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  • Nov 28, 2014
  • Updated: 7:41am
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

mushi
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?
markwhouston
I'm afraid Clint is correct with his statistics and thoughts on the issue. In fact, there are only 3,794,673 people, of Chinese origin, living in the United States, against 196,817,552 people of European ancestry, 26,735,713 White Hispanic or Latino Americans, 2,400,000 Native Americans and Alaska Natives and 42,020,743 African Americans.
Logically, as a business, like movie making in China (Where killing all them bad white guys is quite popular), choosing characters for a movie, requires choosing familiar faces and behaviors.
At the same time, lets also admit, that Chinese people are quite short in comparison to the average American and European, and short people have and will always, get kicked in the **** and killed more often than big guys with biceps the size of an elephant's trunk. I'm a short guy, and so, I'm speaking from experience.
****en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overseas_Chinese
****en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_American
****en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_ethnicity_in_the_United_States
****en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_American
xiaojiang66
The Crimson Typhoon is a mark 4 mech, and looks stunning just being launched. I would have hoped that they gave it more fight time / effort than the meagre minutes seen, regardless it was Chinese or which country built. At least let him cut off a limb or two from the blue-goo Kaiju. The scriptwriter had other ideas & wanted to preserve the Kaiju intact to fight with Gypsy Danger in Wanchai. Giving the Crimson Typhoon a longer & more powerful role would not only bolster PacRim's China box office but this movie's already greatly satisfying entertainment value.
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 ?
chuchu59
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.
steaktonight
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.
lokuohsiung
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?
blake.c.dy
Why does Crimson Typhoon die first?
Answer A: They're Red Shirts (Star Trek fans will get this).
Answer B: Made in China.

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