Is there anywhere that a group of flamboyant black Africans and a blond nebbish white guy (not to mention a well-armed clinically insane one-armed white guy) would stand out more than South Korea? Maybe they might pass more easily in Seoul, but we’re talking “Black Panther” and Busan.
So oversimplify the plot of “Black Panther,” Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Bosem) with women warriors Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) pursue bad guy Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who has a Wakandan weapon stolen from a museum in London. Klaue with his supposed henchman Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) turns up at a secret Busan casino. A US CIA agent is there as well when chaos ensues leading to a car chase on the streets of that city.
We don’t actually seem to know who’s running the casino hidden in the largest fish market in South Korea and none of the fishmongers seem to tell tall tales, something I guess best left to fishermen. Generally, if you’re able to maintain a high-class, high-rolling secret casino you have three things: Money and muscle and the mob. You probably want to screen your guests as well. Somehow, these are all a fail in “Black Panther,” because the crazy white guy gets a pass and a nod from the front door guardian, a middle-aged Korean woman (Alexis Rhee) with questionable fashion sense. I’m guessing after surveying the damage, the big boss behind the casino will have her offed.
Despite the meticulous amount of research the “Black Panther” team has done on Africa to create Wakanda, South Korea is just a cool backdrop for African and White Americans. If you watch Ryan Coogler breaking down the fight scene, you’ll see just how prominent Asians are even in Asia.
Maybe you can reason with the Communist Cold War continuing to chill the relations between North and South (outside of Olympic playgrounds) and a third-generation mad man dictator in control in the North and the recent admission of manipulating presidential elections, that the National Intelligence Service in South Korea has too much to do. The South Korean NIS wouldn’t be tracking down the activities of known US CIA agents nor would they be interested in wild and crazy guys who aren’t running and ruining countries nor do they concern themselves with caravans of large new SUVs cruising down the streets of major cities into major commercial interests. Why would they?
Then you’d have to ask: Why is South Korea the logical place for Ulysses Klaue to meet a white CIA operative to sell vibranium stolen in London?
Where is Asia, particularly East Asia, in the Marvel-verse? White men go to Asia to become superheroes like Doctor Strange and Iron Fist, but no Asians in Asia take that knowledge from the Ancient One or K’un-L’un and become superhero worthy.
The Avengers in the movie Marvel-verse draw from East Asia. According to the fight coordinator Jonathan Eusebio : Black Widow and Hawkeye do not have super powers or super suits so the actors Scarlett Johansson (as Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) have to train and “A lot of their training involved them working out together quite a bit. We cover a mix of different martial arts, but more practical martial arts; a mix of karate, jujitsu, judo, Filipino martial arts and Muay Thai boxing. It’s a bunch of different elements of a bunch of practical martial arts.”
According to an interview with Nyong’o in Collider, “Nakia’s fighting style is being informed by judo and ju-jitsu and silat, and Filipino martial arts and stuff like that.”
Karate, jujitsu and judo are Japanese (silat is Southeast Asian) but you won’t see a Japanese superhero. Korea also has martial arts, including taekwando which is, like judo, an Olympic sport. In the Olympics, Korean women have a fierce reputation in archery, but you won’t see a female Korean version of Hawkeye. South Korean men all serve a mandatory two years military service so South Korea has a male population capable of using military-grade weaponry and is ready to go to war against communism. Yet South Korea’s Busan gets no actors in the action. You do see some East Asians cowering and running in the casino scene in “Black Panther.” From the dirth of Asians, you might not even understand that the casino is in Asia.
By including Busan in the movie, one has to wonder just how does Asia fit in Killmonger’s plans for world domination? It’s not as if ethnic Asians have not been in Africa, including most prominently Mahatma Gandhi (1893-1914) and more recently, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the new owner of the Los Angeles Times. Asia has nearly two-thirds of the world population, with the Han Chinese alone making up one-fifth of the world population.
On Twitter, “Black-ish” had Dre complaining how most superheroes were Captain Unrelatable. For many East Asians, Bruce Lee is their only Captain Relatable and he died in 1973, a time when yellow face and whitewashing were still acceptable. Jet Li is another hero, but Li was not born in the US unlike Chaddwick Boseman, and their most heroic roles were in foreign movies. And it’s not as if there haven’t been black superheroes in the movie Marvel-verse: War Machine, Falcon, Nick Fury, Johnny Storm and Frozone plus a Valkyrie and Heimdall.
“Black Panther” would have been a better film without the side trip to Busan where Asians are thrown under the bus. It reminded me that at the 2016 Oscars, East Asians kids were the punchline and, the same year, a Chinese-American journalist, Michael Luo, tweeted about continued racism with the #ThisIs2016 .
In “Black Panther,” Busan’s only function is to punch up the action with little interest in the culture. The real cultural watershed in the US will be when black and white Americans can see Asia as more than an exotic backdrop and Asian Americans can be heroes in American films and not just sidekick or exotic background extra.