|Transporter Revisits Well-Worn Themes|
In the six years since the U.S. release of Jackie Chan's "Rumble in the Bronx," the Asian presence in American popular culture seems greater, but it doesn't seem to have put much of a dent in Hollywood's blinkered view of Asian people. Although Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, and Jet Li are now playing starring roles in Hollywood movies, their characters haven't progressed much beyond the archetype of the sexless, unromantic fighting machine played by Bruce Lee in 1973's "Enter the Dragon." Even in a film titled "Romeo Must Die," Jet Li's Romeo never got to kiss his Juliet. Despite Hong Kong's heightened influence on Hollywood, the idea of a romantic, three-dimensional Asian leading man seems just as remote as ever. Meanwhile, the image of the Asian woman as an affirmative, uncomplicated romantic interest for a white male character (usually the lead) continues apace. Perhaps storybook romances between white men and Asian women are to be expected from clueless Caucasian filmmakers who don't know any better. But it's something else when you get one from an Asian director.
Which brings us to 20th Century Fox's "The Transporter," that new Hong Kong-influenced/European-made/American-targeted action thriller produced by the savvy French blitzmeister Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita") and the durable Hong Kong helmsman Cory Yuen ("Fist of Legend"). Shot in English, the hard-bitten story focuses on Frank Martin (Jason Statham of "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels"), a getaway driver for the Côte d'Azure criminal world. Frank is a meticulous businessman who survives by observing some hard-and-fast rules, but his profession — and his survival — become compromised when he breaks the rules and falls for a "package" he's supposed to deliver: Lai, the daughter of an Asian mob boss (Taiwan-born Hong Kong star Shu Qi making her English-language debut — though most of her dialogue consists of high-pitched screaming). But instead of injecting some fresh Hong Kong blood into this Euro-packaged East-meets-West encounter, "The Transporter" merely replays a lot of tired Orientalist clichés, especially surrounding the character of Lai and her relationship with Frank.
Frank and Lai "meet cute" when he unwittingly aids in her kidnapping — a moment more than a little reminiscent of the way Mark Wahlberg met China Chow in "The Big Hit." Although Frank helps to terrorize Lai and seems to treat her with contempt, she takes a shine to him early on. The morning after Frank frees Lai from her kidnappers, she — of course — cooks breakfast for him. When a nosey policeman comes poking around Frank's house in search of clues, she first introduces herself as "the new cook" and then pretends to be Frank's girlfriend. Sure enough, as soon Lai and Frank have a quiet moment together, she aggressively jumps his bones in order to "pay him back" for protecting her. (Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino were thrown together in a comparable manner in "The Replacement Killers," but they never exchanged so much as a chaste kiss — to say nothing of bodily fluids.) After a series of half-truths and double-crosses force Frank to question what's real, Lai tearfully proclaims that their time together in the sack was genuine. In this deceptive world, one thing remains certain: an Asian woman will boff a white guy she barely knows and love him for it.
One wonders how many mail-order-bride catalogues screenwriters Besson and Robert Mark Kamen read while researching Lai's character. The film's Western creators are unable to imagine Lai as anything other than an object of desire and exchange between the male characters, most of whom are white. She is either an impersonal "package" to be shuttled between the men, a helpless scream-queen in need of protection, or an aggressive sexual outlet for the white hero. "The Transporter" allows Lai only one assertive act of agency — the one that clinches the film's climax — and that act is extremely telling in regard to the movie's view of Asian men. Appalled at "The Transporter's" portrayal of Lai as yet another lotus-blossom stereotype, the viewer is compelled to ask: What the hell was director Cory Yuen thinking?
Maybe it's unfair to expect any greater sensitivity toward Asians from a Hong Kong director who is evidently eager to break into Hollywood. Discontent over the Western screen's treatment of its Asian characters arises from the paucity of compensating images: images of Asian people as three-dimensional protagonists that anyone could relate to. Coming from Hong Kong, Cory Yuen didn't starve from a malnourishing absence of Asian images — the Hong Kong cultural landscape abounds with Asian men and women as well-rounded and romantic role models. Is Yuen aware that it's not the same in the West? If a Western director were to go to Hong Kong and make a movie where all the heroes were Asian and all the white characters were either the villains or the heroes' sex objects, would this filmmaker — satiated from his steady diet of Hollywood's white heroes — even recognize the racial politics of such a scenario? If not, is it reasonable to expect anything more from Cory Yuen?
Or maybe Yuen knew what was going on but went with the flow anyway: if you want to play in Hollywood, it has to be by Tinseltown's Eurocentric rules. "The Transporter's" Frank Martin got into trouble by breaking the rules. Perhaps Cory Yuen wasn't going to make the same mistake.
In fairness to the film, a good word should be put in for "The Transporter's" brisk pacing, crisp story-telling, and especially its adrenalin-pumping action scenes. This is one of Hollywood's few Hong Kong copycats that effectively reproduces the pulse-pounding energy and visceral impact of the former Crown Colony's action cinema. The wittily staged, knuckle-crunching fight scenes stun the imagination. Explosions erupt with fiery force. And the tire-screeching car chases astonish the eyes. Particularly impressive is one slippery slugfest where the characters punch and slide their way through an oil slick. It's only too bad that Yuen's clever command of the action cinema couldn't boast characters uncompromised by Hollywood's ethnic stereotypes.
As an action-adventure with a white male hero and an Asian female love interest, "The Transporter" is quite effective. But just try to imagine the movie with the races reversed. That's apparently a story that Hollywood doesn't plan to make anytime soon. Quote this article on your site