Racebending in Art and Pulp: Views from Back East on Cloud Atlas, The Impossible, and Red Dawn

“Why are those stupid Americans always so petty about issues like race?” asks my Belgian colleague. I shrug my shoulders, because after ten years in America, I still don’t have that view that political correctness directly leads to equality–it’s a stifling world tool, if anything, in my experience.

Over drinks at one of Bangkok’s many pubs, I and an eclectic mix of locals, expat workers, backpackers, and documentary filmmakers in exile talked about movies that have drawn attention because of the race issue and Asians: The Impossible, Cloud Atlas, and the remake of Red Dawn.

The quick lowdown on why these films are controversial: The Impossible is about the tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004–but focuses on foreigners instead of thousands of locals affected by it–oops. Cloud Atlas is notorious for its “creative liberties” with characters playing different ethnicities and genders, particularly white and black characters as “Asians” in the Korea segment or blacks as Pacific Islanders. Red Dawn is “evil [Asian] army invades America and American  kicks its ass” type of deal, which was originally China as the antagonist force but quickly changed to North Korea.

Having sat here through the late release of Cloud Atlas (ready to see it for at least my third time now), the current showing of The Impossible, and a pirated DVD of Red Dawn from the vendors near National Stadium, I and my companions all put forth some foreign and local perspectives over  the films themselves and the surrounding controversies. A caveat, I will throw in, is that there are other Americans here in this crowd, those who are backpackers and expats in exile who engaged in the American Exodus to get away from America during the George W. Bush years.

On the subject of Cloud Atlas, opinions were polarized more over the quality of the film and story–I personally love it enough to see it a third time or more. No Thai, British Asian or French Asian, or American exile here brought up the race issue once until I mentioned the controversy in the news. The overwhelming response was “If they’re focused on race, they’re not trying to enjoy or understand the movie” and that if there was any dislike, it’s because the either disagreed with the film’s message or didn’t care much for philosophical preaching. I didn’t find the yellowface or whiteface in any of the scenes offensive either–I liked it actually, because it helped me follow the threads of the characters in each time period. If there were any blasphemies, it was hearing Hugh Grant’s British accent come out in his attempts at a Southern accent in the 1973 segment.

With The Impossible, people laughed at it because the premise of focusing on foreigners rather than locals affected, but also added that it was able to relate an experience that the world otherwise would have ignored if their own (expats) weren’t affected. Thousands die every day around the earth, but you have one foreigner from America or Britain there, and suddenly, the media is paying attention. Locals seemed to be curious about how foreigners perceived their disaster and how they would portray it–kind of an insight for them as well.

Red Dawn was “just another G.I. Joe film” and brainless action. “It’s absolutely xenophobic, but what do you expect? That’s America!” Ah, that common sentiment. When the rest of the world comes to expect the worst as a result of pedantic ideas (white man kills aliens with yellow skin), it makes everyone else look bad while somehow making millions. It’s pure testosterone and excrement with a few good actions scenes, but nothing else. In other words: it was just utterly boring watching Thor‘s Hemsworth wield a gun.

Short version: race issues in entertainment have only ever come up when someone from America brought them up. When they do, they completely expect the racism and xenophobia in pulp films because that is America in their eyes: a kingdom of fear. Seems to be a constant theme in every Asian country I go to when talking to foreigners and locals.

As my British Indian friend asked innocuously: “What is it about Americans who have to be ‘Scottish-American’ or ‘Asian American’? Nobody asks me to say I’m Asian British, I’m just a London girl. I’m English. I’m British. What more do you need to know? It’s a film and art [referring to Cloud Atlas], what’s everyone getting all pasty-faced about with yellowface and needing to have Asians play Asians? Not the same rubbish as that Red Dawn travesty.”

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About JohnnyC

Johnny C is a self-described Accidental Asian American: born in California and raised in Hong Kong and Manila, he spends his days traveling as a freelancer for various NGOs in development and human rights. An idealist and adventurer, his travels are both for work and fun, while sharing stories through his pictures, videos, and writing. When he's not dance-walking to indie rock songs on his iPod in cities around the world, he's usually got himself engrossed in a science fiction novel traversing the portals of reality.
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