Last week, Asian-American hip-hop artists Jason Chu and Alan Z released their 2021 collaboration album Face Value. The 15-track odyssey is a tightly-produced record of the moment, a timely document of Asian identity one year after the parallel pandemics Covid-19 and anti-Asian racism.
On the twelfth track, “Bruce,” the duo ruminate on the fine line between owning up and being proud of the geographic and cultural roots of martial arts — as a form of defense for the indigenous working class against a wealthy elite or colonizers from abroad, or both — all while wrestling with stereotypes that have haunted members of the Asian community for decades.
On one hand, figures like Bruce Lee give people an avatar for empowerment. His inhuman physique, impossible feats of strength, and unparalleled presence as both an actor and philosopher make Lee an aspirational figure, especially to Asian people, nearly 50 years after his death in 1973.
But Lee’s status as a lone, visible Asian figure also allowed certain stereotypes to take root in the Western consciousness. While Lee himself believed martial arts to be for people of all races (his first student was Jesse Glover, a Black man who took up kung fu after an incident of police racial profiling), both Chu and Alan lament the hostile nature between Western culture’s obsession with martial arts and its erasure of Asian people in them.
Alan spits on the second verse:
“Learn from ancient grandmaster teachings recorded on scrolls // Expand it to Black and brown folks through kung fu cinema // White folks made their own McDojos ‘cause they want to mimic us // They paint our culture no one is supposed to like // Unless you put a white face on it, just look at Cobra Kai”
All this to say: There is one piece of media that has impossibly lived up to that multicultural realm Jason Chu and Alan Z look for. Mortal Kombat, which originated as a brutally violent arcade game created by a ragtag development team in Chicago, has somehow never been offensive. Even with the waterfalls of blood, guts, and skeletons the franchise is notorious for.
For all its faults, the 2021 reboot Mortal Kombat featured a huge cast of Asian action stars assembled in a number never seen in a single Hollywood movie. It’s also streaming on HBO Max until May 23, when it retreats into the Netherrealm. Here’s why you need to watch Mortal Kombat while you can/
You probably know the story by now: An ancient martial arts tournament that decides the fate of the multiverse. A collection of fighters from Earth (or “Earthrealm,” if you prefer) participate to defend Earth from invasion by the desolate Outworld.
Like a supernatural Enter the Dragon, the story of Mortal Kombat has long centered on characters like Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, and Hollywood star Johnny Cage, who go toe-to-toe with deadly warriors like the rival ninjas Scorpion and Sub-Zero. That’s pretty much the story of Mortal Kombat — except when it isn’t.
One of the biggest changes the reboot introduces is a new character, Cole Young. Played by Lewis Tan, “Cole Young” is a new invention for the film and a surrogate for the audience. This mostly works, but while fans are rightfully upset Johnny Cage was left off the screen, a teaser at the end of the film promises Cage isn’t being, well, caged.
Faithful, onscreen fatalities (and the omission of Johnny Cage) got fans talking when the movie started streaming on HBO Max, there were smaller moments in Mortal Kombat I found more important. In the film’s opening prologue, set in 1617 Japan, the history behind Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) is revealed, with Sub-Zero and his Lin Kuei assassins spilling the blood of Scorpion’s clan, the Shirai Ryu.
Notably, the Japanese Scorpion and the Chinese Sub-Zero speak in their native tongues, which leads to miscommunication, which leads to bloodshed. It’s gruesome.
But when you consider the long, long history of Hollywood’s systemic racism, in which Marlon Brando and Mickey Rooney can “play Asian,” this incredibly brief scene becomes remarkable. Almost beautiful. It was especially poignant near the one-year mark of the pandemic after I’d had time to observe and endure the ugly racism that’s emerged from Covid-19.
During the film’s press tour, I spoke to Sub-Zero’s actor Joe Taslim, who also stars in the Cinemax/HBO series Warrior, a show that fictionalizes the very real history of anti-Chinese discrimination in 1870s San Francisco. He said this about the scene in Mortal Kombat:
“I’m happy you dig that. East Asian, south Asian, they think it’s the same, but we’re not. We’re different cultures. That scene gives an idea that there are a lot more about us. My uniform and Scorpion’s uniforms are different. I’m glad in the movie people don’t assume everyone is the same. I speak in Chinese and Hanzo speaks Japanese — a lot of Hollywood movies are like, ‘Why bother? Just make them speak the same language.’ I’m happy this movie is thoughtful. We don’t look the same or speak the same.”
Even if Mortal Kombat has an ensemble of Asian actors in stereotypical roles of Shaolin monks and ninjas, I dwell on a kind of cynical hope these movies are opportunities for visibility and even nuance when the right people are in charge. At the very least, they’re stepping stones into something else. After Mortal Kombat, Lewis Tan was announced to star in his first rom-com opposite Emma Roberts. I don’t know if that’s progress, but I know it’s going somewhere.
While the vast majority of Asian-led blockbusters in 2021 are some type of martial arts film — in addition to Mortal Kombat, there is Snake Eyes in July and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in September — I don’t think reinforcing our presence and authority on the genre is a bad thing. At worst, it’s a lesser evil than the alternative, which is our complete absence.
Mortal Kombat is streaming now on HBO Max until May 23.