Negative Attraction:
The Politics of Interracial Romance
in The Replacement Killers

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2002, Volume 1, Issue 2

Floyd Cheung

Smith College

Chow Yun-Fat Comes to America

Having starred as the leading man in such critical and box-office successes as John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), and most recently Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Chow Yun-Fat commands audiences in Asia and now more than ever in America.  Frequently compared to Cary Grant and Clint Eastwood, the Hong Kong native has been dubbed “Sexiest Action Star” by the US publication People Weekly, and Time Asia offered him as primary evidence for the claim that “Chinese men were suddenly the coolest in the world” (“Sexiest”; Corliss, “Back”).  Armed with a gun in each hand, dressed in designer suits, and devoted to a code of honor, Chow Yun-Fat’s most popular characters are as deadly as they are charming.  Although Chow has made more than seventy films in diverse genres, his “heroic bloodshed” films, featuring him as a professional yet moral assassin in an extremely violent and corrupt world, have won him both critical acclaim and international fame.

In 1995, Chow decided to immigrate to the United States and “become that rarity in American cinema, an Asian leading man” (“Chow Yun-Fat”).  After improving his English and rejecting various roles, he chose The Replacement Killers (1998) as his vehicle to Hollywood stardom. 1  John Woo not only produced the film but also provided director Antoine Fuqua with inspiration.  Directly echoing Woo’s “heroic bloodshed” films, The Replacement Killers features Chow as professional assassin John Lee, who, because he cannot execute an innocent boy, himself becomes the target of the titular characters.  In his films with Woo, Chow’s characters usually pair with other Chinese men. 2  In The Replacement Killers , however, Chow’s character partners with a Euro-American woman, Meg Coburn (Mira Sorvino).  Originally drafted by screenwriter Ken Sanzel with “a Bruce Willis type”—read, Euro-American man—in Chow’s role, The Replacement Killers provides an exceptional opportunity for explicating the difference that a racialized identity—specifically, Asian—makes in the production of a late-1990s action film (Corliss, “Chow”). 3 Theoretically, “the traits and activities of the adventurer are possible for members” of any ethnicity, race, or gender (Taves 122).   Whether an Asian or a Euro-American plays the role of the hero should be incidental.  However, juxtaposing The Replacement Killers with its generic cohort and comparing an early draft of the screenplay with the released film reveal significant consistencies with and deviations from standard character and plot development conventions. 

Inserting an Asian star into a US film and opposite a Euro-American heroine is no simple matter.  As cultural studies critic David Palumbo-Liu argues, the incorporation of Asians in America functions contradictorily:

The Other invites the minority subject to identify itself within the dominant on the basis of its ideological interests (that is, the investment in universals and the denial of difference), while at the same time withholding the full rights and privileges that accrue to its cultural citizens. (129)

In The Replacement Killers , Chow’s character is at once invited into and excluded from multicultural American life.  What I call negative attraction characterizes this contradictory pairing of invitation and exclusion.  In two of the most intimate scenes of the film, Sorvino’s character articulates the rhetoric of negative attraction in the form of litotes, “a form of understatement in which a thing is affirmed by stating the negative of its opposite” (“Litotes”)—for example, I am not unhappy to see you. 4  To appreciate the full importance of her litotic statements, however, an understanding of their generic and political contexts is necessary.  After briefly discussing the evolution of the action-romance film, I will turn to the politics of coupling Asians and Euro-Americans.  Finally, I will offer an interpretation of The Replacement Killers with concentrations on its marketing, characterization, and plot development.  The ways in which Chow’s and Sorvino’s characters are marketed and the ways in which they interact on screen both challenge and reinscribe late-twentieth-century institutional and societal assumptions about race and gender relations in America.  Moreover, the particular mode of transgression and constraint operating in this film, negative attraction, instantiates a major contradiction facing those identified as Asians in America: their simultaneous invitation into and exclusion from US multiculturalism. 5

  Romancing the Buddy

In the late twentieth century, US audiences increasingly accepted independent female action-heroes, and the number of action-adventures and action-romances featuring such women rose precipitously in the 1980s and through the 1990s.  In the action-adventure vein, recall the Alien trilogy (1986, 1992, 1997), starring Sigourney Weaver, and the Terminator films (1984, 1991), starring Linda Hamilton.  Among action-romances, recollect, for instance, Six Days Seven Nights (1998) with Anne Heche opposite Harrison Ford.  Before the 1940s, most US action-romances involve a male hero who rescues and falls in love with a damsel in distress.  Consequent to American women’s participation in the war effort, more and more films represented them as active heroines, albeit usually circumscribed within a relationship with a male hero and within the confines of the crime genre.  The relationship—often marriage—with a male hero marked these women as governed by societal norms on the one hand, while their criminal motives marked them as nonsocial aberrations on the other. Films like Gun Crazy (1950), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Getaway (1972), and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) provide signal examples.

Of another cast are more recent films like Romancing the Stone (1984) that combine conventions of the action-romance with those of the buddy film.  Buddy films usually feature two mildly antagonistic heroes who must work together toward a socially sanctioned end as do Nick Nolte’s and Eddie Murphy’s characters in 48 Hours (1982).  With increasing acceptance of women as men’s equals in society, action films began more frequently to pair a woman and a man as buddies.  This scenario usually precipitates a sexual tension that figures mild antagonism as a battle between the sexes but finally resolves discordant feelings into romantic ones.  “The pleasure proffered in action movies can be regarded,” as Paul Smith explains, “not so much as the perverse pleasure of transgressing norms as at bottom the pleasure of reinforcing them” (167).  In Romancing the Stone, Joan (Kathleen Turner) travels to South America to rescue her kidnapped sister, encountering along the way potential help in the figure of Jack (Michael Douglas).  Strangers, a man and a woman—each ostensibly single, heterosexual, and capable—meet under inauspicious circumstances.  They are antagonists at first but later come to work together against a common enemy and towards a common goal.  While the taboo against homosexuality normally prevents male-male and female-female buddies from romance, such engagement is usually the inevitable outcome of action-romances that center on a male-female pair. 6  In Romancing the Stone, Jack and Joan “bond” in a process not unlike that observed in buddy films, but they also fall in love with each other.

The situation plays out similarly for Riley (Christian Slater) and Terry (Samantha Mathis) in John Woo’s Broken Arrow (1996), but this film deserves closer attention since it provides a useful and appropriate comparison with The Replacement Killers , which Chow Yun-Fat himself called “a John Woo action film remake” (qtd. in Corliss, “Chow”).  Broken Arrow follows the conventions of the action-romance and buddy film, while also echoing Woo’s earlier work in the “heroic bloodshed” genre.  The film opens with an overhead shot of a boxing match between Vic (John Travolta) and Riley.  Between punches, Vic, like an adversarial sansei, advises Riley on the art of war, particularly with regard to the deployment of deception.  Both act as martial artists not only in the rink but also in their roles as US Air Force pilots.  On a training mission during which the two are flying with nuclear warheads, Vic engineers an accident in order to steal the weapons, ejecting Riley from the cockpit during a struggle.  Riley survives, and like the protagonist of “heroic bloodshed” films, he nobly pursues Vic in a narrative filled with double-barreled action, vengeance, extreme violence, and law-breaking-but-honor-abiding deeds.

The presence of Terry, however, adds an element of romance to the action.  The lone park ranger in the area where Vic has crashed the plane, she tracks down Riley but does not know his identity or purpose.  In their first scene together, Terry and Riley meet as opponents.  With intent to arrest, she trains a gun on him, but he leans in such a way that the recently risen sun temporarily blinds her.  Riley subsequently wrests the gun away from Terry and aims it at her, but she responds with a knife at his throat.  In classic Woo style, both characters freeze their action in a moment of suspended mayhem.  They talk long enough for Terry to deceive Riley.  She retrieves the gun, but he regains it before they finally establish a truce.  This exchange echoes similar encounters in Woo’s “heroic bloodshed” films, and the main characters’ initial rivalry and eventual cooperation echo the conventions of the buddy film. 7  In this hybridized action-romance, Terry and Riley survive attacks launched by their common enemy, work towards the common goal of preventing Utah’s nuclear destruction, and finally conquer Vic.  One reviewer celebrates the fact that “the hero and the girl never kiss,” but other indications signal their nascent romantic intimacy (Rev. of Broken Arrow).  In the closing scene, Terry suggests that she still needs to arrest Riley.  The camera then focuses tightly on their clasped hands, leaving their faces out of the frame.  Riley responds, “Well, then you better take me in,” while pulling her hand to his chest.  They have flirted throughout their time together and “bonded”; this final line of the film and accompanying gesture consummate their romance.  As the reviewer’s comment implies, the audience—steeped in action-romances and in dominant American assumptions about race and gender—expects Riley and Terry to connect.  That this expectation seems “natural” in Broken Arrow, and even de rigueur in most films featuring a handsome, single white man opposite almost any beautiful woman, has much to do with the politics of race and gender relations in America.

  The Politics of Interracial Coupling

When watching Broken Arrow, Romancing the Stone, Six Days Seven Nights, and a host of other action-romances, US audiences generally expect the central male and female protagonists to begin as strangers but end up falling in love with each other; however, there is nothing “natural” about this expectation that members of the opposite gender and same racialized identification should connect romantically.  Generic conventions have naturalized this expectation. 8  Besides being heterosexist, these conventions work symbiotically with discourses of so-called racial purity that have held much sway in America since at least the seventeenth century.  Terry and Riley’s romance only seems natural because many audience members—not necessarily through any conscious fault of their own—have come to accept as factual certain culturally constructed and legally enforced notions about proper relations between individuals.  Colonial Maryland passed the first law against interracial marriage in 1661; the US Supreme Court did not strike down all state laws of this sort until 1967 (Chan 59-61).  Scientists in the nineteenth century coined the term “miscegenation” to legitimize the hypothesis that interracial unions would result in the “decline of the population” (Gilman 107).  Even the US film industry helped naturalize the assumption that heterosexual liaisons should take place only between members of the same racialized identification.  From the 1930s until the 1960s, the Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code, banned representations of interracial coupling in American film as morally unwholesome. 9  Although the Hays Code is no longer in effect, miscegenation has been disproved as pseudo-science, and US laws against interracial coupling no longer exist, the assumptions that warranted these measures linger at the turn of the twenty-first century.

While most big-budget films appeal to dominant expectations because they must produce revenue by reaching a large audience, some films flirt explicitly with or even represent interracial coupling as a means to intrigue and entertain.  When Hollywood films have represented such coupling, however, Euro-American men tend to win the hearts of women of color, while men of color rarely develop intimate relations with Euro-American women.  While exceptions exist, Eugene Franklin Wong calls this general state of affairs the “motion picture industry’s double standardized miscegenation system” (23).  Wong elaborates:

White males are generally provided the necessary romantic conditions and masculine attributes with which to attract the Asian females’ passion.  Asian females are allowed to culminate their love of the white males in explicit sexual activity on the screen.  In effect, the industry literally puts the racist implications of differential sexual role-playing before the American viewing audience, thereby perpetuating the sexual principles of the ideology of white racism. (27)

Perhaps no series of action films better exemplifies and capitalizes upon the naturalization of white male sexual privilege than those featuring the character James Bond. From Dr. No (1962) to The World Is Not Enough (1999), the British spy always defeats the villain and beds women of all colors along the way.  In several instances, Bond romances Asian women.  Most recently, in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Pierce Brosnan as Bond connects with Michelle Yeoh as Wai-Lin, a member of the People’s Republic of China External Security Force.  Referencing the buddy film genre, Bond and Wai-Lin begin as rival secret agents.  They first meet briefly without incident as guests working undercover at the villain’s party.  Next, Bond pulls a gun on Wai-Lin when both are searching the villain’s lair.  Later they meet again as Wai-Lin points a spear gun at Bond while both are investigating a ship that the villain sank.  After they are both captured, they work together to escape, survive, and prevent the beginning of World War III.  Among the most capable of Bond women, Wai-Lin avoids the damsel-in-distress type and even transcends the hero’s assistant role to qualify as a buddy worth working with and romancing.  Again, as the formula dictates, the white hero and the heroine of color ultimately fall into each other’s arms.

Although one might argue that the Bond character simply does not discriminate, that he promotes a kind of equal-opportunity multiculturalism, it is important to note that only he, as a white man of means, can act with such freedom within a particular ideological system.  Tessie Liu explains,

In a male-dominated system, regulating social relationships through racial metaphors necessitates control over women.  The reproduction of the system entails not only regulating the sexuality of women in one’s own group, but also differentiating between women according to legitimate access and prohibition. (271)

While Bond, as a white male character with the proper masculine attributes, always finds himself in the right romantic conditions to evoke the Asian female character’s passion, Asian male characters rarely enjoy such “legitimate access” to Euro-American female characters.  This double standardized application of the Hollywood miscegenation system naturalizes assumptions about Euro-American male power, Asian male masculinity, Asian female availability, and Euro-American female inaccessibility.  Moreover, it supports interlocking structures of racism and sexism. 

Any analysis of individual examples, however, would benefit from considering the historical context of each production.  James S. Moy has proposed the extremely useful thesis that most popular Euro-American representations of Asians participate in acts of “containment,” that is, attempts to circumscribe the range of rights and identificatory possibilities open to those marked as Asian (47).  Although Moy is careful about historical context, David Palumbo-Liu foregrounds the importance of considering such context in his scholarship.  In exemplary fashion, Palumbo-Liu offers an illuminating reading of how “containment” of the Asian operates in Frank Capra’s film The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933).  Appearing in a period of US history when America began unprecedented attempts not only to assert itself in Asia but also to manage the presence of Asians in America, Bitter Tea imagines the consequences of romance between an Asian man, General Yen (Nils Asther in yellowface), and a Euro-American woman, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck).  Through the device of romance, the film flirts with a hybrid version of “Asian America that both delineate[s] its boundaries and envision[s] particular modes of crossing them” (Palumbo-Liu 43).  In the end, Davis realizes that she loves Yen and plans to give herself to him, but in an act of self-containment, Yen poisons himself.  Palumbo-Liu describes the death-scene: “Yen gazes on her affectionately and pathetically, giving the impression of a kindness born of superior wisdom: having become fluent in the languages, manners, and protocols of the west, he knows that east is east and west is west when it comes to sexuality” (61).  Even with this self-containment and frustrated liaison, audiences failed to accept Davis’s love for Yen, and the film failed financially.  Although some aspects of the film attempt to imagine a new kind of connection between Asia and America that seemed appropriate and perhaps even inevitable given the new relations between East Asian countries and the United States, containment of the former was achieved both by the characterization of General Yen and by the limits of 1930s film-goers’ ability to suspend disbelief. 

Essentially the same turn of events, save the suicide, occurs in The Replacement Killers , but the historical and filmic contexts are different.  What has changed?  Why have some things stayed the same?  By what mechanisms is change accommodated and the status quo preserved?  In the 1930s, Asians could not become naturalized citizens, nor could they marry Euro-Americans in many states; but thanks to laws passed in 1943, 1952, and 1965, and as a result of the US Supreme Court’s finding against anti-miscegenation statutes in 1967, Asian immigrants can now become naturalized citizens and Asian racial exogamy is no longer unlawful. 10  In addition to legal developments, some social conditions and assumptions have also adjusted, reflecting the influences—however complicated and uneven—of a diverse American population.  Yet Asian American scientists like Wen Ho Lee are unfairly singled out as Chinese loyalist spies, the National Review can portray Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore in yellowface while reporting on the 1996 campaign finance scandal, and my wife and I still receive disdainful looks and comments from strangers on the street who question our racially exogamous relationship. 11  Although the effects of the latter experience rate as relatively insignificant next to the consequences faced by the former, studies by Wong, Liu, Moy, Palumbo-Liu, and others attest to the fact that representations of interracial coupling serve as key cultural sites for the negotiation of US race relations.

  The Rhetoric of Negative Attraction

The Replacement Killers executes both a transgression and a reinscription of taboos against representing a romantic relationship between an Asian man and a Euro-American woman.  In a mixed attempt at “rescripting the imaginary,” the film envisions ways of crossing boundaries only to delineate them again and again (Palumbo-Liu 43).  With the possible exception of the protagonists’ differently racialized features and names, all indications—marketing, genre, and plot—point towards a probable liaison between John and Meg, but a rhetoric of negative attraction at once invites and excludes such a relationship.

I have to admit that when I saw trailers for The Replacement Killers in 1997, exquisite anticipation overtook me, and I eagerly hunted down and devoured development information, official marketing websites, and unofficial rumor mills.  Although I’m no Chow Yun-Fat and my wife somewhat less blond than Mira Sorvino, I naively thrilled at the possibility that a cool, John Woo-like film might echo and thereby sanction our relationship in some way.  I was encouraged by excerpts from an early draft of the screenplay that indicated that even after writer Ken Sanzel replaced the Euro-American “Bruce Willis type” main character with Chow, John and Meg still kissed (“Excerpts”). 12  The movie poster equally bolstered my hopes (see figure 1).  It positions the viewer at the business end of John’s pistol, which is angled to accent the gun’s length.  Behind sunglasses, John stares down the viewer, as does Meg.  Most importantly, Meg leans suggestively into John’s shoulder, alluding to an intimate connection; she’s there not just to take cover but because she wants to be close to him.  In late-1990s iconography, her slightly parted lips signal sensuality, while his square jaw communicates strength.  “Back off,” John-of-the-poster exudes, “she’s mine.”  Certainly, the poster contains much that is objectionable, but too excited about the “positive” representation—however misogynistic—of such an interracial relationship, I was temporarily willing to overlook the sexism that sometimes inheres to the genre of the action-romance.

Figure 1

The film’s official website also supports the expectation that John and Meg will form an intimate liaison.  Besides featuring the poster throughout its graphic environment, the website’s text acknowledges the fact that America of the late twentieth century includes a diverse population.  The text proudly states that the film “was shot entirely in multicultural downtown Los Angeles” (Replacement Killers Website; emphasis added).  Furthermore, it boasts that the film teams Chow, “a charismatic international superstar,” with Sorvino, “one of Hollywood’s hottest leading ladies.”  The words “charismatic” and “hottest” obviously construct and reinforce each actor’s sex appeal.  As if to suggest that Sorvino herself can appreciate not only Chow’s talent and good looks but also his mind and background, the website text notes—however ingenuously—that she is “a student of Chinese studies at Harvard.”  A Euro-American leading lady with a Chinese leading man?  In contrast to the 1930s, such a pairing is exciting and believable at the end of the twentieth century.  So too is the combination of Asian presence and American milieu.  The official marketing text underscores this symbiosis, asserting that The Replacement Killers is “the fiercest of an explosive new breed of film—one that brings Asian-style filmmaking and philosophy to America’s mean streets.”

If hyperbole characterizes the film’s marketing, then understatement characterizes the interaction between the main characters. John remains coolly distant, and Meg invites but only by negation. A feisty, practical, capable loner, Meg makes her living as a document forger. The film introduces her working in her office dressed in a black negligée-like outfit—almost “caught unawares,” to borrow a term from the poetics of soft-core pornography (Kuhn 273).  The soundtrack repetitively blares, “She makes me wanna die.”  Positioned to occupy a spectatorial gaze not unlike that described by film theorist Laura Mulvey, the viewer is encouraged to act voyeuristically.  When John arrives to request her aid in forging a passport, the film’s narrative and blocking transfer the viewer’s desire to him.  He ought to see her and think, “She makes me wanna die.”  What the viewer could only fantasize about, John can pursue.  Following the conventions of the buddy film-influenced action-romance, John and Meg’s relationship begins adversarially.  Mistrustful of everyone, she trains on him a gun hidden beneath her desk.  Like Riley and Terry in Broken Arrow and like Bond and Wai-Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies, John and Meg exchange who has whom under-the-gun several times, flirt, “bond,” work together to survive attacks launched by Mr. Wei (Kenneth Tsang), and ultimately join forces to protect the boy whom Mr. Wei wishes to assassinate.  Unlike their predecessors, however, the pair does not in the end a couple make.  In an indication of the film’s restrained transgressiveness, this unromantic state of affairs frustrates the expectations of attentive reviewers like Mike Clark of USA Today and Stephen Holden of the New York Times.  In a rather odd twist, reviewer Louis B. Parks of the Houston Chronicle laments that Meg does not end up with Stan (Michael Rooker), the father of the targeted boy.  Parks’s expectation is odd because the conventions of action-romance generally do not sanction a liaison between a single woman and a married man; moreover, Meg spends little time with Stan.  About the only evidence that supports Parks’s expectation, besides Meg and Stan’s shared goal of protecting the boy, is their shared racialized identification.  With the odd exception of Parks, then, most viewers expect John and Meg to form a romantic union, but as Stephanie Zacharek of Salon puts it, they spend their time “doing a good deed now and then and flirting mildly with one another but not in a way that amounts to even an eyelash flicker of eroticism.” 13

A closer look, however, reveals a potentially transgressive and intense intimacy between John and Meg, but the romance is litotically expressed and ultimately displaced onto a racially and culturally “pure” notion of the Chinese family.  Meg first expresses a deeply felt concern for John after he is wounded during a gun battle with The Replacement Killers.  Together they have saved the targeted boy, but Mr. Wei now plans to assassinate John’s mother and sister in reprisal for his disobedience.  When John resolves to go on a “suicide” mission to kill Mr. Wei and thereby protect his family, Meg decides to join him, saying “Okay, John, let’s go.”  Her concern then spills over into the following litotic confession: “Somewhere along the way I developed a problem with watching you die.”  Interestingly, however, John’s attachment to his family preempts a possible attachment between himself and Meg, despite the latter’s articulation of care.  When confessing concern for his life, albeit with indirect language, she looks directly at him, while John faces at a right angle to her line of sight.  Although he turns to meet her gaze, he immediately breaks it to pick up a bullet, which lies significantly on top of a torn, black-and-white photograph of his mother and sister, and loads his gun.  The scene then shifts.  Meg’s litotes is thus met by John’s self-containment.  The Chinese women in the photograph become their common object of concern, not each other.  This prioritization makes sense in this context, but potential affection on both sides is repeatedly displaced onto the Chinese family, marked as different, distant, and other by the torn-edges and lack of color in the photograph.  Additionally, although one might argue that it would be irresponsible for John to veer from his objective to romance Meg, time constraints and life-or-death circumstances often enhance rather than prevent romantic flirtation, as occurs in Broken Arrow and almost all action films that pair male and female leads.  Hence, despite grounds on which Meg and John might build a relationship, this scene and others suggest that his world remains a world apart, even from multicultural Los Angeles.

Figure 2

The denouement reinforces a pattern of negative attraction, which takes place—if we are to believe Billy Crystal’s character in When Harry Met Sally (1989)—in that most liminal and romantically charged of public spaces: the airport (see figure 2). 14  Hitherto dressed in gritty, black outfits, Meg arrives to say goodbye to John in a luminous, long-sleeved, cream-colored suit jacket. Its leather-like surface shimmers in the bright airport lighting, which contrasts with the film’s heretofore darkly lit settings in America’s mean nighttime streets.  The long-sleeves indicate reserve, but a dangerously short, black skirt and high black boots recall Meg’s more overtly sexual side.  With her eyes cast downwards, Meg coyly presents John with the gift of two forged passports for his mother and sister.  She imagines, perhaps, that his family might immigrate to multicultural America, joining them both in Los Angeles or wherever their adventures might lead them.  Meg delivers a litotic invitation to this effect.  Referencing the mundane reason why they met in the first place, she now sweetly confesses, “I never made a passport before for someone I didn’t want to see leave.”  A double negative makes this admission even less direct than her first one, but this time, John steadily meets her gaze and tenderly strokes her face with his right hand.  After a pregnant silence, John closes their relationship: “I will miss you.”  He then disappears into the airport crowd.  Despite her invitation—however qualified—John acts with self-containment, again choosing to be with his family, as if that family could not move to America or incorporate a Euro-American woman within its frame.  Essentially the film deploys this notion of the Chinese family as racially “pure” and therefore closed to outsiders in order to displace a constructed fear of miscegenation from well-adjusted, modern America onto backward, “traditional” China.

This displacement serves some interests of late-twentieth-century America well.  While elements of the country can claim an “investment in universals and the denial of difference,” they can also blamelessly withhold “the full rights and privileges that accrue to its cultural citizens” (Palumbo-Liu 129).  Negative attraction characterizes invitation into American multicultural life, but in the case of The Replacement Killers , self-containment works in tandem to perpetuate the notion that Asian countries such as China are neither ready nor able to accept such an invitation.  The United States allows Asians to immigrate, but can they ever be “American”?  The United States hires scientists of Asian descent, but will these employees remain loyal to their country of naturalized citizenship?  In these all too unhypothetical cases, the onus appears to be wholly on Asians or Asian Americans, but in fact, whether they are accepted as “American” and whether they are trusted hinge to a large degree on residual US assumptions about Asians as unassimilable aliens. 15  That John doesn’t kiss Meg in the end is more than a disappointment or even a generic anomaly but rather a symptom of these assumptions’ enduring purchase.  Early in the film, one of Mr. Wei’s henchmen jokes with the captured John and Meg, “You two make a cute couple.”  My aim in this essay has been to raise consciousness in such a way that comments like this will lose their irony, and some of the assumptions that warrant them will endure no longer.


1. Having garnered only minimal to moderate success in his three films produced in the US—Replacement Killers (1998), The Corruptor (1999), and Anna and the King (1999)—he returned to China to make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).  Since MGM will release his next film, Bulletproof Monk, Chow remains an international figure.

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2. See Sandell and Stringer, who have ably discussed the homoerotic overtones in these filmic relationships. 

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3. I focus on pairings of Asians with Euro-Americans in this essay, but this is not to dismiss the value of considering other combinations.  Black-white and Black-Asian race and gender relations, for instance, call not only for analysis but also for different theorization.  I thank Kevin Quashie for his insights on this matter.

I should also note that I use terms like “racialized identity” not to obfuscate but rather because I wish to accent the unessential, historical, and socially produced nature of these concepts.  Undoubtedly, this is not to say that these concepts have no real material effects, which they certainly do.  See Omi and Winant.

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4. Of course, litotes can have a variety of rhetorical effects.  To observe how litotes operates in other texts, see, for instance, Harris on Beowulf and Motte on the works of Annie Ernaux.

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5. Of course, those identified as Asian in America often include Asian Americans.  Dominant assumptions in America for the most part still associate certain facial features possessed by actors like Pat Morita and Victor Wong as “un-American.”  On the other hand, consider how easy it is for most of us to think of characters played by Wales-born Anthony Hopkins, Austria-born Arnold Schwarzenegger, and New Zealand-born Russell Crowe, as “American” in Legends of the Fall (1994), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and L.A. Confidential (1997).

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6. Bound (1996), starring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, provides one exception to the rule against same-sex buddy romance.  For a discussion of how films like Lethal Weapon “manage to avoid any homoerotic inflections of the buddy pairing by reinscribing difference within the terms of ‘race,’” see Tasker (45).

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7. For example, see Woo’s A Better Tomorrow or The Killer.

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8. On the long history of this constructed expectation in classical Hollywood cinema, see Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson 16-17.

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9. For a history of the Hays Code, see Jeff and Simmons.  Although the Code explicitly banned black-white sexual contact, it effectively censored representations of sexual relations between Asian Americans and Euro-Americans as well.  On the ideologies of Hollywood’s flirtations with interracial sex between Asian Americans and Euro-Americans to 1985, see Marchetti.

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10. In 1943, Congress repealed the Chinese immigration exclusion laws and granted Chinese the right to naturalize.  In 1952, the right of naturalization was extended to Japanese.  In 1965, Congress repealed all anti-Asian immigration laws.  In 1967, the Supreme Court found for the interracial couple in Loving v. Virginia (388 U.S. 1) effectively striking down all state laws against miscegenation.  For a discussion of Asian racial exogamy in America, see Aguirre, Saenz, and Hwang.

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11. For one analysis of the Wen Ho Lee affair, see Mesler.  The yellowface cartoon appeared on the 24 March 1997 cover of the National Review.  On the campaign finance scandal, see Wang.

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12. Unfortunately, this website that contained the script is no longer accessible.  In the screenplay, John kisses Meg in the arcade; in the corresponding moment in the film, he grabs her and whispers a warning into her ear.

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13. The film rating system at gives The Replacement Killers an eight-out-of-ten for its intense violence, a six for its profane language, and a one for its sexual content.

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14. In fact, they meet at Union Station, but the plot suggests that John is leaving directly for China via airplane.  In a different essay, it would be worthwhile to juxtapose this train station scene with the 1869 Harper’s Weekly cartoon “Pacific Railroad Complete,” which depicted a newly married couple composed of a Chinese American man with a Euro-American woman. 

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15. Until 1943 for Chinese, 1952 for Japanese, and 1965 for other groups, Asian immigrants were denied the right to naturalization on the grounds that they were “aliens” essentially unable to become citizens.  See Lowe, chapter 1.

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Works Cited

Aguirre, B. E., Rogelio Saenz, and Sean-Shong Hwang.  “Remarriage and Intermarriage of Asians in the United States of America.”  Journal of Comparative Family Studies 26 (1995): 207-216.

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