Hollywood reveals its true colours in use of yellow peril

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 00:00

Life was so much simpler when everybody knew whom he or she was supposed to hate. The Irish hated the English. The Scottish really hated the English. The English pretended they hated the Germans, but actually hated the French. The Americans hated the Russians. The Russians and the Chinese hated each other. Webs of prejudice bound humanity together in a parcel of poisonous animosity.

Popular culture thrived on these often arbitrary loathings. Until as late as the mid-1980s, evil, fat humourless Germans served as the staple villains in British comics. James Bond’s main antagonists were the Russians, but the spy managed to graze across the entire smorgasbord of late-colonial bigotry.

Ian Fleming’s suave thug neatly leads us towards a consideration of current discontents in the field of pop-cultural jingoism. In Goldfinger, Fleming writes: “Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms. Those terms included putting Odd-Job or any other Korean firmly in place, which in Bond’s estimation was lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.”

The phrase will cause (or should cause) the contemporary reader to rock back in astonishment. The Bond of the books was always a much less lovable character than the cheery drunk who shagged his way through the movies. But “lower than the apes”? Let’s just pretend the views are the character’s and not the author’s. Shall we? Mind you, a glance at current mainstream entertainment suggests Mr Bond’s particular hierarchy of prejudice may be coming back into fashion.

Chief baddies

Things got a bit complicated when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Up to that point, Hollywood understood who the chief baddies were. The loss of the Soviet threat catapulted the studios into an awful state of confusion.

The threat from al-Qaeda and related Islamist terror cells seemed to fill the gap, but too many qualifications had to be made. As George W Bush found to his political cost, you can’t really declare war on a faction or an idea or a strategy. Forget the “War on Terror”. We want a war against a proper country.

Enter North Korea. Next week, more than three years after passing before cameras, Dan Bradley’s dreadful remake of Red Dawn, an unhinged 1980s cold war fantasy, opens in Irish cinemas. Delayed by the collapse of MGM studios, the film-makers had time to react to changes in world affairs.

The original film, directed by the red-blooded John Milius, concerned a surprise attack by Soviet forces on the United States.

The new picture settled upon China as an enemy. Chinese actors were hired. The tanks and propaganda all carried Chinese symbols and slogans. Hollywood had finally settled upon a permanent antagonist.

One wonders how the subsequent conversation went. As the receivers rifled through MGM’s change jar, a dawning realisation came over those people saddled with flogging this unlovely product. Nobody had to worry about responses to The Spy Who Loved Me in the USSR. But China was fast becoming a major market for US films. Depicting that nation as a rapacious yob-state suddenly seemed like a frightfully bad idea.

Cultural barbarity

Keepers of the Hollywood flame have committed their fair share of outrages over the years. But what followed did, even by those degraded standards, break new ground in the field of cultural barbarity. The studio inserted a prologue detailing the sinister rise of North Korea and digitally changed the Chinese military livery into symbols of that smaller nation. Obviously, there was no need to make alterations to the faces of the actors. Koreans and Chinese look just the same. Don’t they? Heck, we used to get Anthony Quinn to play Greeks, Arabs and Turks. They’re all foreign. Right?

A full eight years ago, in their peerless satire Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, predicted the emergence of North Korea as Villain Nation. How right they were. This week, the US even had a “Hanoi Jane” moment when somebody called Dennis Rodman – a basketball player, I believe – was pictured snuggling up to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Now, it cannot be denied that Kim has done nothing much to counteract his country’s vilification. On Wednesday, a spokesman for Pyongyang’s foreign ministry defended its right to “pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the headquarters of the aggressors”.

That means the United States. The distributors of Red Dawn can, one imagines, hardly believe their luck.

For all that, the organically derived decision to identify North Korea as the US’s contemporary villain of choice comes across as a depressingly unreconstructed move. The entertainment moguls get away with it because that People’s Republic has no great financial leverage abroad and no political voice within the United States. The Koreatowns of Los Angeles and New York do not teem with supporters of the communist regime.

Life is simple again. Hollywood has rediscovered the yellow peril.

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