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  • Aug 22, 2014
  • Updated: 2:49pm
From The Hip
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 4:27pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 September, 2013, 5:40pm

Why are the Chinese the first ones to die in Pacific Rim?

This big-budget summer blockbuster may seem different, but it's still very American

BIO

Born in the United States but now living in Hong Kong, Jeremy Blum is a half-American, half-Taiwanese writer. Prior to joining SCMP, he studied journalism at the University of Hong Kong and lived in Taiwan for two years. He has previously written on a wide variety of topics, including communist video games, Asian American start-ups and the history of dumpling restaurants in Taiwan. You can follow him on Twitter @blummer102
 

Pacific Rim is a movie about giant robots fighting monsters in Hong Kong.

So why are the Chinese characters in the film the first to die? 

Make no mistake – this does not necessarily make Pacific Rim a bad movie. Directed by Pan’s Labyrinth mastermind Guillermo del Toro and released in Hong Kong on July 18, the film is a rare thing in Hollywood’s stable of summer blockbusters. It is a movie that eschews an American setting for the Asian region, stars mostly lesser-known actors and sells itself as a globally-minded feature. Its plot of how disparate Pacific nations come together and create massive robots to battle otherworldly foes certainly seems international upon first glance, and the movie is heavily influenced by Japanese anime like Mobile Suit Gundam and monster flicks like Godzilla. Pacific Rim’s grotesque antagonists are even called “Kaiju,” a Japanese word that translates into “strange creature” and is synonymous with Godzilla and all of his Tokyo-stomping counterparts.

But despite acknowledging its Asian ancestry, the movie is not a truly international film – it is only an international movie created through a Hollywood lens. That means while minority characters and a foreign setting may be on display, all of the usual American action movie tropes still apply, including a standard white hero that ends up saving the day. The movie’s female lead, smartly portrayed by Rinko Kikuchi, initially seems like a breath of fresh air - a strong Asian woman that’s just as capable as her male counterparts. But as Pacific Rim goes on, her character becomes more reliant on the men surrounding her, and in typical Hollywood fashion, she ends up as the love interest for the Caucasian leading man.

And then there is the decision to set the film in Hong Kong. The city is depicted as a realistic futuristic version of Hong Kong, and it is described as the last line of defence against the Kaiju. Unfortunately, despite this “last line of defence” being home to millions of Chinese people, there are no notable Chinese characters in the movie except for three triplets who pilot a giant red robot named the Crimson Typhoon. This sounds promising, but they are given barely any dialogue and perish in a fight within the first hour.

Their deaths make Pacific Rim, a movie that is supposedly about all races and nations coming together to fight monsters, suddenly seem like it wasted some of its potential.

Maybe it’s wrong to expect nuance and political correctness from a movie about robots, but considering the film’s title and influences, Pacific Rim certainly could have done more to challenge conventions. Hollywood is notorious for refusing to cast Asians as leads, feeling that “typical American audiences” won’t be able to relate to them. But Pacific Rim is already filled with elements that are foreign to these so-called typical Americans. Why not go the whole way and have an Asian leading man? Why not subvert stereotypes and have the Japanese female lead not fall into the typical love interest role? Why not feature more fully-realised Chinese characters that do more than serve as disposable monster fodder?

As of July 22, Pacific Rim reached number one at the global box office. With its July 31 mainland China opening coming soon, there’s certainly more money to be made. Will Chinese audiences react negatively to the movie’s middling portrayal of their race? It’s possible, although if they respond to the film in the same way as most Hongkongers did, they will probably just be impressed that Hollywood even took the time to make a movie set in a Chinese city. 

But maybe they should pay more attention. The Chinese market is now Hollywood’s darling when it comes to ticket sales, and recent blockbusters Iron Man 3 and Looper both had extra footage for mainland viewers inserted into their Chinese releases. While American film companies might be taking these extensive measures, however, directors have also gone on record to say that such operations are still for the most part cosmetic. In other words, while movies may now be tweaked to appeal to Chinese viewers on a superficial level, the plots, stereotypes and film tropes that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood will remain intact – at least for now.

Pacific Rim is the perfect example of this phenomenon - a movie that's centered around the Pacific, but ultimately very American. Still, it's a small step in the right direction, and director Guillermo del Toro can only go up from here. In July, he began talking of ideas for the film’s inevitable sequel.

Maybe in Pacific Rim 2, they won’t kill off the Chinese guys so fast.

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This article is now closed to comments

david_lau
I think the plot can be set against a backdrop of a far future earth that race variation ceases or they can simply give up connection between spots where the story takes place to real world places by forging frictional names for both places and races. It's not too hard to dodge racial issues. After all it's a story of giant robots fighting giant monsters from the sea, what's the good for it to happen in real world cities rather than a galaxy far far away?
JohnWax
Yes, we demand that Americans be universal and all-encompassing in their art and culture!
jsmlibrary2
You obviously weren't paying attention to the film if you thought the leading lady ended up as the love interest of the main character. All relationships are portrayed in the film, including siblings, master and student, and friends - but not love.
ShazBo
I going say this first I loved this movie. I've watched it 5 times. I loved that it took place in Hong Kong and not America or Japan.
But I do agree when Crimson Typhoon died first I was slightly disappointed but more worried about how my own people would react to this in the Chinese Box Office. I don't think Del Toro wanted to offend anyone. I think I had to happen to get the actual message across; that the Kaijus are dangerous and that countries working together will achieve more than working by themselves.
Spoilers (read at your own risk):
Gipsy Danger is not an American Jaeger. As soon as the movie starts, one of the american copilots dies (Raleigh's brother) and the jaeger breaks down into pieces at the shores of Alaska the robot ceased being American. Gipsy Danger is a recycled robot (the underdog) rebuilt and made better us hard working "Southerners" (btw, just incase you missed that subtle story element). It is an international effort. One pilot is from the west and the other is from the east. All the other Jaeger failed to stop the two monsters. Russia, China and even the "powerful" Mark V Aussie jaeger. "The International Effort" was able to stop them. Saving Hong Kong and the major landmarks (last city shot). It's not anti anything, it's pro unity. My only problem was why weren't my fellow southerners not speaking... well Cantonese? That was more of a problem for me. It's really annoying, it's like someone watching Infernal Affairs in Mandarin... Why? LOL
O'Shea
Lets stick with Bruce Lee's movies :-)
pgrath1
If the movie takes place in Hong Kong, why is anyone surprised that Chinese die? I haven't seen the movie, so is there more to it?
Let's hope that SCMP is not getting into the business of racial-grievance mongering also - given that its an American author, I am NOT surprised...
guangmin.lye
No see, the problem is how they die, not that they died.
So, SPOILERS!
Just picture it, 1st time the main characters came to see the triplets & the Russians they talk about how good they, how they are the last remaining elites, they talk about how ya-I-heard-of-their-famous special moves.
Then the 1st time we see they went on the battle field, close up shot of the big red robot, Chinese-flavour drums & vocals war song start blasting from the speakers. Then when the red Chinese robot make contact with the huge monster, backflip! Start special move! Then die!!
..huh?
Yes, they present the China (& the Russian to some extend) robot like how strong how elite they are. Then when they start fighting they didn't even last more then 5 minutes against 1 enemy. It just make them look so lame.
The kicker? The American robot show up later & take down 2 monsters in a row around 10 minutes later.
Dai Muff
Bottom line is: who do you think COULD have died at this point that would not have ticked off individuals of whichever nationality they belonged to? This just seems silly because without inventing a non-existent country, someone would have been as PC offended whatever he did.
guangmin.lye
Well, who do I think COULD have died at this point? I would say no one should die? Not just after the starting round of the fight? The Russians at least are fighting 1 against 2 and gotten spit in the face. The Chinese has no such excuse, they are just horribly lame. I wouldn't have felt rubbed a bit wrong if they were back stabbed or something but no, they went down fair & square.
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Don't get me wrong, I still love the movie, still went to see it 3 times. But this just make me worry. Because Pacific Rim NEEDED to sell in China & Japan for it to even be consider a sequel. Since it still making barely even right now.
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I'm Chinese but not China-Chinese & this still rub me a bit wrong. I'm very VERY worry PA would get bad mouth for this in China.
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Worst? Do you know they make a movie poster that show a Japan make Robot to use to promote in Japan?
PROBLEM WITH THAT MOVE IS THE FACT THAT ROBOT ONLY SHOW UP IN THE MOVIE AFTER IT WAS DESTROYed. Why would you do that?? Don't that guaranteed bad impressions?
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I think they never thought that China & Japan is so important for them to make a profit when they're making the movie.
cfj
Point of order : "there are no notable Chinese characters in the movie except for three triplets who pilot a giant red robot named the Crimson Typhoon." How many triplets make for three, Mr Blum ?

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