Destroy All Monsters: Meanwhile, In Asian America

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Meanwhile, In Asian America

It was an odd weekend at the movies, and perhaps telling in that none of the oddness took place in a traditional movie theatre, unless the Kodak Theatre counts, which I don't think it does.

While Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen were making ill-conceived, ill-received Asian jokes on the 88th Academy Awards telecast, the highlight new film release (at least among cinephile circles, and even there, I would acknowledge that it's really little more than a curio) was the Weinsteins' long-mooted Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2, which must certainly now be in the running for the least-wanted sequel of all time. Fifteen years after Ang Lee's wuxia classic, whose opportunity as a franchise-starter extended exactly as far as leaving one principal character alive and no further... well, who in the hell cares?

OK, perhaps I am being unfair: I am reminded that the original CTHD is, of course, still the reigning highest-grossing foreign-language film in North America. That's no small feat, though I'd suggest that coming as it did at the tail end of the indie-boom 1990s, and a year after The Matrix made kung fu cool in North America again, Crouching Tiger was an easier sell in the west in 2000 than it would have been in most other years.

(Also, as must be remembered whenever anything makes substantially more bank than we might have predicted: it was also a terrific film. That helps.)

So a sequel, even one as late in the day as CTHD2: The Sword of Destiny, makes a tiny bit of financial sense. I was underwhelmed by the Netflix Original release when I watched it on Saturday night, but then, that was pretty much what I was expecting. (Our Kwenton Bellette was less favourable, though not by much.)

While watching The Sword of Destiny, though, I couldn't help but muse upon the fact that I was watching a relatively prestigious new release featuring a non-white, female, lead character in her fifties, and that it was an action movie to boot. This, surely, will be the only such example in 2016.

The caveats, of course, tell the tale.

Caveat one: as has been bemoaned and anywhere else that film fans have common sense and a modicum of taste, the new film was shot in English by its entirely Asian cast, because even in 2016, the prevailing Hollywood wisdom remains "Amurricans won't read subtitles, no they won't."

(It was also, distractingly, shot in New Zealand as well as China, and in gleaming, high-saturation HD no less; if you thought you saw a couple halflings run past Shu Lien in the opening sequence as she rides through the Shire the countryside, you're probably not wrong. This thing is one high-frame-rate short of being the fourth Hobbit movie - and just as perfunctory.)

Caveat two: this might very well be an action movie built around an older Asian woman, but her role is cast in one of the few vernaculars in which American audiences are willing to engage with Asian people: the martial arts.

At the Oscars, Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen built on this ghetto of acceptable Asian stereotypes in American media. For Rock, it was the Asian accountant and/or child labourer; for Cohen, even more baldly, it was little yellow men with little yellow penises.

Now. To be clear: I think Chris Rock navigated the whirlpool of #OscarsSoWhite / #BlackLivesMatter about as clearly and cleanly as could be done without actually standing mute, while refusing to surrender the stage, from the moment the curtain went up.

He was there to do a job and he did the job, and yet also managed to fire jab after jab after jab (like Creed himself, to extend the analogy!) all night long, against Hollywood's complacency, self-congratulation, and (in his finest, most cutting analogy) "sorority racism."

Certainly, as has been pointed out elsewhere and in more depth, Rock's attacks suffered by boiling the entire representation issue down to black vs. white, though I suppose we can allow him the dialectic given that it is, of course, his lived experience.

Layering Asian jokes on top of that line of insight, though, only problematized matters further. I will allow that his child labour joke, with respect to the tens of millions of angry tweets that we quickly generated, was on-message for his prevailing theme of the evening: this representation problem is serious and important, but there is a shit ton of basic privilege supporting the entire protest, including the ability to, say, drink unpoisoned water. Or type this column on a computer I bought for less than my first year university tuition - which I was also able to pay for.

But a week after Marvel went ahead and cast a Danny Rand who looks exactly like Danny Rand in the comics, thereby promising us yet another White Saviour narrative in their very White Saviour-y Iron Fist storyline, the weekend unintentionally, and therefore quite pointedly, gave us view into every garret an Asian is welcome to stand in modern American pop culture: the karate expert, the numbers guy, the faceless labour force, the yellow man with the little dick.

The Other, in other words (pun intended); and #OscarsSoBlack will be trending for decades before we even begin to see that change.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.

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Asian stereotypesChris RockOscarsOscars 2016

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KolobosRexxMarch 1, 2016 6:32 PM

...One could go on for hours about their opinions on the Oscars this year on many levels! But on the subject of Iron-Fist/Danny Rand: The character is a white male trained in ficticious mystical martial arts in a ficticious mystical hidden city. THIS IS WHO THE CHARACTER IS, PERIOD. Get over your faux-SJW outrage and grow up... The Ancient One in the Dr. Strange film is being played by a white British older woman instead of an older Asian male which would be ACCURATE, simply because someone decided source-accuracy would come across "stereotypical". When Marvel Studios gets around to using Shang-Chi, The Master of Kung-Fu, he will hopefully be played by a Chinese actor! But deriding the casting of a white guy to play a white character is just nonsense.

Mr. CavinMarch 1, 2016 9:38 PM

When I buy comics form the sixties and the seventies, in modern reprint collections, one of the things that I notice is that they have been reprinted with new colors, and typically on glossier paper. This is halfway because new types of printing allow us to use less acidic ink on whiter paper, adding up to a product that will last a good bit longer than comics printed before the eighties might. But it is also done for an aesthetic reason. Gone are the sixty-odd color range of the old CMYK process printing (my beloved Ben Day screens) in favor of thousands of new, smeary, graduated colors. To do this, editors have actually scanned and leeched the color out of old comic book pages (the original art? Mostly gone)--you can see a tell-tale generation loss in the muddying of cross-hatching and the thickening of broad brush strokes.

Anyway, this is always presented to naysayers like me in the very same way: this modern change in the archival quality of historical documents can be seen as a breaking away from the historical limits imposed upon the process at the time. The fact is that Marie Severin, and other Gold and Silver-Age geniuses, may have actually preferred the vastly expanded palette that modern technology currently affords us. It's pretty obvious that today's readers like it better. And I guess they have a good point. While the original comics still exist in their own right, I can't begrudge those who would like to see classic stuff that has not been hobbled forever by the restrictions of a time period the medium has long left behind.

Does that make sense?

KolobosRexxMarch 1, 2016 10:16 PM

...I sincerely appreciate your articulate and detailed response, Sir! However I am uncertain as to how it pertains to my issue of needlessly shifting a character's established origins to one-sidedly appease some imaginary demographic? Please feel free to elaborate though! :)

Todd BrownMarch 1, 2016 10:44 PM

You do realize you just referred to Asians (and / or blacks, and / or women, and / or everyone in the world who is not white and male) as an imaginary demographic? That would be a problem. You can talk about whether their wanting to be represented in media is appropriate or not but they are not themselves imaginary.

If I can articulate what I believe Mr Cavin is presenting as the argument - while not necessarily saying it's his own opinion here - it goes like this:

"It's the way it's always been done" is not a sufficient reason to continue doing things. The world has more color now than it had then.

Mr. CavinMarch 1, 2016 10:58 PM

right. And also: it is important to remember that the exclusion of different kinds of people from comics (or from appearing in comics often enough) is likely just as much an artifact of the times as any other deficiency we've evolved to discuss--and likely just as worthwhile to amend when revisiting that medium today.

KolobosRexxMarch 1, 2016 11:26 PM

...My apologies if I misrepresented myself on the idea that Asians were not a legitimate demographic! Hardly intended to imply that lol... But again, aren't we stereotyping/generalizing to say that ONLY Asians should be "martial arts masters"?? Chuck Norris, among many others, would surely beg to differ! Luke Cage is and always has been African-American and a great example of a well-developed and fleshed out character. Should we suddenly make him Hispanic? There are far fewer examples of great Latin-American heroes after all! The point being, there is NO good justification IMHO to alter an existing character to meet some perceived need of a PC balance. Utilize Shang-Chi, Silver Samurai, Sunfire, Big Hero 6, or how about some originality and create someone NEW...

YojimboMarch 2, 2016 7:21 AM

Growing up in the 70s and the 80s Power Man and Ironfist was one of my favourite comics You have Luke Cage a cool black dude who is as strong as the Hulk and Invulnerable and you have Danny Rand a blue eyed blonde guy that kicks arse using martial arts, at a time where most martial artists and arts to the public's mind where Japanese or Chinese.
Could you name for me some of the other comics, TV or films of that time that reflect that same diversity?
Off the top of my head all I can think of is "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Defiant Ones" both of which feature Sidney Poitier a big city cop who partners up with a small town redneck sheriff and a criminal shackled to another criminal on the lam from the man.
Power Man and Ironfist also featured long time supporting characters Misty Knight and Colleen Wing an African american ex NPYD cop with a cybernetic arm and a Japanese samurai respectively, who run a detective agency.
So Todd in a white bread world of very little colour Power Man and Ironfist where part of the colour, especially with those costumes.

YojimboMarch 2, 2016 7:38 AM

Hi Matt not sure if your familiar with the material Danny Rand is One in a lineage of Ironfists who are protectors and not saviours.

Matt BrownMarch 2, 2016 7:51 PM
Matt BrownMarch 2, 2016 7:52 PM

Yes, I'm familiar with Iron Fist. I was referring to the White Saviour narrative trope in general, not the mythology of the Iron Fists itself.

YojimboMarch 2, 2016 8:45 PM

Oh sorry I didn't realise you had read the Iron Fist scripts.
And what about Shang Chi Master of Kung Fu?

Mr. CavinMarch 2, 2016 9:22 PM

hey, thanks for posting that. This is the sort of story I never read unless someone places it under my nose.

Mr.MajesticMarch 3, 2016 12:37 PM

Well who cares about him. Certainly not the head honchos over at the Cinematic/Televisual Marvel universe. There's going to be only one Kung Fu master in that world, and he's a lily White guy.

Mr.MajesticMarch 3, 2016 12:43 PM

There's the rub. Asian guys can't be the kung fu guy anymore because that's racist(?) Neither can he be the lab guy or wise sage.

So can we be Lead? No. Can we be the significant other? No.

Well what's left? Nothing. And that's why we're stuck on the outside looking in.

Hollywood says no to the Asian guys doing Kung Fu trope but the White Saviour trope is fine and dandy.

YojimboMarch 3, 2016 4:21 PM

I do.
The pulp fiction roots and name of his father and arch nemesis would be a whole can of worms though.
So you also have read the scripts for this TV series and know that it uses the white saviour trope?