. After a day at work, she wraps herself naked torso in cellophane–something she saw in a video. It’s supposed to help reduce fat. Émilie isn’t obese, but you can’t see her six pack. She’s pleasantly soft and not hard-bodied. Her wrapping is interrupted by the ring of a doorbell. She surprised that the person who texted her is a man and not a woman. She wanted a female roommate, but Camille persists. He’s a teacher at Fernand Léger High School and the location is convenient.

Émilie decides to let Camille in and they have snacks and some alcohol. Émilie asks, “What’s your love life like?”

Camille addresses her concerns, “Nothing noise or intrusive.”

Émilie coyly takes if further saying her attitude is “Fuck first, try later.” And Émilie and Camille surrender to lust. Camille does move in, but his initial ardor cools and he wants to have relations with other women. The first is with his colleague and replacement Stéphanie (Oceane Cairaty). Stéphanie and Émilie startle each other. Émilie is just returning from a drug-filled night at a dance party and finds a naked Stéphanie looking in the refrigerator.

Émilie tries to drive Camille and Stéphanie apart, but instead, drives Camille to find another place to live. Émilie ends up without a roommate and out of a job. She calls her sister who is tired of dealing with Émilie’s problems and has sent her self-help book.

Camille has family: His father and younger sister live elsewhere and his mother has recently died. Camille’s father chides Camille for his insensitivity toward his 16-year-old sister, Eponine. Camille might be a bit too self-involved. While Camille hopes to get a PhD, he ends up working in real estate at a small office. His luck changes when a more experienced real estate agent, Nora Ligier (Noémie Merlant),  joins him.

Nora is a returning student. At 32, she’s much older than her fellow students. She had been working in Bordeaux for her uncle. At the university, she finds herself subject to ridicule, at first for her age and style, but later when another student mistakes her for a video cam sex worker named Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth).

Camille will introduce Nora and Émilie, when he suddenly needs Émilie’s help and this is how the foursome are linked, through Camille.

Nora’s story is the exquisitely poignant thread in this fabric of young and carefree lives. Seeing her hesitant joy at a man’s attention and watching it crushed as he asks her on the dance floor, “I want to cum in your face,” is painful. You feel some vulnerable part of her being crushed.

Naked Women and the Modestly Naked Man: The Male Gaze or the Multi-Gaze

Hollywood is filled with naked men (and women). You might not see them in the movie theaters, but before the pandemic, you could see them easily on any weekend in the numerous equity-waiver small theaters that dotted the creative landscape of Los Angeles County. West Hollywood (WeHo) and North Hollywood and Hollywood were alive with live performances. West Hollywood is where “Naked Boys Singing” made its world premiere at the Celebration Theatre. Male full body waxing is not just for swimmers or body builders.

Full frontal male nudity isn’t something that only comes out in the very gay-friendly WeHo. I recall seeing a US production of the Melbourne, Australia performance-art show, “Puppetry of the Penis.” I was in the front row with a fellow critic for this showcase of “genital origami” during its West Coast premiere at the Coronet Theatre (366 N. La Cienega).

While I haven’t been going on weekly weekend trips to theaters for over a decade, even pre-pandemic, I doubt much has changed. Even then in the 1990s, there was an obvious disparity between cinema and the stage.

That’s something to consider when one reads about Paul Verhoeven who declares “Sex is the essence of existence” and declares that he made his new film “Benedetta” in France and Italy “to evade what he sees as Hollywood censorship.”

“Sexuality has been moved out of movies,” he says. “In the 1970s you could talk about it. But you arrive now, decades later, and those movies are not possible any more. It would be very difficult to make a film like ‘Showgirls’ or ‘Basic Instinct’ now.”

Actors and actress have spoken about how they were pressured into doing nude scenes.

And this should continue to be a concern in the US and in Europe.

In the SheKnows.com article. Ruth Wilson is quoted (from a 2015 interview with The Edit), saying:

“I have a big concern about how women are treated in the industry generally, and how they have to provide the titillation because penises can’t be seen on screen but breasts can. It’s assumed that women will get their breasts out, and have to get their breasts out, and I balk at that. It’s unnecessary and it’s unfair.”

Wilson further noted, “I [keep] insisting, ‘Why have I always got to do the orgasm face? There should be a male orgasm face. Why it is always the woman who’s orgasming?”

That’s not to say there haven’t been some European films with full frontal male nudity such as the 1985 Merchant-Ivory “A Room with a View.” And there have been some other sightings in Hollywood films as well.

Chris Pine noted on The Graham Norton Show, “I bare the ‘full monty’ and it got a lot of attention… but what did strike me most is that Florence Pugh bares everything too and no one commented.”

The film Paul Verhoeven was promoting was based on a book (“Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy”) written by a woman (Judith C. Brown) about a woman (Benedetta Carlini, 1590-1661) with a focus on lesbianism. If ever a film project cried out for a female writer and director, it would be his “Benedetta.” The film is written by Verhoeven and David Birke.

Audiard has been somewhat sensitive to the issue of the male gaze. According to the Observer,

So Audiard relied on intimacy coordinators and entrusted his actors to come up with their own blocking. “We were directing ourselves,” said Zhang. “He wanted to see how naturally we would reach something if he didn’t really give us any indication.” The results are explicit moments that don’t feel exploitative—not the predictable male gaze, but what Lucie describes as a “multi-gaze” that feels more equitable.

It’s not as if there isn’t nudity and sexually provocative work coming out of Hollywood. Consider the American science fiction dramatic series, “Brave New World” that NBCUniversal streamed on the Peacock (15 July 2020).

Keeping Wilson’s statement in mind as well as the Menkes List, without actually timing the camera movement, I still thought it is readily apparent that the camera emphasizes the nude female bodies in “Paris, 13th District.” . In the case “Paris, 13th District,” there are four female bodies we see naked and only one man. While you will see the man’s naked butt and there are some brief shots of his naked chest, the focal point is on the nudity of the women. There is one shot of an anonymous erect penis, but if you’ve sampled modern dating in this internet era, you’ve probably seen a penis shot already. That shot is brief glimpse of a photo on a smart phone and the face is obscured.

“Paris, 13th District,” was written by Audiard, Léline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, but despite the involvement of two female writers (cinematography by Paul Guilhaume), the full frontal nudity is female and that seems to be a decidedly male gaze, but there’s another problem.

In the Absence

The French film “Paris, 13th District” is loosely based on the short stories by American cartoonist and commercial illustrator, Adrian Tomine. Tomine, who work can be seen in The New Yorker, was born in Sacramento, the son of two PhD-holding parents (Professor Emeritus of Environmental Engineering at CalState Sac’s Department of Civil Engineering Chris Tomine and Professor Emeritus at CalState Sac’s School of Education Satsuki Ina) who are also both third-generation Japanese American. That makes Tomine a fourth-generation Japanese American.

Knowing the ethnicity of the author of the stories makes one wonder: Is it merely a coincidence that Audiard decided to base his movie in the Quartier asiatique or Asian Quarter of Paris? And that might make one cringe because it was not set in the area where there is a concentration of ethnic Japanese and there is a comment by the main male character, Camille, when he asks if the plastic wrap idea was Japanese.

Further, we see Chinese women, but not Chinese men. When Camille first arrives to see the room for rent, there are Chinese girls in the background, giggling, and speaking in Chinese to Émilie. We hear Émilie speak to her mother; we see her grandmother and her sister, but not her father or her brother-in-law.  Émilie, in her second job, hangs around with other Chinese girls. Where are the ethnic Chinese men, and even, why isn’t the part of Camille an ethnic Asian man? If Auilard was interested in the disconnect between two cultures in the Asian Quarter, that could have meant older established ethnic families of a Southeast Asian background contrasting more recent Mandarin-speaking immigrant families.

The absence of Chinese ethnic men or any East or Southeast Asian ethnic man troubles me. Is it because the French see them as weak and weak men aren’t sexy? Is this film partially a hyper sexualization of an ethnic East Asian woman? I can’t help thinking of another film: The Intouchables which also featured a Black male lead (even though the real person was North African) and women of Asian descent were objectified.

Les Olympiades, Paris 13e or “Paris 13th District” is, perhaps, easier to accept if one isn’t aware of the place that is declared in the name, yet if the place is important, then why is it only ethnic Asian women that we see? Further, I wonder why there nudity is weighted toward the heterosexual male gaze. In my mind, I have a dreadful image of the casting calls and the women baring themselves for a chance in this film. “Paris 13th District” is a problematic film in so many ways that despite the beautiful black and white cinematography, it is hard to recommend.

“Paris 13th District” made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (14 July 2021) and has been in limited release since 15 April 2022. It opens in Japan on 22 April 2022 and in South Korea on 12 May 2022.

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