Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics


'Red Dawn': Farcical Premise Breeds False Sense of Threat

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 well.    

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 examples:

@kobypepia writes: Red dawn makes me want to punch an Asian.

@adam93b writes: After seeing Red Dawn, all these Asian exchange students have me a bit nervous #AsianTakeover

@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.

About The Author

Lin Yang

Lin Yang is currently the Political Editor of Hyphen magazine and the Taipei Correspondent for international newswire Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA). He has also written for the New York Times, IEEE Spectrum, The Straits Times, South China Morning Post, and Taiwan's Central News Agency. Straddling two cultures at heart, he writes stories and follows politics on both sides of the Pacific. 

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