It seems that once every decade, there’s a big-budget film about Asian foreigners invading or attacking the United States. And each time, Asian Americans worry if there’ll be a backlash against them for looking like the enemy.
There was 1993’s “Rising Sun,” 2001’s “Pearl Harbor,” and now, the remake of 1984’s “Red Dawn.” In each case, the filmmakers have been irresponsible in not preventing racial animosity toward anyone looking like the Asian enemy by showing enough Asian American good guys.
In “Sun,” the invasion didn’t come from tanks or air rockets but Japanese businessmen here in L.A. using their money and influence to buy white politicians who would kill for them and act against the interests of the United States. There wasn’t a memorable Asian American character who counterbalanced the effect of “Japanese face equals enemy.” Tia Carrere played a computer expert who existed mostly to remind us how racist the Japanese were for rejecting her for being half black.
In “Pearl Harbor,” same thing. Just about every Japanese face was that of the enemy. When the bombers came over a baseball field where children played, they weren’t Japanese American (40% of those civilians killed around Pearl Harbor were), they were white. The clueless filmmakers squandered the opportunity to show how Japanese Americans were hurt by the attack (distrust, racism, concentration camps, etc.) simply because they told a Japanese vs. white and black people story.
Because John Tateishi of the JACL and I pushed for one of the doctors helping the wounded to be Japanese American, Vic Chao got to be on screen for two seconds. Yeah, thanks, that evened it all out!
So now we have “Red Dawn,” a remake of the 1984 film where Russians attacked the U.S. This time, it’s the North Koreans taking over Spokane. The film begins with news footage of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talking about what seems to be tensions with North Korea (it’s so vague, it’s hard to tell). Except for Will Yun Lee playing Capt. Cho, this is a mostly faceless army that we often see from afar. When there’s a public assembly and a North Korean tries to rationalize that they’re there to liberate the American people who were victims of Wall Street (a woman in the audience rightfully snickered), we hear the voice but only see the face toward the end.
At one point, the enemy finds the hideout where brothers Jed (“Thor’s” Chris Hemsworth) and Mattie (Josh Peck) and their friends (the Wolverines, named after their school team) took refuge in, Cho forces the black mayor to ask them to surrender, saying nothing will happen to them. As the group watches in the bushes, Jed and Mattie’s father, Sgt. Eckhert (Brett Cullen of “Lost”), takes another tack, telling his sons, “Stop this piece of sh*t (pointing to Cho) or die trying.” He immediately gets shot in the head.
Long story short, the high-schoolers ambush groups of soldiers, take their weapons, and use them to ambush more groups until they’ve become urban legends inspiring others to rebel in other parts of the country. Predictably, many of those who don’t survive the various struggles are people of color.
An hour into the hour-and-a-half film, the Wolverines receive help from three Marines, including Sgt. Major Tanner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan from “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Watchmen”) and Cpl. Smith (Ken Choi, who played the 100th/442nd soldier in “Captain America.”) No one responds to Smith with any kind of skepticism because he’s Asian, nor does he try to differentiate himself from the enemy. He’s just presented as an American with a good sense of humor, which is great. Smith knows Korean, and he uses it to talk into the walkie talkies of the enemies to comic effect. But how is “They’re attacking! Help!” helpful to the mission? Shouldn’t he have pretended to be one of the soldiers and made the enemy do something else?
As other reviewers have said, a lot of this doesn’t make sense. How did North Korea so easily take over this country? Something about a pulse that affected the grid and everything at Camp Pendleton went kaput. Yeah, OK, whatever. That’s why on Rotten Tomatoes, a survey of national critics, only 11% of the reviews were positive.
An earlier draft called for an Asian American girl being put in a concentration camp and having to be rescued by her friends. That might’ve contrasted the difference between a North Korean and a loyal Asian American. Since that wasn’t used, it would’ve helped if one of the Wolverines was Korean American so the audience would not have quickly associated anything Korean with negativity.
Judging by the tweets that showed up on Facebook, many audience members left the theater with a distinct anger toward Asian people. Here’s a sample (and none of these used emoticons to signify they were joking):
“Kinda wanna kill some Asians right now and defend the homeland, thank you Red Dawn for sparking some patriotism in me.”
“Red Dawn really mad [sic] me hate Asians… especially North Koreans.”
“After seeing Red Dawn I’m suspicious of every Asian I see.”
“Just saw Red Dawn with the boys. Makes me wanna lock-and-load and whoop some Asian ass!”
“I now hate all Chinese, Japanese Asian, Korean people. Thanks.”
“If you are Asian or look Korean… I don’t like you.”
“Red Dawn was sick … just another reason why to hate Asians.”
“The movie Red Dawn made me change the way I look at Asian people. I’m sorry, don’t take it personaly [sic].”
“Red Dawn is gonna make it REALLY hard to make an Asian friend now…”
And these are just the ones who are conscious of the way the movie affected them. How many more aren’t even aware of it but are still affected by the unbalanced portrayals in the film? And again, to illustrate the double standard that exists in this country, how many of these tweeters would feel comfortable saying — after seeing any kind of movie involving black people — that they “wanna kill some black people right now?”
The difference between “Red Dawn” and the aforementioned “yellow peril” films is that this one probably won’t have as much of an impact as “Rising Sun” or “Pearl Harbor.” “Sun” made $63 million, “Pearl” just shy of $200 million. Between Wednesday and Sunday, “Red Dawn” grossed $22 million, only $14.3 million over the Friday to Sunday weekend for seventh place. If we assume a 50% fall-off rate for the rest of its box office life, “Red Dawn” will gross about $51 million. And unless it makes a lot of money overseas, it’ll be perceived as a flop because it cost $75 million to make.
The one good that came out of paying money to see this film? Getting a chance to see the trailer of the upcoming Sylvester Stallone film “Bullet to the Head,” in which he teams up with Sung Kang to get his daughter back from old enemies. In the preview, Kang tells Stallone, who assumes he’s foreign, “I was born in Florida!”
Too Stupid to Ignore Department: I usually don’t comment on the kind of responses I get to my column online at rafu.com. I mean, one of my “Last Airbender” pieces attracted 84 comments without me even getting involved in the argument, and I didn’t mention any of them in subsequent columns. But sometimes there are reactions that are unique and worth mentioning or just plain stupid. A response to my last column about the clichéd romance between a white Navy SEAL and an Asian bar owner on ABC’s “Last Resort” falls into the latter category.
Sho Uesugi writes: “Furthermore, ‘white males’ (whatever that means) seem to like Asian women for a reason and it goes well beyond the shape of their faces and bodies. In fact, Asian women often represent many of the top values that ANY man would want in a woman, never mind a ‘white’ one.
“Putting people into silly little boxes based on eye shape, and past ethnicity needs to come to an end one day. America has become a culture of demographic interest-group warfare. And advocates like Mr. Aoki are sadly part of the problem, not the solution. Don’t let’s pretend that this Political Correctness is anything other than a form of the very same evil that supposed anti-racist proponents seek to wipe out.”
Wow, a privileged white person couldn’t have said it better. First of all, if the writer is confused as to what “white males” are, it makes sense that nothing else in my discussion would make sense. But it seems like a convenient way of not acknowledging the disproportionate white male/Asian female pairings that’ve been inflicted upon us for decades. What part of “unmotivated white male/Asian female pairings” do you not understand? If the viewer’s given no reason why two characters fall in love, race can be a big part of it.
“Demographic interest-group warfare?” “This Political Correctness?” You must be a Repuglican [sic] who refuses to acknowledge institutionalized racism where it exists and uses deflection to argue around it. Worse yet, as an Asian American, you defend Hollywood’s double standard of continuing to make “exotic Asian women” available to white men for no reason and to ridicule/demonize Asian men, leaving them desirable to no one.
If you believe “putting people into silly little boxes based on eye shape, and past ethnicity needs to come to an end one day,” you should agree that the relationship in question on “Last Resort” is just a reaffirmation that “eye shape” does matter.
In any case, I won’t have to suffer through that romance much longer: Shortly after my last column ran, ABC cancelled the show — 13 episodes will supposedly air, then that’s it.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.