From yellowface to Red Dawn

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From yellowface to Red Dawn

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Chow-Yun-Fat in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End." Is Hollywood moving on from stereotypical portrayals of the Chinese? (photo: Sizemore)

North Korea invading America may be one of least likely news items this year, but it is the step one Hollywood studio has taken in a bid to mollify Chinese audiences. It describes the plot of Red Dawn, just released in the US. MGM had originally planned for the film’s villains to be Chinese. That was before the studio, already troubled by its slide into financial difficulties, provoked an outcry in China when on-set photographs of the nation’s fictional conquest of America were leaked. When the powers that be realised that Hollywood blockbusters could expect to make millions of dollars in China so long as they satisfied the Beijing censors, the film was edited in post-production and the North Koreans became the enemy. MGM’s backpedalling indicates the continued willingness of the American film industry to forsake artistic control in return for access to an overseas market that is estimated to be worth over $2bn.

Such rampant cynicism on behalf of the studios makes for a great story. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year on a number of occasions when Hollywood had similarly “appeased China.” A group of skilful Chinese engineers wound up in the film adaptation of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, despite never appearing in the original novel. In Battleship, timely intelligence was provided by the Chinese on the nature of an alien invasion force. Similarly, the disaster film 2012 had the Americans celebrating Chinese scientists for designing an ark credited with saving civilisation. These endorsements are carefully planned. Forbes recently profiled Dan Mintz, co-founder of DMG, an American marketing company with Chinese ties. DMG has done very well from advising production studios on how to ensure their film is one of the 34 foreign releases screened per year in China—typically by portraying the country in a favourable light.

Even if we criticise Hollywood for its increasingly cosy relationship with Beijing’s censors, we should not overlook the positive effects of discouraging ethnic stereotyping in cinema. An industry is waking up to the fact that while the Chinese may be worth billions of dollars to studios, they also have a right not to see themselves stereotyped and caricatured. A recent example is that of Sao Feng, Chow Yun-Fat’s character in the third instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, whose screen time was notably reduced in the Chinese release. With his scarred face, talon-like fingernails and long beard, the villainous pirate lord of the South China Sea was declared by one Chinese magazine to “demonize” its people in “traditional” Hollywood fashion.

Evil oriental masterminds may seem quaint in the west, but Sao Feng can be understood as a successor to the “yellow peril” villains of the twentieth century. Characters such as Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless (played by Max von Sydow in heavy cosmetics) were both deeply stereotypical. Hollywood films have continued to employ yellowface—the Chinese Triad overlord in Crank 2: High Voltage is just one example. Named Poon Dong, of all things, he was played by the late David Carradine, who often performed as east Asian characters. It is time to reconsider the presence in modern cinema of energetic martial artists quoting proverbs to flute music, goatee-fondling emperors seeking world domination and white actors in yellowface.

If we set aside ideas of apparatchiks in Beijing and a coldly pragmatic Hollywood questing for piles of renminbi, it’s possible to see the benefits to this story. It may be that we now see an explosion of saintly Chinese figures in American cinema —and North Koreans taking the fall instead—but if we go to the opposite extreme before finding a nuanced, balanced portrayal, then so be it.

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Thomas Leece is a freelance writer and a film critic at Fourth and Main 

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