Movies & TV

Does Jackie Chan's Exciting New Movie Have Racist Undertones?

Let’s hope that the reimagining is more sensitive.
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Early yesterday, STX Entertainment dropped the first international trailer for The Foreigner, a new action movie starring Jackie Chan, directed by Casino Royale’s Martin Campbell, and slated for release later this year.

Comparisons to 2008’s Taken were drawn immediately, because the movie seems to have an incredibly similar premise: After his daughter is taken from him (by an act of terror, in the case of The Foreigner), one man embarks on a solo quest for retribution that puts him up against a shadowy organization which he must defeat using his fists, his wits, and his very particular set of skills. It also stars a very Irish Pierce Brosnan, Cho Chang, and Roose Bolton—so there’s more than enough to be excited about.

But for most folks, it was exciting enough in itself to know that Jackie Chan would again be kicking ass and taking names as only Jackie Chan can. He was 61 years old when The Foreigner began shooting in February of last year, and based on the trailer, it looks like he’s still very much at it.

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And while The Foreigner does look like it could be a solid, action-packed joyride, it’s interesting to consider its source material: a 1992 novel by Stephen Leather, entitled The Chinaman. The name is itself enough to sound a few alarms, as the word “chinaman” is used pejoratively in Western culture, and is considered racist. But it gets even more alarming with a look at the book’s official synopsis on the author’s website:

 

The Chinaman understood death.

Jungle-skilled, silent and lethal, Nguyen Ngoc Minh had killed for the Viet Cong and then for the Americans. Imprisoned and tortured after the Communist victory, he escaped with his wife and baby daughter to Hong Kong—but only after being forced to watch Thai pirates rape and kill his two eldest daughters.

Now the proud owner of the Double Happiness Chinese takeaway in South London, he watches his daughter grow into a beautiful young woman, secure in the knowledge that the horrors of his homeland are finally behind him.

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Until the day an IRA bomb in a Knightsbridge store snatches his family from him in a horrific maelstrom of fire and glass.

Then, simply but persistently, he began to ask the authorities who were the men responsible, what was being done. And was turned away, fobbed off, treated as a nuisance.

Which was when the Chinaman, denied justice, decided on revenge. And went back to war.

 

So “the Chinaman” isn’t even actually Chinese—he’s Vietnamese. And he owns a Chinese take-out restaurant. Now, it’s been argued that the novel acknowledges these discrepancies, and makes that racism a part of what fuels the character’s anger. But it’s still difficult to imagine that a novel called The Chinaman would make it to press without offending anyone today, which is probably why they went with a much friendlier title for the film adaptation.

A quick look at the character’s passport in the trailer shows that he’ll still be Vietnamese, whereas Jackie Chan himself is from Hong Kong. Whether or not the themes of racism will be tackled in the movie is yet unclear, but let’s hope for a sensitive reimagining either way.

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Miguel Escobar
Assistant Features Editor for Esquire Philippines
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