When White Film Characters Go to East Asia, This Happens
When movies insert a white character into an environment in which they’re a minority, one of two things generally happen: the film becomes a traveler’s fantasy or a white savior story. From a retired-Marine substitute teacher, to an immortal MI-6 agent, to Sam Worthington inhabiting the body of a blue alien, we're guaranteed “profound” cultural change and an assortment of exotic landscapes before credits roll — unless that character is in East Asia.
Hollywood's white tourist and savior tropes are the Steve Nash of movies: fun to watch for a little bit, respectable in their evolution, and ultimately, old and tired. If a movie like Hard Ball is predictable, it’s because the deadbeat-with-a-good-heart lead was once Neo, hero of The Matrix, while a movie like Casino Royale is interesting because the carpet is constantly pulled out from under a guy who we know will always land on his feet. The white character inevitably glides through every far-flung locale with universal fluency and five passports, and more often than not, forges an “unlikely” bond with people who, at the film's onset, seemed both incredibly foreign and entirely hopeless.
Despite this consistency in the depiction of Caucasians characters in a minority context, one region has remained relatively immune to cinematic colonization: East Asia.
Set in downtown Tokyo, Lost In Translation participates in this savior vs. tourist conflict, as its main characters want to both enjoy and change the culture they’re in. However, most Hollywood films set in Tokyo, like The Wolverine, have less ambitious characters. In The Wolverine, the main character, Logan, travels to Japan because he yearns to be mortal, only to escape, thankful to be alive. He saves a girl in the process, but no greater cultural perspective is provided, and by the time he’s on a plane out of he country, his survival is considered success enough. Although he's a superhero, Hugh Jackman’s Logan doesn’t achieve half of what, say, Gerard Butler’s Machine Gun Preacher does in Sudan. Logan's experience in Japan is emblematic of Hollywood’s portrayal of Asian-Caucasian relations.
In fact, no white character traveling in East Asia ever emerges as a bastion of cultural superiority. Instead, such characters find themselves fundamentally changed by their experience. In 1992’s Mr. Baseball, an ailing player is traded to a Japanese team, and doesn’t see success on the field until he accepts the lessons taught by his coach and predominantly Asian teammates. The film The Last Samurai — probably the closest thing to a white savior movie set in East Asia — ultimately ends with Tom Cruise's formerly alcoholic and traumatized Nathan Algren finding peace not by returning to the West, but back to the village that once held him captive.
Having lived in China for two years now, I find that Hollywood's depiction of white characters in East Asian environments epitomizes the simultaneous exhaustion and elation that can come from living abroad. As you walk down roads that are older than the United States itself, with an iPhone stuck to your face, it's hard to focus on anything other than shifting your feet and avoiding the throngs of people swirling around you. Unfamiliar surroundings and situations come at you so quickly and consistently that you have to stop looking outward, and begin looking in. There’s no time for a white character to “save” or shape a East Asian cultures, because they’re too preoccupied with just surviving in them.