The Foreigner: The Idolatry of Jackie Chan

To explain cultural phenomena in my own words may be what attracted me to blogging in the first place. It probably informs what I write about in this blog more. Even though I consume a lot of media, I don’t always write about them unless I can find something worth talking about.

But it is tougher to recognize the phenomena if you are part of it in the first place. Beatles fans don’t recognize they are part of a “Beatlemania” and not all Harry Potter fans are going to analyze the sociological impacts of the franchise onto the world. We prefer not to see ourselves as test subjects. Academia has the great benefit of being the outsider, but their analysis are however out of touch. That is unfortunate because these “movements”, for lack of a better word, are fascinating to examine about and tell a lot about how we engage with media.

Jackie Chan may not be the John Lennon and Daniel Radcliffe of the British’s eye, but he is seen as a cultural hero to many Chinese around the world. He is the one figure mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese, Singaporean Chinese, Indonesian Chinese, and other diasporas all agree on: he is someone to aspire to. While Donnie Yen, Chow-Yun Fat, Jet Li, and many more have appeared on the silver screen, it is Jackie Chan’s sense of humor and his insistence on punishing his human body for entertainment that brought everyone to sit down and enjoy his films with a bag of popcorn. He is the successor to Bruce Lee for good reason.

I’ve been watching Jackie Chan films since god knows when. Whenever RCTI and Indosiar — Indonesian television channels — showed literal camrips of Jackie Chan films, I would watch it with my family. My mom would tell me about how modern Hong Kong was and why Jackie Chan was important.

So I got obsessed with the actor. I know about the stuntmen who fell down from the second story of the double decker bus in New Police Story. I have seen him parade through a western with Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon. I know he is in some adult film. You can apparently see his butt. I have seen the guy in person at Singapore and I even had wushu classes because of him. Writing this post made me realize Jackie Chan is one of the big reasons I am into film today.

I’m not going to lie: it is a bit hard to distance myself from the figure himself. Hence, the long intro. He oozes a passion for films and never betrays that sincerity for money. His worst films — and he has many lately — tend to be braindead, with him showcasing his mastery of martial arts as the only high point of the film. But the actor-cum-filmmaker has never flaunted about his success. He sees himself as a humble man surrounded by a family of friends whom he treasures a lot. The viral clip of him reuniting with his stunt team, Team Jackie Chan, shows that his love for people is indeed genuine.

So it is a surprise as a Chinese to watch The Foreigner, a film adaptation of the book The Chinaman. Jackie Chan is a Chinese immigrant in London named Ngoc Minh Quan (a lampshade of a name — originally the book has a Vietnamese protagonist, which we will get to later) and he just wants a peaceful life. He isn’t an archaeologist trying to find historical artifacts in India like in Kungfu Yoga nor is he a hardboiled cop who has to jump on buses to chase someone. Ngoc Minh Quan is an ordinary man who wants nothing of the thrills and adventure in movies. He has seen the worsts of the Vietnam War and wants to lead a peaceful life with his daughter.

Until tragedy strikes. A bomb has set off in a bank of London, taking away his only relation in life.

Ngoc Minh Quan thus harasses the British police for the names of the terrorists who have incited this plot.

Meanwhile, Pierce Brosnan’s character, Liam Hennessy, finds himself in a political web of complication when it is revealed that the terrorist group may have been a recent incarnation of the group he had once led. An unfortunate position to be in when he is the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. He came to power precisely to put Northern Ireland on a better position on the negotiating table than it could have fighting for independence. However, he is seen as a traitor in Northern Ireland for selling out to the British and it’s not like the Parliament could trust the man either. He was a terrorist after all.

To make matters worse, Quan sees him in an interview and starts harassing him for answers too. In fact, Quan moves to Northern Ireland, leaving his Chinese restaurant behind, to ask Hennessy in his office for the names. Quan, frustrated by Hennessy’s non-answer, goes to the bathroom with a bag of groceries and leaves the toilet with a homemade bomb. That “Chinaman” means serious business.

Thus begins the unlikely conflict between a politician who strives for appeasement and reconciliation through Machiavellian means and a Chinese immigrant who could not grieve and move on until he finds the answers.

For Pierce Brosnan, this is a return to the silver screen with the director of Goldeneye. But this is a rather strange taking for Jackie Chan. That fact could be glimpsed early on with the Chinese title of The Foreigner. There’s no way the Chinese would understand the implications of its English title, let alone the original title. The word, “Chinaman”, is an offensive slur used for Chinese immigrant labor in the West. The Foreigner is a great choice to describe the alienated Other figure the film is going for. It’s like Jackie Chan doesn’t belong in this film and that’s why it works. But the Chinese title can’t get all that in. Instead, they went with 英倫對決 (Yīnglún duìjué) — it translates to something like The England Duel. It misses the postcolonialist aspect entirely and transforms the immigrant story into a battle of wits between Bruce Lee’s successor and James Bond.

That’s understandable because no one has ever seen a Jackie Chan acting out a vulnerable, grieving father before. He may have received US Special Forces training, but he is still a dad. The fight scenes are guerilla warfare styled or street brawls, none of the chair swinging scenes and pole action you’d expect in a Jackie Chan film. He is just an immigrant trying to understand the politics of the United Kingdom and how that ended up killing his daughter.

No one is prepared to see Jackie Chan’s character be degraded as a Chinaman. He knows the dangers of nationalism back in Vietnam and China, but he never makes a political statement. Hennessy talks about Irish coexistence with England, but Quan wants simple cold-blooded justice for the death of his daughter. It is as straightforward as it can get.

There are still scenes that show Jackie Chan outwitting the goons Hennessy sends; those scenes will always make any Chinese person go crazy. Whether it is Jet Li beating the crap out of a boxer in Fearless, Donnie Yen obliterating 10 Japanese Judo masters in Ip Man 1, or even a Chinese chef owning a European chef in some food competition show, that will always make me smile. It’s a source of pride — irrational, racist, and xenophobic as they may be — over years of colonialism and being looked down upon. But the fight scenes have a hue of sorrow and desperation. They aren’t cool or anything. They show the utter exhaustion and grief Ngoc Minh Quan has in his sixty year old body and they explode with every kick.

Which is why I had a difficult time believing this was a Jackie Chan film. Inside me, I thought there’s going to be some crazy death-defying stunt like that Who Am I? scene where he slides down a skyscraper. But no, it’s just political intrigue after political intrigue and grief after grief. Righteousness and justice blur into each other as the film dives deeper into the darker territories of the human heart.

Ngoc Minh Quan is thus one of the most memorable roles Jackie Chan has ever played. Quan’s melancholia is the film’s driving force and is the reason why Hennessy goes berserk at the end. Grief, not love, conquers all.

But there is one stinking irony in the whole business. The original book, The Chinaman, involves a Vietnamese father who is often called a Chinaman as he tries to figure out the trappings of the Irish Republican Army. Casting Jackie Chan took out that Vietnamese character away. His history in Vietnam as a Chinese-Vietnamese is still apparent in the film, but the “Chinese-” part is obviously added in to make the casting more palatable. You could certainly argue it didn’t matter and a white person wrote the book, but that heavy cloud of Orientalism loomed on my mind.

There are accusations that Jackie Chan is a Chinese attempt to wash away Chinese colonialism in Vietnam and I did get the impression of that when I heard about the film. The actor is from Hong Kong — a British colony for most of its history — however, but his ties to Beijing still make it hard to swallow.

Considering that the alienation as an immigrant is why The Foreigner worked, I find it a tad strange they didn’t hire a Vietnamese actor. I suppose Jackie Chan is the more recognizable figure in films and that’s what sells.

Even though I do love Jackie Chan’s performance in the film, I could not help but feel the integrity of the rather smart plot ruined by this bizarre casting. Brosnan is authentic when he displays utter confusion about what it means to be Irish in the United Kingdom. His whole character is all about Northern Ireland’s independence during the 90s and it is a shocking parallel to the recent Scottish attempt at independence as well.

For all its realism — there’s a scene that hit way too close to the real-life London terror attacks — it fails to cast a real-life Vietnamese immigrant. There are many Vietnamese immigrants in London and beyond. They are one of the many people who have been called Chinamen and looked down upon as pests, the same way Ngoc Minh Quan got during the film. It’s a film about representation except it didn’t really do well in the representation part. I can’t help but see it as a pot calling the kettle black.

As much as I enjoy the film for showing the more sensitive side of Jackie Chan — and I really do — it is important to not forget the hypocrisy in the film. I don’t blame Jackie Chan or any of the people in the film; they have done a wonderful job as much as they could. But the film’s progressivism is half-baked.

I still do think Jackie Chan is a real life hero. His portrayal of Ngoc Minh Quan is sentimental and affectionate when he hugs his dead daughter on the scene. It is a Jackie Chan we’ve never seen before. Throughout the film, he is glum and he never breaks out a smile. He expresses himself in tears and cries of agony. At one point, Jackie Chan is seen with real life bruises and cuts for the sake of Quan’s authenticity. You can only see the actor scream in pain at the outtakes, but hearing him scream in the film makes you empathetic for the character and the actor himself.

So this film unintentionally delivers a more complex portrayal of the idolatry of Jackie Chan than any of its themes. It is a film Jackie Chan fans and Vietnamese people deserve, but they are in conflict. Vietnamese immigrants need the film because it’s a film about them and their struggles in getting noticed in the countries they live in. Jackie Chan fans will love the film to see their favorite actor get out of his comfort zone. I thus see it as a film about immigrants and nationalism. It is a potent tale about the political dilemmas people face in a world of alienation in the context of a thriller. I recommend the film as a result.

But in light of the recent Harvey Weinstein scandals, it is also a reminder that progressivism in any artistic medium remains to be a fictional element of art. Hypocrisy is easier if you put the work out there and don’t see it as a part of you. I am reminded of the overall theme of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: the superhero figures you once admired are probably flawed human beings like others are.

I am beginning to see Jackie Chan as an ordinary guy now, which is probably why he took on the role in the first place. Ngoc Minh Quan is but one of the many tragic figures in the history of immigrant life because he is an ordinary man. It is easier to analyze him as a human being than a hero you have worshipped since you are born. Jackie Chan is more human to me nowadays and I can criticize him for taking on strange roles today.

He is a cultural phenomena like everything in this blog. While nobody can ever distance themselves completely from the figure, it’s important to still take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Heroes are still people and our interactions with them are as important to detail as anything else in the world.

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