AMC’s new show Into the Badlands premiered this past Sunday and man, what an opening!
I’ve written before about how I’ve seen the Chinese martial arts cinema aesthetics travel to Hollywood, particularly through the success of The Matrix, and it’s very exciting to see it coming to the small screen too! I’ve also written about Inseparable, starring Daniel Wu, who leads the cast of Into the Badlands. Another topic I’ve written about quite a bit – but never on this blog – is the representation of Chinese men in Hollywood. What I’m trying to say is, partly as a means of full disclosure before I really get into this, is that Into the Badlands brings together quite a few of my favorite things, making it virtually impossible for me to dislike it. I can already tell that no matter where the story takes me, I’m going to be very forgiving towards this show. Not only because I personally enjoy the various elements that creators Al Gough & Miles Millar and producers Daniel Wu & Stephen Fung have brought together, but also because it feels like a relatively important show to support.
First and foremost, we have to talk about the fact that the lead in this major American TV show is a Chinese man. I’ve tried to avoid most of the press about the show leading up to the pilot to avoid spoilers, but even a cursory look reveals how much this has been at the center of the show’s discourse. And with good reason. Many feel that it rights the wrong inflicted against Bruce Lee in the 1970s when he was infamously denied the role of a Shaolin monk in the TV show Kung Fu. A role which ultimately went to David Carradine, a white dude, reportedly because studios did not feel American audiences were ready to see an Asian man in such a prominent role on their screens every week.
The representation of Chinese men in Hollywood – and Asian men more generally – has a pretty pathetic and embarrassing history that was backed by the US government’s various immigration and exclusion acts aimed directly at Chinese individuals years ago. We also have to consider that because of the general public’s ignorance (myself included) when it comes to the various countries that make up “Asia” and their unique cultural histories and contexts, any male on screen that looks Asian has often been lumped together when it comes to certain stereotypes, misunderstandings, and (mis)representations. At the same time, however, each Asian group has its own unique history of representation in Hollywood, and China is no exception.
There are two major stereotypical representations of Chinese men with a long history in Hollywood: the “yellow peril” and the “model minority.”
The “yellow peril” is most famously exemplified by the evil genius Fu Manchu – a popular character across a number of novels, radio shows, film serials, and feature films decades ago who was always played by a white actor. Here’s how Sax Rohmer, the author of the books that originated the character, describes him in the first novel:
“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
Pretty racist stuff, to say the least. But I mean, you have to watch out for Dr. Fu. He has the power to hypnotize white women, with whom he hopes to create a superior race of children. How did that 2010 internet hit song go? “He’s climbin’ in yo windows, he’s snatchin’ yo people up, tryin’ to rape ’em. So y’all need to hide yo kids, hide yo wife, and hide yo husband cause they rapin’ everybody out here.” It might as well be a warning against Fu Manchu.
I could go on about this guy, but let’s move on to the creation of a counterpoint to this crazy negative representation of a Chinese man: the model minority, exemplified best by another forgotten character of various media, detective Charlie Chan…also played by white men on film.
The idea of the “model minority” is that the white population values Chinese people as long as they try to assimilate into the mainstream values of white culture and avoid upsetting the “natural” order of things. They don’t cause any trouble, they do what they’re told, and mind their own business. Oh, and they definitely don’t get romantically involved with white women. In fact, Charlie Chan has absolutely no sexual/romantic interest of any sort. That desire doesn’t even exist. And he’s always spewing all kinds of nonsensical fortune-cookie-style aphorisms in broken English, like:
“Always someone about to stick fly in ointment.”
“A woman not made for heavy thinking, but should always decorate scene like blossom of plum.”
“Canary, unlike faithful dog, do not die for sympathy.”
“Good head always gets own new hat.”
You get the idea.
There are other stereotypical ideas about Chinese men on screen, often lumped together with other Asian groups. For example, the nerdy, geeky guy who’s typically depicted as an obnoxious loser. Probably one of the most well-known examples of this is the character embarrassingly named Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, whose every appearance on screen was followed by a loud gong on the film’s sound track. Sigh…terrible.
Anyway, one of the common threads among these stereotypes has to do with the characters’ sexuality, which is either so extreme that it’s dangerous, or so completely non-existent that they don’t even get a chance to pursue any kind of romantic relationship with a woman of another race/ethnicity. This is something that goes on through today, even with major Chinese crossover stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Jet Li’s Romeo Must Die – an urban retelling of one of the most famous romances in history – ends with the Romeo and Juliet counterparts, played by Li and the late hip-hop star Aaliyah, giving each other a sweet sibling-like hug before they part. Apparently preview audiences were unhappy with an ending where they were romantically linked. Same with Jackie Chan. He’s never had a serious relationship in any of his English-language films. He’s even stripped of his stereotypically male action hero ability to kill the villain in all three Rush Hour films. Go back and re-watch them. The main bad guys all die because they ultimately fall from really high heights. And I’m not even getting into how the bulk of the humor in Jackie Chan’s American films are based on audiences laughing at his broken English and general foreignness, instead of with him and his penchant for getting out of situations he doesn’t want to be in in wildly creative ways.
(Apparently I’m still pretty passionate about my MA thesis topic…)
So what does all of this very brief and totally incomplete overview have to do with Into the Badlands?
In the vast majority of Hollywood films and TV shows featuring a Chinese male in a prominent role, the audience is constantly being reminded of their Chineseness; that they are something other than the non-Chinese characters. By emphasizing the otherness in the way they talk, the things they say, the kung fu they know, the “weird” things they eat, the “strange” customs and traditions they enact, way too much of our media makes clear that they are not like the rest of “us.”
And this is exactly where I believe Into the Badlands stands apart from most other American productions: Sunny, as played by Daniel Wu, is just another dude. The extent to which his Chineseness takes center stage lies in the fact that as audiences we’re probably thinking “that guy looks Asian/Chinese.” We’re not reminded of his Chineseness by the way he talks because Sunny speaks English with no accent. We’re not reminded of his Chineseness by the wise and inscrutable Confucian wisdom he has to impart, because he’s just a guy trying to survive a crazy world. We’re not reminded of his Chineseness by his mad skillz in kung fu. All the “clippers” in the Badlands know martial arts. He just happens to be one of the best, but – importantly – not because he’s Chinese. He also has a romantic interest. And it’s a black woman! And – potential spoiler alert – he’s fertile too!
In other words, the most groundbreaking thing about the depiction of a Chinese man in Into the Badlands is the fact that if it was a white guy, it would be the complete opposite of groundbreaking.
Of course, this is all based on a single episode. I hope these things remain true throughout the run of the series. Some other things I look forward to seeing and maybe writing about another time: more references/quotations/homages to martial arts film history and an even stronger commitment to the martial arts film aesthetic, with wider shots and fewer cuts during fight scenes.
Either way, I’m in.