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Updated Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 10:46 PM

Cold War film 'Red Dawn' makes political switcheroo

By Sarah Stuteville
Special to The Seattle Times

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.

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.)

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.

Sarah Stuteville, co-founder of SeattleGlobalist.com, writes a weekly column on the region's international connections. She can be reached at sarah@clpmag.org and on Twitter: @clpsarah


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