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Last night at around midnight, I clambered wearily into bed. "Are you awake? I need to talk to you about 'Red Dawn,'" I said to my husband.
He put down his Nook and pushed up his glasses. "Did they drink deer blood? Because I don't want to hear about it unless they drank deer blood."
"What? No deer blood. But wait, before you say anything, I just have to talk this out." I'd just been through the experience of watching "Red Dawn," and I had a lot to express. "First, see, it wasn't a bad movie," I said. "I expected to hate it, but it reminded me most of -- what's that movie where Christian Slater says, 'Talk hard'?"
"Pump Up the Volume?"
"Yeah, it was like 'Pump Up the Volume' for jingoists."
That's the thing about "Red Dawn." I'd read enough "Rotten" reviews at Rotten Tomatoes that I went in expecting to hate it, start to finish. But it wasn't a terrible movie, and that's the problem. It was a sincerely told story about family and love and relationships, set against the backdrop of a posited North Korean occupation of the US. It's not a terrible movie, it's a good one, about the love between brothers and the love for a country.
That's why "Red Dawn" is so insidious. The sugar coating on the package neatly wraps a message that has spawned "The 25 most racist tweets about Red Dawn," in which people have written things with a #RedDawn hashtag like:
"Red Dawn makes me so racist to Asians now!! #imracist"
And this one, which makes me hold my temples and pray that this person is never allowed a gun license:
"Just saw Red Dawn with the boys! makes me wanna lock-n-load and whoop some Asian Ass! #Wolverines #BringIt"
Although one person realized how incredibly uncomfortable it must be to watch "Red Dawn" as an Asian person:
"That awkward moment when Asians sit down infront of you t red dawn.." [sic]
This last Twitterer is right on the mark. (Wait, uncomfortable for me or for him?) My Asian American mind had to jump many, many hoops to watch this movie.
I am half Thai and half Caucasian, a Vietnam-era baby born from the influx of Americans to South-East Asia in the 60s and 70s. My mother is a cultured Thai woman from an old family in Bangkok, and my father is Caucasian farmer-turned-college professor from upstate New York. When they had me, there were very few other half-Asian kids around (this was the 70s), and people often wondered aloud whether it was hard for me "to have a mother with different skin."
Of course it was, especially in the 70s, when even the Blue Birds hesitated to allow little Asian girls into their ranks (or at least they did in central Washington).
Over the years, I've seen issues of racism concerning Asians get tacitly better, and I will elaborate upon this before I am done, I promise.
Now back to "Red Dawn." The original one, my husband said, was released in 1984 during the height of the Cold War. It involved a Cuban occupation of America backed by the Soviet Union. Apparently, the high point of the movie was that it was the first meeting of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey on screen, even before "Dirty Dancing."
Racism came into play in this movie too, but everybody was more or less white. You could tell the bad guys from the good guys because the bad guys didn’t speak English. The central drama of the movie was the bromance between the brothers, and my husband explained: "That's when they drank deer blood together, when the little brother became a real hunter, a man."
The central relationship of the 2012 "Red Dawn" is still between the two brothers, which is why during my initial watch I felt that the racism got buried by the emotional plot. The drama centers around whether the younger brother, Matt Eckert, will ever prove his fighting worth to his older brother, the Marine Jed Eckert. There's a girl involved, of course, one who makes Matt behave "selfishly" instead of in the best interest of the team. Along the way, Matt learns valuable life lessons from Jed (that helps him kill a whole bunch of Asians).
The film even has a rousingly patriotic "Theoden moment" in which the Jed has to motivate the small band of rebellious high school kids (the Wolverines, get it? Their high school mascot?) to become fighters, and Jed gives the following speech:
"I'm gonna fight. This is easier for me because I'm used to it. The rest of you are gonna have a tougher choice. When you're fighting in your own back yard, you're fighting for your family …. We inherited our freedom. Now it's up to all of us to fight for it."
Jed's words are the backdrop to a training montage in which the high school kids turn from ordinary humans into a team of warriors who can mow down Asian invaders with machine guns. Jed becomes closer to his little brother in the process, right up until he...
"The problem is," I sleepily told my husband at the conclusion of my long discussion of the plot, "The two brothers were too manly to hug it out. All of my notes on this movie are like, 'OH COME ON AND HUG ALREADY,' and they totally never do."
"That's America for you," he said, and then we both went to sleep.
Extremely early in the morning I woke up and stared at the ceiling, because I suddenly realized what was missing from Red Dawn.
Where are the Asian Americans of Spokane?
Don't tell me there aren't any. I lived in Olympia for a number of years, and I'm sure as hell Asian. I sleepily headed to the Internet and did a quick search. According to the Racebending website (which did a fine review of the movie, here), seven percent of the population of Washington State is Asian.
So where were all the fighting Asian American Wolverines, ready to take back their country from the invading forces?
Worriedly I began to dig, and then I wished I had not, because I immediately stumbled upon a pile of steaming poop about the size of Mount Ranier.
The filmmakers did not actually have any Asian Americans in the film because they apparently did not desire to depict Asians in a complicated manner. Asians were the bad guys, end of story. But that’s tangential to the truly racist matter, the one that occurred during the filmmaking process. Originally, I discovered, the North Korean invaders were supposed to be Chinese, including the main opposition leader Captain Cho, who was played by a Korean actor.
"What?" I said out loud to my computer in the early morning.
That's right. Apparently due to the fact that China is the "fifth largest market for US films," the studio was forced to completely edit out the original Chinese bad guys and make them North Korean instead. The filmmakers did this "easily," according to most reports, by subbing in Korean for Chinese, and changing a few signs and banners.
I admit that I’m used to this nonsense in everyday life. I can't begin to tell you the number of times I've had the following conversation with Americans that seem intelligent enough:
"So, you're Thai. Do you speak…Taiwanese?"
"No, I'm not from Taiwan. In Thailand, people speak Thai."
And, at Thai restaurants:
"So where are the chopsticks?"
"Um, in Thailand, people eat with a spoon in the right hand and a fork in the left. If you see chopsticks at a Thai restaurant, you probably don't want to be eating there."
Normal, casual, American racism, you know. Because to most people, Thai people are synonymous with Taiwanese people and Chinese people and North Korean people, and really -- we're all brown and small, so why should anyone feel the need to distinguish between us?
For a moment, I felt as if I had fallen through some horrible time warp back to the years in which Mickey Rooney could put on eyeliner and play the pan-ethnic "Mr. Yunioshi" in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Immediately after this feeling, I had a case of the worst Schadenfreude ever, because the actor Will Yun Lee (Captain Cho) was suddenly correctly cast as a Korean playing an actual Korean. "Well, somehow the universe managed to get some good out of it," I muttered to myself.
Do you care that the next paragraph has spoilers? Because it does.
Let’s talk about the most problematic figure in the movie, Captain Cho. Honestly, the first time I saw Captain Cho on screen, I'll admit that my reaction was visceral. "Oooooh -- hottiepants!" And thereafter, whenever I saw him, I enjoyed his screen presence.
Captain Cho is not given a jot of humanity outside of being (in my opinion) the best-looking actor in the movie. He is given very little dialogue. Instead, he makes strange choices that serve no military purpose except to obviously demonize him. Captain Cho rips Matt's girlfriend out of his arms and (spoiler) kills the Eckerts' father, and thereafter personifies all that is worst about the invading forces and Asians in general.
It gives the film a suitable conclusion when (spoiler) Jed brings up his gun at point-blank range to Captain Cho’s head and says, "You fucked with the wrong family," -- before the camera pulls back and does not show Captain Cho's head being blown off by the nice white boy.
At the end of the movie, the US is still under occupation, and the Wolverines are still fighting, an ending that troubles me greatly. What bothers me most about the fact that the movie ends in media res (in much the same manner as "Pump Up the Volume") is that a lot of people have jumped to a racist conclusion and really want to go kill some Asians themselves, now. Just check the Twitter hashtag for #Wolverines, and prepare to get your heart broken.
As I promised earlier, I won’t end this post sadly. Despite "Red Dawn," this year has actually been one of the best for Asian Americans in my lifetime. On election night, America voted two Asian American women into office. One of them is Ms. Mazie Hirono, a Buddhist (word!), and a Japanese American from Hawaii. And as for the other... Pretend with me for a moment that not once in your life has your ethnicity been represented in the US House of Representatives, nor ever in the long history of the US. Depressing, right?
Well, next year will mark the first year in my entire life, and in all of American history, in which my very own ethnicity will be represented in Congress -- by Ms. Tammy Duckworth, a half-Thai, half-Caucasian woman.
With any luck, this matters more than a million racist movies.