Lost in Sinophobia: The Mummy 3, Hero, and China on the World Stage

I watched The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in the summer of last year, and I have wanted to write something about it ever since, but things like thesis and TESOL and moving to China got in the way. Before you get excited, I have to say that I don’t have many good things to say about it.

Well, the good thing I have to say about it is that the director, Rob Cohen, really seemed to have put his being into it. Watching the Director’s Commentary is like watching a completely different movie, almost like a historical documentary, because he explains with enthusiasm the historical details of the Emperor’s tomb , the contraptions in the tomb and their technological significance, etc. His fascination with China comes through clearly, and it’s passed my green light for not being an Orientalist rant. As the movie shows the first sights of the tomb, Cohen says, “The horses and chariots you see in the back of each frame, these are magnificent things you can see at the tomb site in Xi’An, at the museum, if you’re so lucky as to be able to go to China to see this, it’s something you will never never never forget.”

Cohen seems to have a lot of archeological knowledge about the Xi’an tomb. For example, he says that he tried to model the tomb in the movie on the actual tomb. He added details like the astrolabe, even though it wasn’t invented until later in history, just because he thinks of it as a Chinese technological breakthrough that should have screentime. The vapourized mercury put in place to kill grave robbers and the crossbows were all “true Chinese design.” He explains the significance of water wheels for Chinese irrigation. It goes beyond just oggling at foreign curiosities. Cohen says that in the movie, he made the emperor buried under the rest of the tomb based on the fact that Chinese archeologists actually discovered that there might be an underground chamber, but also tells the viewers that China doesn’t want to dig it up yet. He says he understands that finding the actual remains of Emperor Qin might be a “complicated idea” for Chinese people even though as an enthusiast for this sort of thing, he doesn’t quite understand why. To rein in his enthusiasm and to admit that he doesn’t understand is quite an achievement.

Cohen ends the commentary by saying he normally doesn’t agree to direct sequels because he doesn’t want to beat a dead horse, however his love for China made him take on this project. You can hear from his voice that he probably means it, especially when he begins with Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong’s beauty as a metaphor for how he wants the viewer to appreciate China. “”I look at the beauty of Isabella and Michelle, the face of Asia is what I wanted a lot of people to see in the film, to look and feel my love and respect for Asian culture, Asian cinema, and Asian history.” Normally, my hackles would be rising at a White man gushing about how pretty Asian women are, but in this case I feel that Rob Cohen is being humble enough vis-a-vis his object and not boiling in White superiority: the beginning of the film shows a map of the world, and the point of view of the camper focuses on China as if the viewer was falling into it. Cohen explains, “I wanted to make sure that the audience understood the relationship between North America and China, and to get the feeling of the scale of that country, and its position in the world.”

Granted. Cohen loves China. The problem is that unless you watch the director’s commentary, you don’t really take away the relationship between China and the world that Cohen seems to want you to get. The Wikipedia article on this movie says that Chinese reactions has been negative, and cites Perry Lam’s article in Muse, which says that the move is a “clever and malicious political metaphor” for the rise of contemporary China. This is exactly what I was thinking as I was watching it. Chinese products are flooding the Western market; the master depends on the slave even if the slave works in a sweatshop thousands of miles away because if all the women and children in sweatshops do go on strike, the master has absolutely nil. China is a power that can stand up to Western imperialist powers, for good or for ill, evident in China’s stance against the Western powers regarding Libya and willing to say that they are not necessarily liberating heroes. I’m not saying that everything that China does is right (this blog is usually blocked, after all. Today somehow I managed to log on and this is why I’m writing like crazy), but at least it serves to balance out some of the Western powers’ self-righteousness.

This obviously makes the western world nervous, and it’s evident in this movie. On the one hand, you have the Qin Emperor, who wants to enslave humanity for no apparent reason, and on the other hand, you have the British + American duo, Rick and Evy O’Connell, whose mission is again to protect humanity. Especially with the problems that the West has with China’s human rights record, it’s very easy to slip into portraying China as an old, peculiar nation with their cruel habits of dealing with their people. Historically, the Qin Emperor did mobilize a huge number of people to build the Great Wall and probably did treat them without today’s conception of human rights, but the Emperor Qin mummy’s megalomaniac speech is a little over the top. “Today you wake to a world in the grip of chaos and corruption. I will restore order, I will retain what is mine. I will crush any idea of freedom. I will slaughter without mercy. I will conquer without compassion,” the Emperor Qin mummy says. Wow. Where’s Rob Cohen’s love of China now? In the end, the China of the movie just seems like a superpower poised to take over the world.

Emperor Qin Mummy is just a stereotypical villain – there isn’t even a love of his life thing to soften his evil like there was for Imhotep in the last two movies. However, General Yang, the under-villain if you will, is rather interesting. I feel bad because Anthony Wong, the actor for this role, is capable of extremely poignant nuance, and there really wasn’t many places to show that in this movie. However, he does tell Emperor Qin mummy, “I love this country. Only you can bring it back to greatness.” So, instead of being the incarnation of pure evil, he’s just a patriotic guy who is resorting to extreme means. In the actual historical time period that this movie is set in, China was extremely chaotic, since the Japanese invasion in WWII had just ended and the Communists and the ROC would start duking it out in the Chinese Civil War. Perhaps resorting to extreme means is understandable. However, you own community’s patriots are called patriots, but another community’s patriots are called fanatics. Never mind that in Rick and Evy, you have the union of the two strongest imperialist powers in the West, America and Britain; they’re still heroes and General Yang, his lovely sidekick, and Emperor Qin mummy are still doomed to defeat as the villains. Shanghai is the way it is in the movie and in actual history, eclectic, because each foreign country that came to China carved out a piece of it to be their own territory. Rick and Evy’s chase for archeology is never presented as imperialism, whereas Imhotep’s and Emperor Qin’s ambitions are always presented as such. Rick says that the Eye of Shangri-La “belongs to the Chinese people.” That’s a wonderful sentiment, but I don’t know how much that reflects reality. If you go to the British Museum, there are tons of artifacts that should belong to the people of X country but are not in X country.

One thing about General Yang’s resorting to extreme measures bothers me in ways that go beyond the world of the movie. General Yang is willing to support an incarnation of pure evil to achieve his means, but what about the Chinese actors? The movie is an adventure movie, a 3rd sequel whose greatest intention is to thrill and dazzle. On top of that, it portrays China in a rather villainous light, despite its pretty astrolabes. Yet three of China’s top actors, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Anthony Wong star in this movie. It seems that Chinese actors are resorting to some extreme measures to be exposed to the international audience. Exposure might bring the Chinese movie industry into greatness, but if General Yang’s approach is misguided, I think the actors’ approach is also misguided. I am not saying that Hollywood is an incarnation of pure evil like Emperor Qin mummy is, but appearing in foreign films just so that you can be more known outside China, without careful consideration about what kind of message you are endorsing, is wrong.

I am especially disappointed about Jet Li’s role in this movie, given that he played the lead role in the movie Hero. Hero is a very nuanced movie, despite Zhang Yi Mou’s dazzling colours and the actors’ martial arts performances. Its structure is like the Japanese movie Rashomon, where many different versions of the same story is told, and different “truths” emerge depending on which version you believe. In Hero, Jet Li plays the assassin (named “Nameless”) that comes to kill the Qin Emperor, because the Emperor is conquering too many lands and is getting too powerful. He gains an audience with the Emperor and does not reveal who he is at first; he pretends that he supports the Emperor and brings out the swords of other assassins who have failed in their task and tells the story of how he defeated them. For example, a lover’s quarrel between two of the assassins made it easy for them to defeat each other. However, in the end the Emperor detects that he is not telling the truth, no matter how many times he has told the story. In the end the Emperor realizes that the nameless assassin is about to kill him. However, the nameless assassin tells the truth. One of the lovers, who came close to killing the Emperor, realized at the last moment that a unification of China is not necessarily a bad thing, despite the sacrifices that are taking place. His lover, unable to comprehend his change of heart, refuses to speak to him, and that is the real reason of their quarrel. Rather than being defamed, Emperor Qin is a hero in Chinese culture, as he standardized the Chinese language as well as many other factors, long before most of the cultures in Europe had an idea of what a nation is. In other words, he had a great vision that most people didn’t understand. Jet Li’s nameless assassin also realizes this and decides to walk out without completing his mission. However, Emperor Qin orders him to be killed because he was a rebel who wanted to assassinate his king. Emperor Qin did not want to do this, but his law demands it; he looks on and sheds one tear as the palace archers execute the one man in the nation who truly understands his vision.

Jet Li’s role and the portrayal of Emperor Qin in Hero makes the Emperor Qin–supervillain role in The Mummy 3 extremely frustrating. If other actors didn’t pick up on the bland one-sided portrayal of China and the Emperor in The Mummy 3, at least Jet Li should have, having acted in at least 3 versions of the assassination plot of the same Emperor and portrayed a character who died as a result of an epiphany about another point of view. The director’s love and respect for China and the actors’ desire to push Chinese cinema onto the international stage just gets lost in action sequences, special effects, and an extreme fear of Chinese power. Especially with the actors, a desire to partake in either soft power or capitalist glory has created a kind of self-betrayal. The problem with The Mummy 3 is exactly why I wasn’t thrilled about the 300 movie, even though most people were awed and impressed by it, because it turned a decent comic into a pretty piece of Islamophobic propaganda. Of course international criticism is necessary to keep each other in line, however there is no point in pandering to international fear-mongering. Perhaps sometimes art and literature is to help its audience diffuse their tensions, such as the countless Japanese villains in Chinese TV programs giving Chinese viewers an outlet for the bitterness of WWII, but there is a point where such things can just continue to fuel pointless hatred while not really suggesting any concrete solutions. Viewers can’t go to China and defeat a 5000 year old incarnation of pure evil and save the day, and those involved in filmmaking ought to give more thought about what kind of connotation the film has.

The rant ends here, though I have to say, I am apprehensive for the same reasons about a movie version of The Horse and His Boy form the Narnia series, because the book is loaded with firepits of discrimination towards the Middle East. I’m sorry to say that my own idea of what the Middle East is like is very much coloured from reading Narnia books when I was younger.

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One thought on “Lost in Sinophobia: The Mummy 3, Hero, and China on the World Stage

  1. Pingback: Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills, Part 4: The Crack (Gulf) Between « Radical Compounds

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