Way back in my senior year of high school, my friends and I took full advantage of our senior year freedom to go see The Forbidden Kingdom in theaters several times. As far as we were concerned, The Forbidden Kingdom was the long-awaited team-up of Asian action stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li—it didn’t matter to us that the plot included some white guy as the main protagonist. In fact, we were pretty happy about it—we thought the white protagonist would make the movie much more attractive to Americans and thus make more money at the box office, thereby proving that Asians could sell movies. And to be fair, The Forbidden Kingdom did rank #1 at the box office in its opening weekend. But nearly a full decade later, it’s pretty apparent that The Forbidden Kingdom‘s flaws in 2008 are the same flaws that Hollywood still has today.
The Forbidden Kingdom’s protagonist, Jason Tripitikas, is a normal boy living in south Boston with one singular hobby: he’s obsessed with Asian martial arts films. He spends his days with his TV on in his room and sometimes he leaves said room to go down to Chinatown and get more bootlegs. To show off to a pretty girl, Jason tells her he knows kung fu, and a gang of greasers appear out of nowhere to attack him. They demand that Jason take them to his favorite DVD store and proceed to rob the place. In the ensuing struggle, store owner Hop gets shot and the greasers chase Jason up to the roof. Jason brandishes a staff he’s taken from Hop’s store, but is unable to defend himself, and then he… falls off the roof into a portal that takes him to ancient China. Yeah.
When Jason wakes up in ancient China, he’s quickly ushered into a standard coming-of-age defeat-the-bad-guy story. He learns that his staff is actually the weapon of the Monkey King, who was turned into stone by the Jade Warlord years ago, and since Jason has the staff now, he has to be the one to return the staff to the Monkey King and free him. He’s joined on his journey by Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and a monk (Jet Li), as well as the inevitable Asian love interest Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei).
There are so many reasons this is a bad movie, many of which I’m sure are evident from the summary alone. But let’s start with the genre. The Forbidden Kingdom is supposed to be a fantasy/kung fu/wuxia film, and it pretty much fails at all of them (well, the kung fu is all right). On the fantasy level, nothing about the new world Jason finds himself in is ever really explained. Why does the Warlord hate the Monkey King? Who knows? How did he turn the Monkey King into stone? Again, who knows? The Monkey King and Lu Yan are well-known figures in Chinese mythology, but The Forbidden Kingdom basically takes their names and some characteristics and uses them as props in the movie while explaining nothing about them. I can’t imagine that this film made anyone more interested in learning about Sun Wukong after Jet Li’s performance.
More frustrating is The Forbidden Kingdom’s attempt to pass itself off as a wuxia film. Wuxia is a Chinese genre that’s only recently become more known in the Western world, but basically, if you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (or the more recent Nirvana in Fire, which Tumblr assures me has achieved some Western prominence), you should get the idea. It’s in wuxia that you’ll see the more fantastical martial arts—flying, jumping over walls, using acupuncture to kill, etc. More importantly, wuxia is always set in ancient China and the story is always based on themes of courage, justice, and loyalty, particularly to one’s teacher. The Forbidden Kingdom is mostly set in ancient China, but it fails at all the rest of this. Jason doesn’t learn any wuxia martial arts and he spends most of his time whining about how hard kung fu is. The only relationship with any meat to it is the one between Jason and his teacher Lu Yan, and even that is dealt with in an individualistic way: Lu Yan is eventually mortally wounded and rather than stay with him as ordered, Jason takes the staff and charges into the Warlord’s palace to try and exchange the staff for a potion of immortality, and is only saved by the quick intervention of his friends. Rather than the bittersweet ending of most wuxia stories, Jason gets a happy Hollywood one where his teacher lives, his goal is completed, and of course, he gets the girl. This isn’t a wuxia film—it’s a Western story dressed up in some pseudo-Asian CGI.
Like I said in the intro, I loved this story as a kid, and I still harbor some fondness for it as an adult, despite how terrible it is. Hearing all the Jet Li/Jackie Chan diatribes my friends and I used to quote to each other gave me a warm sense of high school nostalgia. But upon rewatch, it becomes glaringly obvious that The Forbidden Kingdom was a movie created by a white male producer for a white male audience. Jason Tripitikas wasn’t an everyman on a journey to save the world; he was there as a stand-in for all of the the white boys who dreamed of starring in kung fu movies. The movie was marketed on the fame of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and acclaimed fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (who worked on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Matrix films, and Kill Bill, amongst other films). There was literally no reason for there to be a white male protagonist played by a largely unknown white actor unless the purpose was to make this film more appealing to an American audience.
The truth is, even given the bare-bones plot, The Forbidden Kingdom could have been immediately improved if the protagonist had been Asian-American. There’s something about traveling to another world that we find appealing because of the built-in outsider narrative, but seeing Jason try to fit himself into the ancient Chinese world in which he found himself was doubly weird. Though the cast and background characters at times talk to each other in Mandarin, Jason at no point tries to learn the language and at first doesn’t show respect for his teachers, asking them if they can teach him cool moves he’s seen in movies rather than what they want to teach him. All this may have been done to further Jason’s outsider narrative, but it just came off as culturally insensitive at best. So why couldn’t it have been an Asian-American protag instead of Jason? The outsider narrative would only have been emphasized, and lines like “he doesn’t even speak Chinese” would have been given so much more weight. Make Jason an Asian-American boy with little to no connection to his parents’ culture and throw him into ancient China, and you immediately get a compelling character narrative of what it means to belong to a culture and how ideas about identity can change as one grows up.
Yet despite the 2000 success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as Best Foreign Language Film, there appears to be no attempt to expand on the possibility of American interest in authentically Asian stories. In The Forbidden Kingdom, Jason goes to ancient China and discovers all the martial arts and gets a mystic Asian teacher and an infantilized Asian love interest, and then he goes home. It’s pretty similar to the simultaneous whitewashing/exotification we see in Death Note, Ghost in the Shell, and, dare I say it, Iron Fist—all Hollywood seems interested in, even today, is making pseudo-Asian stories with white faces on them. It’s been nearly a decade since The Forbidden Kingdom came out, and I’m starting to think we won’t see that change any time soon.