International affairs wonks will get a kick out of the
irony of Hollywood’s newest flop, Red Dawn. North Korea, a country with less
than 25 million people and a government that struggles to feed them, launches
an invasion and takes over Spokane, Washington.
The United States, with much more experience launching invasions of foreign countries, suddenly finds its superpower military
effectively disabled, and plays the role of the guerilla force. The film’s protagonists employ the same tactics that were used against US forces by insurgents
in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But a more troubling aspect of the film is the xenophobic
sentiment it promotes. It portrays a brutal, Asian enemy that is menacing
American freedom. This context gives the film's heroes license to slaughter as many
of these invaders as they can, as if it was open hunting season.
Although the villains of the story are North Koreans, the
studio, MGM, had originally intended for them to be Chinese. But last year, the
L.A. Times reported that MGM decided to change the antagonists to North Koreans, in order to play nice for the China movie market. As a result, they spent about
$1 million -- pocket change for Hollywood -- to digitally alter some flags and
construct a few other scenes. The fact that they can change the nationality of
the villains so easily adds to the ambiguity and interchangeability of Asian villains.
The film provides plenty of cringe-worthy moments. Most
notably, when the father of Chris Hemsworth’s character gets captured by the
North Koreans, he points to their leader, Captain Cho (played by Will Yun Lee),
and says to his kids hiding in the woods, “I want you to do what I would do.
Kill this piece of sh*t or die trying.” Captain Cho promptly gives him a bullet
to the head.
Red Dawn is hardly a film that deserves recognition, and
will probably win a Razzie Award for worst picture of the year. Still, the film
has grossed nearly $33 million at the US box office.
Those who went to see it may have had very little
exposure to either Asia or the Asian American community. Those who enjoyed it
probably did so because, at some level, seeing Americans beating the crap out
of Asians provides them with some sort of satisfaction.
That feeling would not be a far stretch for many who feel
that America is being threatened economically by Asia. During the presidential
election, both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney harped on how they will
get tough on China for manipulating its currency and taking away American jobs.
Outsourcing has been going on for decades, including software engineering and
call centers to India, manufacturing of iPhones and toys to China, and the production
of garments to Southeast Asia. Many of these moves have hurt the geographic
middle of America, precisely the place where a film like Red Dawn is likely to do
However, the real cheap shot is when Hollywood creates a
very unlikely plot line that turns fears over economic competition into ones of
national security. The odds of China or North Korea invading the US are
virtually zero. But the movie makes it easier to believe otherwise, and
naturally, an unfounded anti-Asian sentiment can develop as a result.
There are indications that this is already happening. The Wall
Street Journal reported two weeks ago that the movie has sparked a series
of anti-Asian tweets.
Searching “Red Dawn Asian” on Twitter provides many more
@kobypepia writes: Red dawn makes me want to punch an Asian.
seeing Red Dawn, all these Asian exchange students have me a bit
@maddie_mccarthy writes: After seeing Red
Dawn I'll never
look at Asians the same again" I felt the same way about trees after
seeing The Happening
We hope these examples are just a temporary cultural blip,
and don't turn into anything serious. However, this benefit of the doubt has been
continuously proven wrong. Muslims have been demonized in film, as well as by
politicians, for decades, especially after September 11. Anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. is a harsh
reality, and ranges from cases of mosque vandalism
to this year’s deadly shooting of Sikhs.
For now, it seems that most Americans know a bad movie when they
see one. Red Dawn will not likely make back its $65 million production cost,
and reviews to date have panned the film. Studios should learn from this
experience -- that it no longer pays to promote tasteless xenophobia.