The Foreigner, an action thriller directed by Martin Campbell and written by David Marconi, stars Jackie Chan as a Vietnamese restaurateur, Ngoc Minh Quan, seeking revenge for the death of his daughter in a department store bombing by a group calling themselves the “Authentic IRA.” Quan interrogates former leader of the IRA, Liam Hennessy, who claims to know nothing about the bombing, but admits his involvement in the incident after Quan sets off a homemade bomb in his office. The movie centers around Quan’s role in searching for the individual behind the bombings, as he confronts and fights many people before discovering the true mastermind. Overall, The Foreigner was a conventional action movie, just a bit late to join the bandwagon of plots with older, unsuspecting characters embarking on a thrilling journey to exact revenge. However, the film’s debut provoked public discourse on the ethics of mix-and-match casting of Asian characters in Hollywood.
The script reads as simple scaffolding for what could have been a much stronger film, with weak dialogue leading to gratuitous fight scenes. The plot attempts to hold the audience’s attention with obvious plot points and “twists.” Typically, Jackie Chan movies involve martial arts, making use of the actor’s background in karate, judo, taekwondo, and jeet kune do. However, because he is aging, Chan’s typecast of the action hero was put to rest. Instead, The Foreigner combines the expected action hero figure with a character emotionally invested in a particular subject—in this case, his daughter. This is against the usual type role for Chan, an actor who for many years was one of the only representatives for Asian Americans in mainstream media, although one deeply entrenched in Otherness.
Based on the 1992 novel, The Chinaman, written by Stephen Leather, the movie also employs the level of racial insensitivity illustrated by the book’s title. Written by a white author, The Chinaman is a racial slur, one assuming the inherent sameness of all Asian people. Hollywood has long adopted this policy, failing to emphasize the importance of ethnicity-specific casting.
Similar issues arise upon examining Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Fresh Off the Boat, where Asian actors portray characters of different Asian descent, perpetuating the stereotype that all Asians look the same and are interchangeable; Asian actresses frequently portray masseuses, sex workers, or submissive characters. Directors hold the authority to find an accurate Asian accent “not suitable” for the role and select an actor of different ethnic descent than the actual character—even whitewashing Asian characters such as Major in Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson , Allison Ng with Emma Stone in Aloha, and Mr. Yunioshi with Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Asian actors’ available roles are often limited to stereotypes: tech nerds, doctors, and effeminate characters, as in the case of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, the sexually inexperienced and emasculated, harmless but still villainized exchange student. While Chan’s character, Quan, is by no means emasculated, he is one-dimensional and his backstory and motives remain underdeveloped. Repeatedly, the directors attempt to compensate for sub-par writing with the starpower of their lead, as well as frequent fight scenes.
Chan’s career can be directly contrasted with Bruce Lee’s, another Chinese-American actor known for his skills in martial arts, but who positively influenced the way Asians were represented in American media. Lee’s roles in martial arts films sparked widespread interest in Chinese martial arts and demonstrated Chinese nationalist sentiment. His personalized martial arts philosophy of jeet kune do (the way of intercepting fist) later influenced Chan’s approach to martial arts. However, unlike Lee, Chan actively profits off Hollywood directors’ willingness to disregard racial history and ethnic-specificity in casting. Now, Jackie Chan is a household name most commonly associated with a film about Chinese martial arts, an objective fact that when isolated does not mean too much. But to accurately weigh his significance to Asian-American representation, one must consider the defining sentiment of his career: Asia is homogenous. This assumption implies that the continent shares a singular culture and exoticizes the experience of all Asian-Americans, many of whom face discrimination because of the model minority myth.
However, as more Asian filmmakers encroach on Hollywood’s predominantly white arena, directors such as Jon M. Chu start to integrate correct casting methods into their approach. While casting for the show Crazy Rich Asians, based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan, Chu specifically searches for aspiring Asian and Asian-American actors. In an interview with Buzzfeed (2017), Chu notes, “When I do a ‘regular’ movie with Caucasian actors as the leads, … actors are everywhere.” Stereotypical representation in mainstream media is a direct result of a lack of roles written for Asian actors. Many Asian actors now rely on accents and their willingness to undertake typecasting roles to actually land significant parts.
Asian actors lack exposure today simply because Hollywood directors prefer to cast known Asian names such as Jackie Chan, rather than search for an ambitious and ethnically correct actor. This leads to the underrepresentation of Asians in film, especially Southeast Asians such as the Vietnamese Quan in The Foreigner. This movie is just another example of the stunning mediocrity Hollywood can achieve when disregarding their developing audience, as well as the number of talented, ethnically diverse actors available to them.