• Sun
  • Oct 26, 2014
  • Updated: 8:35am
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


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

Juan Carlos
This only shows that trying to be inclusive can only backfire. The Australians are complaining that "the Australians" in the movie have a terrible fake accent. Same with the Americans. The white guy in the movie is actually British. Most of the main characters in the movie are British as well. Mexicans complain that although the director is Mexican, he didn't have the time to include a Mexican character, although he had plans to do it. I could see the Russians complaining about the same. That they didn't have enough screen time to show off. Actually everybody regrets that there was not time to show off each different team, but it was a crammed movie. At least 4 hours or more of back story that had to be squeezed into a 2 hour film. This absolutely has potential for a prequel, or a serial.
Dai Muff
As a one-legged Albanian, I am furious that the movie did not include a one-legged Albanian in a role of some importance.
I t doesnt really matter who dies first be it an American , a Brit or my fellow Chinese. In these films someone has to die. I would have preferred the survey to ask whether they believe the main actors of the film should be Chinese given the the film was shot in Hong Kong.
Dai Muff
If you think much of this movie, apart from CGI backing plates, was shot in Hong Kong you have not seen it. Or you know much more colourful and bizarre parts of HK than I do.
Mong Kok...
Hey, you people, it's an editorial, it's supposed to be controversial. Plus, the author makes a fair point. You can generally bet that a Hollywood action movie that has a few different ethnic groups in it will have the non-white characters biting the dust first. Is that racist? I don't know, but it's a fair point. Aside from a few Jackie Chan movies, it's still rare you find non-white leads in most Hollywood movies.
Dai Muff
I am afraid this is a very American-Chinese fixation, and one I have often encountered there, and only there. The fact is that EVERY country, yes, including and even expecially Hong Kong, mostly features its own nationality and ethnic group in starring roles. The US has already done better than Asia in this, giving Jackie Chan AND Bruce Lee at least co-starring roles in big features whereas I know of no Asian country that has given a Westerner such a role. Also, the thing with opinion pieces is people get to have opinions on them in return. That doesn't excuse eliding thousands of American and Filipino deaths as well as the death of the Caucasian brother of the main character.
while its true that the brother of the main character died in the pre-credits scene, the chinese and russian jaegars were still the ones that got wiped out in the first big fight of the climax - i think that's what the article is referring to. and they got wiped out so quickly. it's not uncalled for to hope that they'd be given more screentime or maybe a little more development, especially when one of the characters in the movie says that the chinese and russians protected Hong Kong for years.
every country features their own nationalities and ethnicities in their movies, yes. but they aren't called "Pacific Rim". they usually don't show a battle in a foreign place with foreign nations at the forefront. the director even said this in an interview:
"The other sort of big summer movies often feel to me like it’s about one race, one credo and one country saving the world, and I wanted to make it about the world saving the world, no matter what skin color you have, what race you have, what belief you have" (****berbicemarket.com/latinos-cuba-south-america-miami-dominican-republic-puerto-rico-venezuela-mexico-brazil/guillermo-del-toro-summer-movies-can-be-racist-nationalist-details-2/)
did the movie succeed with those goals, considering its weak portrayal of the chinese and russians? i think it tried, but it still didn't get there... its still a very 'american' film. and i think thats the point here.
Does it bother me that Chinese are the first to die in Pacific Rim? Not really. It's just a Hollywood movie. However, it does bother me a little that it's a non-Chinese journalist who's trying to stir up controversy for its own sake. Don't you have any real news to report, Mr. Blum?
if you look at the author's biography in the top left corner, it clearly states that he's half-Taiwanese. and why is this stirring up controversy for its own sake? nowhere does the author say that the film is racist or a bad movie. he just says that it had more potential and could have done more with the chinese characters...after all, the movie is called pacific rim and is set in HK...why is it wrong to offer commentary on the rare film that takes place in our city?




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