Photo: Film District
Where's the China paranoia in pop culture?
If and when you see "Red Dawn," the rah-rah remake of mature-looking teenagers and their kin fighting against an invasion against America, remember -- the enemy is North Korea, even though they're Chinese.
A tad confusing, but here's the backstory: The original, as a Gen X subset might recall, pitted the likes of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and C. Thomas Howell against Russian forces. Since the Soviet Union is so Cold War 1984, the natural invading forces of the 21st century should by all rights be China, due to its sheer size, military might, and the fact that it owns about 8 percent of U.S. debt. In a way, a Chinese invasion would be the equivalent of Mafia money lenders coming to break a few legs.
Fear of big government?
The project, starring Chris Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, and other up-and-coming heartthrobs, actually finished up in 2010, sat on a shelf for two years as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer struggled with (cue irony) massive debt issues. The filmmakers weren't twiddling their thumbs: To maximize sales, every reference to China was removed in postproduction.
[F]ilmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from "Red Dawn," substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake. The changes illustrate just how much sway China's government has in the global entertainment industry, even without uttering a word of official protest. Although it's unclear if anyone in China has seen "Red Dawn," a leaked version of the script last year resulted in critical editorials in the Global Times, a communist party-controlled paper. (March 16, 2011, Los Angeles Times)
This is hardly the first time a character's ethnicity has been changed over global politics. Peter X. Feng, University of Delaware associate professor of film and author of "Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video," tells Yahoo! the practice goes all the way back to World War 1, when Cecil B. DeMille changed his Japanese villain in "The Cheat" (1915) to Burmese for the 1923 reissue, after Japan became an ally.
Movie companies — here and overseas — have long geared storylines to maximize global profits. That's why sequels and action films rule, to trade on familiar name properties and make for easier plot translations. Overseas partnerships are more commonplace. So blaming China's censor board for the digital makeover may be obvious -- but might there be more to the story?
Communist fears vs. capitalist deals
The change triggered underground grumblings of capitulation (and of the implicit racism of interchangeable Asians), but "Red Dawn" isn't the only movie where China is conspicuous for its absence. (Warning: mild spoiler ahead.) In "Skyfall," James Bond's archenemy is Latin bisexual Raoul Silva, who was M's favored recruit before he turned cyberterrorist. China is involved, but only as a backstory catalyst for Silva's psychosis and a few location shots. The Cold War-birthed franchise has faced down enemies of every extraction, be it hapa Chinese-German mobster Dr. No, Russian counterintelligence agent Rosa Krebb, or Bolivian General Medrano. This time around, 007 is facing an enemy of MI6's own making. (End of mild spoiler.)
Our best chance at a big-screen Chinese villain will be in the upcoming "Iron Man 3" — aptly named the Mandarin. (Incidentally, the half-Chinese/half-English evildoer will be played by half-Indian, half-English Ben Kingsley.) But, the comic book villain's origin as a Chinese exile with extraterrestrial rings will be de-emphasized. "It's less about his specific ethnicity than the symbolism of various cultures and iconography that he perverts for his own end," Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told Entertainment Weekly, which described the Mandarin's aesthetic as a hodgepodge of "samurai hair, to his royal robe, to his bin Laden-esque beard, and the AK-47." The Mandarin, therefore, will be more like Pan-Asian Express.
Signs of Sino-anxieties
It wasn't so long ago that popular culture traded on anxieties about America's external threats. Japan's 20th-century rise, which triggered magazine headlines like "How to cope with Japan's business invasion," inspired authors and artists about how the Asian tiger would change the American way of life. Styx's 1983 song "Mr. Roboto" hinted darkly at a Japanese mechanized world taking over a free world. Movies such as "Gung Ho" (1986), "Black Rain" (1989), and "Rising Sun" (1993) played on cultural collisions. As Americans plugged into their Sony Walkmans, Sony's spending spree, which included Columbia Pictures Entertainment, came under intense criticism, notwithstanding the fact that English-speaking nations such as Australia and Great Britain owned more American land than Japan did.
These days with China, not so much, despite plenty of U.S. election-year tough talk involving China. The Obama administration blocked a Chinese company from buying an Oregon wind farm, because it was close to a Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility a few miles away -- the first such veto in 22 years. Much more blatant were the political ads: "The Chinese Professor," which shows an instructor chortling with his class over American fiscal fecklessness, was revived after its midterm election debut.
Any anxiety Hollywood has about China revolves less around its economic influence than the country's sheer population size, a notion that could be traced back to the 19th-century "Yellow Peril" fears over Chinese labor. Japan, an on-again, off-again ally, posed dangers of infiltration because it could be "smarter or craftier or more treacherous," Feng observes. "There are so many Chinese, [the fear is] that they would keep coming and keep coming and keep coming, like the Barbarian invasions, that they will just overwhelm us with numbers."
Hollywood abandons America
In a way, figuring out where are Chinese villains are is less about China and more about America ducking its fears. If you go back to the beginning of Tinseltown, a bad guy's ethnicity was key. Hypervocal bloggers Elliot Mandel and James Furbush monitored 100 action films from the past 60 years, tracking a shifty rainbow from black ("Birth of a Nation") to Russians and Germans (Cold War era) to drug dealers and U.S. government corruption (Nixonian days), then back to Russians and drugs (Reagan era), and what Mandel and Furbush called "generic white guys."
After 9/11 happened, Hollywood took an abrupt left turn from their usual way of doing things. No longer would the movies in the next decade reflect current events or the deepest fears of the population.
Instead of embracing the cultural fear of terrorism, natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or man-made ones like the BP oil spill, religious fanaticism, a horrible recession and subprime mortgages run amok, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, climate change, and a looming government defaulting on its debt, Hollywood ran from its obligation to amplify the country's fears and instead turned to remakes, prequels, sequels, and cartoonish comic book movies in the last decade. (August 3, 2011, A Brief History of Hollywood Villains and America's Collective Fears)
"I think mostly Hollywood has, for whatever reason, lost the ability to use horror and action films as a vehicle for cultural critiques," Furbush explains to Yahoo!. "What horror and action movies did was provide a method for talking about those societal fears in a way that was acceptable. You could talk about the Russians invading America and have that conversation through a movie like Red Dawn where you wouldn't have it in more prestigious dramas. But, by and large, I don't think action movies are really tackling modern fears like is China going to make the U.S. irrelevant in a decade."
Zombifying villains, whitewashing heroes
Without a doubt, Hollywood has been more than guilty of perpetuating damaging racial stereotypes. Maybe it's not just money, maybe storytellers, worn down by homefront protests over the years, are exercising caution. Definitely as America's citizens -- and those international film deals -- have diversified, egregious typecasting has diminished. These days, the preferred go-to evildoers tend be zombies. When you're the undead, race no longer matters.
But in this retreat, a different kind of issue has popped up: whitewashing. The film "21" (2008), based on the true story of largely Asian MIT students who beat the casinos, cast only one white actor.
Racial bogeymans have been whitewashed even in comic adaptations: In "The Dark Knight Rises," Liam Neeson played Batman's mentor and nihilist Ra's al Ghul. "Prince of Persia" (2010) earned criticism for, among things, casting Jake Gyllenhaal as Middle Eastern royalty. M. Night Shymalan faced fan fury for whitewashing "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (2010). It's less about race than about watering down culture.
Scholars like Feng gets that Hollywood relies on marquee names to maximize box-office draw. The underlying problem is plain ol' equity.
"The point of acting is to act," he says -- and an actor doesn't need to be blind, disabled, or Chinese to play a blind, disabled, or Chinese character. It's the difficulty that Asian actors have in getting roles that are perceived to be white. "For me it's a question about equity rather than realism," he says.
But not to worry, there might be a chance for a Chinese villain in the near future, in a series project called "Awesome Asian Guys." (Full disclosure: The author threw in a few bucks for this Kickstarter project, with no hope of any return investment other than a T-shirt.) "When we were growing up in the '80s and '90's, we'd always see hard-hitting Asian bad guys in flicks like 'Die Hard,' 'Bloodsport,' and 'Karate Kid 2,'" goes the pitch from "offbeat" filmmakers Stephen Dypiangco and Patrick Epino. "These badasses were cool, but they'd only have a two-minute lifespan before they were killed or beaten to a pulp. It sucked that you barely saw them onscreen and rarely got to know them." The solution: a Web series devoted entirely to generic Asian bad guys.
It's a step -- somewhere.
See a clip for 'Red Dawn':