“Enjoyable enough, but The Foreigner carries a distinctly Beijing sheen at the expense of Vietnamese erasure.”
Title: The Foreigner (2017)
Director: Martin Campbell 👨🏼🇳🇿
Writers: Original novel by Stephen Leather 👨🏼🇬🇧 and screenplay by David Marconi 👨🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
The Foreigner is a classic revenge tale that opens with a terrorist bombing in London. The daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant is killed during the attack, and her tear-jerking death tees up the story of a father’s dogged, vigilante quest for justice as he hunts down the perpetrators of the bomb.
If the setup feels formulaic, that’s because it is. In fact, much of this film is familiar: forgettable synth soundtrack, generic political machinations (centering on Irish-British tensions which were timely during the original novel’s release in 1992, but which feel a bit dated now), and recognizable Jackie Chan action sequences albeit with a more sombre pace suited for the actor’s 60+ years of age.
Despite its prosaic qualities, I found The Foreigner fairly enjoyable to watch. The pacing is a bit spotty, with one significant lull wherein the hero, Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan), disappears offscreen for a stretch too long. But at its core the film is a crowd-pleaser, and a fairly successful one at that.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NO
The Foreigner encapsulates the trope of “disposable onscreen women.” Four females are senselessly murdered just to spark Quan’s narrative: his 8- and 11-year old daughters are listed as “kidnapped, raped, and possibly murdered” in a classified dossier that reveals his backstory. Quan’s wife dies during the childbirth of their third daughter. And this third daughter dies onscreen at the start of this film.
As for the women who stay alive for longer than one scene, their characters only exist to serve male narratives:
- Mary Hennessy, played by Orla Brady, is the wife of Irish government official Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). She cheats on her husband and attempts to meddle in political affairs before being murdered by her lover. In an ensuing scene, Liam and his wife’s murderer talk politics and Liam snidely deems that Mary “was always good at manipulation”.
- Sara McKay, played by Charlie Murphy, is Liam’s mistress who is also manipulative, meddles in politics, sleeps with men to further her agenda, and eventually gets tortured then killed point-blank with an automatic rifle. She’s called a “slag”—Britspeak for “slut”—before her grisly death.
- Katherine Davies, played by Lia Williams, is the British Ministry of Defence official. She is firm, powerful, and the only positive female character in this entire film. Huzzah, we found one! Too bad she has a very small role.
- Lam, played by Tao Liu, is the only person who cares for Quan in his otherwise sad and empty life. She is a flat character, largely absent for the duration of the film but who suddenly reappears upon Quan’s triumphant return to their restaurant. In a truly clichéd Hollywood ending, she kisses him, like a prize he has won.
In short, the women of The Foreigner are objects to be handled by men, protected or murdered at their whim. Still, I appreciate that Mary and Sara are both main characters who receive a good amount of screen time. And while their roles are deeply problematic, their physical presence alongside smaller support characters—the Defence official Katherine Davies and even Lam’s stereotyped scenes—do succeed in keeping this film from turning into a sausage fest.
The Foreigner is full of historical insensitivities, but let’s start with what we can see at face value.
Race in The Foreigner
Quan is the hero of this film, although his role is a bit creepy as he goes rogue and makes homemade bombs and stalks Liam in his quest to find the names of the terrorists who killed his daughter. The audience is made to suffer through repeated references to Quan as “the Chinaman” in what seems to be an unnecessary nod to the novel by the same name. The slurs feel forced and anachronistic, and overall the integration of Quan into a majority-white story about Irish-British relations feels like an awkward fit that never quite fulfills its potential of being interesting commentary on the richness of immigrant lives and how they can augment Western culture. Regardless, the simple fact of having an Asian male lead in an English-speaking film garners a decent score in this category.
Luckily, we have a second, more natural boon to this category in the form of the London police force. Commander Richard Bromley, played by Ray Fearon, is black and has a positive if straightforward role as the good guy who leads the investigation of the terrorist bombing. Bromley gets multiple scenes and has agency: he capably hunts down the terrorist bombers without the help of Irish officials. Fellow London officer Mira has a very small role with minimal lines, but she is played by Thusitha Jayasundera who is Sri Lankan in a welcome acknowledgment that London is an incredibly diverse city.
Racial Context Surrounding The Foreigner
Now, for the more complex, contextual issues surrounding the making of this film. Firstly, The Foreigner is based off a 1992 book titled The Chinaman, written by white, English novelist Stephen Leather. In the book, Quan Ngoc Minh is a former Viet Cong assassin who emigrates to the UK.
In the film, however, Quan’s narrative becomes contorted in ways that conveniently fit the broader aims of Beijing-based production houses Sparkle Roll Media (founded by Jackie Chan), Wanda Productions, and Huayi Brothers Pictures. While Quan remains technically Vietnamese, confirmed by his kept name and revealed history of being part of the Viet Cong special forces, questions arose during my viewing of the film: why is this Vietnamese character cast with a famous (and publicly pro-Beijing) Chinese actor? Quan owns a Chinese restaurant and speaks fluent Mandarin with his Chinese friend Lam...was there some migratory subsect of immigrants I hadn’t considered, who were ethnically Han Chinese but fought for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War?
I was giving the film too much credit. After some digging around online, Buzzfeed helped clarify the situation.
My final understanding is that these were simply business decisions made to take a British novel and transform it into a story that would better appeal to Chinese audiences. You can see the pride marketers take in having a Chinese leading man, posters exhibiting an overt rivalry between the Irish Liam and ambiguously Asian Quan that suggests how both men are foreigners to each other:
Compare to American marketing which comes with its own set of eyebrow-raising symbolism that blatantly posits Jackie Chan as THE foreigner:
The controversy regarding the casting of Asian actors in roles outside their own ethnicities surfaces occasionally. I generally find the practice benign, especially when casting Asian American actors, as with John Cho (Korean) in the role of Star Trek’s Sulu (Japanese) or with The Bold Type‘s Emily Chang (Chinese) in the role of Lauren Park (Korean). However, casting for The Foreigner comes with an unpleasant history, which @linhtropy explains succinctly:
Base level information:— linh @ lowkey hiatus (@linhtropy) June 27, 2017
1. China was one of Vietnam's colonizers. This is similar to whitewashing in terms of power dynamics.
Bonus for Age: +0.50
Jackie Chan continues to be an action hero into his 60s. While a bit painful to watch at times, especially knowing how much stress he’s put his body through in the making of over 200 action films, it remains uplifting that a man over 60 can still headline an international action thriller.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.75/5
At face value, you won’t find anything new or memorable in The Foreigner, but neither will you feel like you’ve wasted two hours on this film which is enjoyable enough. But if it’s strong female characters or positive racial diversity you’re looking for, consider passing on The Foreigner which carries a distinctly Beijing sheen at the expense of Vietnamese erasure.