North Koreans invade Spokane, xenophobia invades box office

A North Korean army (or is it Chinese?) invades Spokane in the remake of Red Dawn, opening this weekend. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

A sunny morning in Spokane — shaggy green lawns, puffy clouds and compact SUVs parked outside of 100-year-old houses.

Then a boom, a rattling snow globe featuring the Space Needle and the blue sky fills with white parachutes.

The North Koreans have just invaded Washington state.

To children of the ’80s this might sound vaguely familiar. In the 1984 Cold War film “Red Dawn,” the Cubans invade a small town in Colorado, forcing a gang of teenagers (Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey) to form an insurgent militia to fight off the commies.

The remake, released this week, follows a similar script. Except it’s a new teenage gang (Avengers’ Chris Hemsworth, Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson, even Tom Cruise’s son Connor Cruise) and a new enemy.

Well, kind of.

If the North Koreans seem like an unlikely invading army, it’s because they weren’t the filmmaker’s first choice. That would have been China.

“The Chinese version was too much of a hot potato,” Red Dawn producer Tripp Vinson says.

The movie has been in production since 2008 and delayed because of financial problems with the distributor. Not because of concerns about insensitivity.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in this political moment having a problem with some good old-fashioned China-trashing. During the recent presidential foreign-policy debate my friends and I created a drinking game: take a swig of beer every time one of the candidates blames something on China. We got pretty tipsy.

“It seems that there is a cyclical concern about China. Every few years we’re back to ‘China’s about to take over and we have to worry about China,’” says LeiLani Nishime, a professor and Asian-American studies scholar at the University of Washington, “That’s kind of the safe target, it’s all right to bash China.”

Unless you might want to do business with them.


A controversial political ad from 2010 that resurfaced this election campaign, depicts a future where China has economically subjugated the US.

Vinson says he can’t speak for the motivations of the movie’s new distributors but assumes they were interested in accessing Chinese pocketbooks.

China is a profitable market for American movies. And I guess Chinese people aren’t that into watching stuff in which they’re portrayed as ruthless killing machines.

Who knew?

The evil-invader switcheroo happened late in production. Meaning that flags, dialogue and military symbols were changed after filming, raising concerns that the filmmakers cavalierly made a generic “Asian Villain Swap,” as blogger “Angry Asian Man” put it in a recent blog post.

And then there’s the fact that the movie is set in Spokane — apparently because it’s the West Coast (and thus closer to North Korea) and because Washington state is home to strategic military bases.

It struck me that the premise of the Red Dawn remake — hostile Asian invaders taking over our region and held at bay by courageous, mostly white teenagers — might be particularly troubling to Pacific Northwesterners.

We have a history with anti-Asian xenophobia, such as the Japanese internment during World War II and exclusion laws designed to curtail immigration from China. When I asked Vinson whether he’d considered our region’s history before setting the movie here, his response was “Not really, no. I’ve never lived up there so I wouldn’t know.”

I guess he’d never filmed here either — the movie is mostly shot in Michigan.

OK, so I’m getting pretty deep on a film that is essentially a teen coming-of-age action flick. All the geopolitical implications, racist stereotypes and xenophobia aside, Vinson is eager to point out that they had no intention of making a political film.

Even LeiLani Nishime says some of her friends are going to see it for the “beefcake and explosions.” (I promise they won’t be disappointed on that front.)

When it was released in 1984 the original Red Dawn made the the Guinness Book of World Records as the most violent movie ever made.

So what does a movie “designed to be an entertaining big action film,” as Vinson puts it, say about the times we live in?

The first Red Dawn spoke to a nation fighting against an amorphous enemy threatening its superpower status — a country emerging from recession but struggling with the implications of globalization and resulting economic competition.

That may all sound pretty contemporary.

But Cassie Chinn, deputy director of the Wing Luke Museum, says the difference is in the demographics. She argues that a more diverse, globally oriented and sensitized young America is less likely to respond to old narratives of “us vs. them” and invading foreigners.

“What I’m wondering,” Chinn muses, “Is will it feel like it’s too dated?”

Let’s hope so.

 

Red Dawn opens around the northwest Thanksgiving weekend. Or, for a more realistic view of US-China relations, you can catch former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr. on Dec. 4th at Kane Hall.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I live in Spokane & I am a mix of different ethnic races & I do not have any problem with how this movie was made, nor do I have an issue with the primary white actors that were cast for the movie… Just like racism, it does not matter if your white, black, Chinese, Mexican, Puerto Rican or Indian…. We are all human & love the same & want to protect our loved ones as well as our own lives & that’s what this movie is about “protecting whom & what you love”

  2. I truly enjoyed this article. As an expat with a background in journalism living in “real” China (i.e., not Hong Kong/Shanghai/Beijing), I’ve had the privilege of experiencing both sides of the US vs. China coin. Xenophobia and cultural mistrust abounds on both sides, but we seem to be indefatigable bedfellows. I envision a future where our nations will be able to work together more comfortably, but in the meantime, the tremendous differences in the way we think, eat, act, talk, and approach EVERYTHING in life will continue to create a divide between us. This is a very meaty topic and one into which I hope you will continue to sink your teeth!

  3. I saw the original Red Dawn as a teenager with my Mom in the 80′s. Even then, I knew it blew. Maybe because I was a little Sandinista living in the Midwest. Or maybe the “heroes” reminded me of all the jocks with corny nicknames I despised. But no surprise Hollywood, which ran out of ideas years ago, would revive this schlock with it’s two dimensional patriotism.

    Now the North Koreans, who can barely keep the lights on, are attacking the Pacific Northwest? I’m sure the moving script makes up for the farce of a plot…but I doubt there’s much care put into reminding the office that the “Asian enemy” is human, too. That China political ad was one of many low points during the campaign. But beautifully shot! It’s spending, not two wars, that is “bankrupting” America after all. Right? That’s what the producers of Red Dawn would like you to believe of course…

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