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Red Dawn: Where are the Chinese villains?

November 21, 2012 by Vera H-C Chan

Where's the China paranoia in pop culture?

If and when you see "Red Dawn," the rah-rah remake of mature-looking teenagers and their kin fighting against an invasion against America, remember -- the enemy is North Korea, even though they're Chinese.

A tad confusing, but here's the backstory: The original, as a Gen X subset might recall, pitted the likes of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and C. Thomas Howell against Russian forces. Since the Soviet Union is so Cold War 1984, the natural invading forces of the 21st century should by all rights be China, due to its sheer size, military might, and the fact that it owns about 8 percent of U.S. debt. In a way, a Chinese invasion would be the equivalent of Mafia money lenders coming to break a few legs.

Fear of big government?
The project, starring Chris Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, and other up-and-coming heartthrobs, actually finished up in 2010, sat on a shelf for two years as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer struggled with (cue irony) massive debt issues. The filmmakers weren't twiddling their thumbs: To maximize sales, every reference to China was removed in postproduction.

Filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from "Red Dawn," substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake. The changes illustrate just how much sway China's government has in the global entertainment industry, even without uttering a word of official protest. Although it's unclear if anyone in China has seen "Red Dawn," a leaked version of the script last year resulted in critical editorials in the Global Times, a communist party-controlled paper. (March 16, 2011, Los Angeles Times)

This is hardly the first time a character's ethnicity has been changed over global politics. Peter X. Feng, University of Delaware associate professor of film and author of "Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video," tells Yahoo! the practice goes all the way back to World War 1, when Cecil B. DeMille changed his Japanese villain in "The Cheat" (1915) to Burmese for the 1923 reissue, after Japan became an ally.

Movie companies here and overseas have long geared storylines to maximize global profits. That's why sequels and action films rule, to trade on familiar name properties and make for easier plot translations. Overseas partnerships are more commonplace. So blaming China's censor board for the digital makeover may be obvious -- but might there be more to the story?

The change triggered underground grumblings of capitulation (and of the implicit racism of interchangeable Asians), but "Red Dawn" isn't the only movie where China is conspicuous for its absence. (Warning: mild spoiler ahead.) In "Skyfall," James Bond's archenemy is Latin bisexual Raoul Silva, who was M's favored recruit before he turned cyberterrorist. China is involved, but only as a backstory catalyst for Silva's psychosis and a few location shots. The Cold War-birthed franchise has faced down enemies of every extraction, be it hapa Chinese-German mobster Dr. No, Russian counterintelligence agent Rosa Krebb, or Bolivian General Medrano. This time around, 007 is facing an enemy of MI6's own making. (End of mild spoiler.)

Our best chance at a big-screen Chinese villain will be in the upcoming "Iron Man 3" aptly named the Mandarin. (Incidentally, the half-Chinese/half-English evildoer will be played by half-Indian, half-English Ben Kingsley.) But, the comic book villain's origin as a Chinese exile with extraterrestrial rings will be de-emphasized. "It's less about his specific ethnicity than the symbolism of various cultures and iconography that he perverts for his own end," Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told Entertainment Weekly, which described the Mandarin's aesthetic as a hodgepodge of "samurai hair, to his royal robe, to his bin Laden-esque beard, and the AK-47." The Mandarin, therefore, will be more like Pan-Asian Express.

Signs of Sino-anxieties
It wasn't so long ago that popular culture traded on anxieties about America's external threats. Japan's 20th-century rise, which triggered magazine headlines like "How to cope with Japan's business invasion," inspired authors and artists about how the Asian tiger would change the American way of life. Styx's 1983 song "Mr. Roboto" hinted darkly at a Japanese mechanized world taking over a free world. Movies such as "Gung Ho" (1986), "Black Rain" (1989), and "Rising Sun" (1993) played on cultural collisions. As Americans plugged into their Sony Walkmans, Sony's spending spree, which included Columbia Pictures Entertainment, came under intense criticism, notwithstanding the fact that English-speaking nations such as Australia and Great Britain owned more American land than Japan did.

These days with China, not so much, despite plenty of U.S. election-year tough talk involving China. The Obama administration blocked a Chinese company from buying an Oregon wind farm, because it was close to a Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility a few miles away -- the first such veto in 22 years. Much more blatant were the political ads: "The Chinese Professor," which shows an instructor chortling with his class over American fiscal fecklessness, was revived after its midterm election debut.

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