We’ve all seen this scene before: A white action hero parachutes into an East Asian city, introduced with a wide shot of a steely nighttime cityscape complete with glimmering skyscrapers and neon street signs. The characters quietly slink through the crowds of unnamed faces in subtle espionage or show up to a secret meeting with a stoic Asian gangster-type villain. At some point, the peace likely dissolves into havoc, with a wild foot pursuit or car chase scene.
When it comes to chase scenes in Hollywood action films, East Asian cities are a particularly alluring backdrop for film directors. In recent years, we’ve seen characters rip through the sleek, glossy towers of Shanghai in Skyfall and shove through the bustling crowds of Seoul, South Korea, in The Bourne Legacy. Most recently, our Wakanda heroes in Black Panther rolled up to Busan, South Korea, for a rare artifacts deal — which then triggered a nighttime car chase, naturally.
In recent years, East Asian cities have also been settings in films like Mission Impossible 3, Batman: The Dark Knight, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Avengers: Age of Ultron, both Blade Runner films, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and many more. Older James Bonds have been to Bangkok, Hong Kong and Tokyo several times.
At times, it’s textbook fetishization of Asian places, which are far too often treated as “exotic” and “different.” And in some cases, it’s a little more substantive than that.
“These scenes are shot very cinematically, right? So, on a positive note, it could be an appreciation for the locale and the setting,” Lisa Kwong, a lecturer of Asian American Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, said in an interview. “But at the same time, if it is just being used a background and not an essential part of the plot, then it becomes like a prop. There’s the possible issue of exoticism, of wanting to have these action-filled moments in exotic locales.”
East Asian cities are frequently seen as the center of futurism and technophelia. Tokyo, after all, is the birthplace of Toshiba and Sony; South Korea is the home of Samsung, LG and Hyundai. In some ways, it’s understandable these areas are appealing for sci-fi action films, where characters zip up supersuits and unleash their secret gizmos.
The odd part, however, is that the gadget-wielding protagonists are hardly ever Asian.
“Cities like Tokyo have always been seen through this sort of techno-orientalist kind of aesthetic, where the future has that ‘Asian’ type of visuality — but often without the Asian people,” Anthony Yooshin Kim, a visiting assistant professor of American Studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, said in an interview. “It’s often this kind of white Hollywood fetishization of Asian culture.”
The word “orientalism,” in terms of its modern definition, was coined in 1978 by Edward Said, who wrote a book of the same name. Today, the word is often used in cultural studies to describe a sort of western fabrication of Asia, which often paints it as one monolithic place, trend or style.
“It basically denotes a set of trope or themes or images where the ‘Orient’ — or Asia — is depicted as being exotic and ‘other’ and mysterious. It’s a place of titillation and secrets, but it’s always in opposition to the West,” Kim said. “My go-to example is the opening scene of Aladdin, where there’s that whole ‘Arabian Nights’ song. Orientalism is basically that: It’s not a real place populated by real people, but they’re just stereotypes, cardboard.”
This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the 2012 film Skyfall. James Bond drops into Shanghai, a city that’s introduced to viewers via wide shots of lit-up skyscrapers and the stereotypical sound of whistling flutes associated with China. It zooms in on the roof of one such skyscraper, where a shirtless Bond is swimming in the pool. Eventually, the film cuts to Bond waiting in the airport in a chauffeur disguise, and his white suspect of interest emerges from the crowds of Asian people walking by.
At another point in the movie, Bond visits a Macau casino introduced with a wide shot of floating candles and golden fireworks. He then literally rides a canoe past lanterns and into a dragon’s mouth.
But perhaps most telling of all is this quote from Skyfall screenwriter John Logan, whose choice of words in 2012 were precisely orientalist:
“What we were looking for was opposition to London,” Logan said, according to Business Insider. “We wanted exotic locations that seem so unlike the world that he grew up in, the world that he functions in, in a way trying to find places for Bond to be uncomfortable.”
Logan hit on exact phrases Asian American scholars and others have heard before. The perception that Asian settings are in “opposition” to the West, “exotic” or “uncomfortable” for white characters like Bond is no doubt problematic. And if the character simply drops in and out, one could argue that the plot falls short of homage to another culture.
“These are often just contemporary incarnations of the same thing, where you go to Asia [but] don’t actually engage with the people who live there,” Kim said. “It’s just another postcard setting for an exciting car chase that gives you a sense of color — something exotic to look at — and you ultimately just go to the next place.”
It’s not just Skyfall, though. In an almost identical (and admittedly beautiful) shot, The Bourne Legacy pans across a nighttime scene of Seoul before focusing in on a lit-up district. A Korean female character is introduced, walking down the street and speaking Korean on the phone. Oddly, the film doesn’t bother to translate what she’s saying using subtitles; it’s clearly not important. She’s then seen ascending an elevator into a high-rise office, where she purchases drugs. In the next scene, the camera shows a crowded Seoul subway — and then slowly reveals the woman, dead in her seat. On the movie’s IMDB page, her character is simply called “Outcome #4.”
One of the only Korean characters was effectively reduced to a prop.
“In one sense, [some of these films] could even be considered guilty of cultural appropriation — using the place or even the people there as objects that just advance the film,” Kwong said.
The alternative route in Black Panther
Black Panther has been celebrated as a game-changing film that has made serious inroads for black representation, strong female leads and damn good storytelling. It deserves all of those compliments.
In fact, some could even argue its “Bondian foray” into Busan — though not perfect — is a departure from the stereotypical, orientalist way of doing things.
“I think Black Panther is trying to do something different from others,” Kim said, noting that director Ryan Coogler chose Busan because it reminded him of his hometown of Oakland, California. “I just thought it was super interesting that he is talking about Busan in a way that he feels very close to it. … It’s not exactly him sort of re-inscribing the orientalism of other movies, but he’s also looking into these other forms of exchange going on.”
Black Panther’s Busan scenes do lack meaningful Korean characters. The only noteworthy line comes from an ajumma (middle-aged woman) named Sophia who speaks terrible Korean (some South Korean media reported that Lupita Nyongo’s Korean was easier to understand). The woman — played by Alexis Rhee, who was a geisha in the original Blade Runner — lets Black Panther’s Wakanda protagonists into a casino that looks strikingly similar to the one from Skyfall. That scene “loses the kind of specific connection that’s being made to Korea,” Kim said.
“There’s something idiosyncratic about the casino in the film, because it’s a space in Korea that’s only occupied by foreigners,” he added. “I felt like it was this imagination of Asia that isn’t really Korea-specific. Architecturally, what was going on in there didn’t feel very Korean, but rather a generic quote-unquote ‘Asian’ aesthetic.”
In any of these films, however, there are caveats to consider: Some setting choices could be an attempt to appeal to moviegoers in Asia, who are more likely to frequent the box office than Americans today. There’s possibly a logistical element, too, since countries like South Korea have government offices specifically designed to assist foreign filmmakers with location scouting and local hires. Plus, Busan in particular is known for its talented crews, extras and film festival culture.
But these considerations aside, orientalism in U.S. film is undeniably common — and the sudden drop-in car chases might not be going anywhere anytime soon.
“It’s so commonplace and generic and stereotypical,” Kim said, “but Hollywood also continues to do it.”