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.