James Cameron always has one foot in the future. As a filmmaker, he waited several years to make Avatar so that the effects technology would catch up to the vision he had in his head. And as a savvy businessman, he’s bet heavily in the vast potential of the Asian movie market. “Within five years, China could easily be as big a gross-revenue market for film as North America, and there are very specific economic incentives for having both Chinese content and Chinese co-production,” Cameron recently told the Hollywood Reporter.
But Cameron is looking beyond investing in mere cinematic infrastructure; he’s doubling down with his creative process. The Oscar-winning director tells the trade that Avatar fans should expect to see Chinese actors and Chinese characters in his two sequels. “We can have Chinese Na’vi; [and in the live-action sequences] we can also have Chinese actors who speak English in the film.” Cameron said. “We are projecting a future in Avatar, and if you project that future out, it is logical that there would be a number of Chinese amongst the contingent on Pandora.”
Such gestures seem rather harmless and pass any risk-benefit analysis: It does make practical sense to include a character or 10 that more than a billion potential customers can better identify with. Plus, in 2154, when Avatar is set, China will likely play an even larger role on the global stage than it does today, so in that regard, a greater Chinese presence seems logical.
But Chinese Na’vi? To be honest, I never really applied earthly racial categories to the giant blue people with tails, though I was aware of the ethnicity of the actors who portrayed them and it was clear that Cameron instilled the tribe with a Native American sensibility. Perhaps the underwater creatures that are rumored to play a large part in the Avatar sequel will have a very different look, one that is more closely identified with Asians or some other recognizable demographic.
But it’s potentially a slippery slope, even if such considerations don’t result in such overt alterations as the upcoming Red Dawn remake, which re-imagined its Chinese villains as North Koreans in order to be more palatable to Beijing. In the case of Avatar 2, this kind of diversity could actually enhance creativity — in the same way George Lucas peppered his universe with a variety of races, both imagined and derivative — but there’s still something slightly unnerving about political considerations playing any role in the process. Will Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin — a dastardly, tech-savvy Chinese villain in the comics — be less Chinese or less dastardly in Iron Man 3? (I assume the former, judging by Sir Ben.) Will Avengers 2 be tempted to welcome the half-Vietnamese Mantis to the team?
One positive result about Hollywood’s growing awareness of the strategic importance of Asian markets is that we may finally close the book on the cliched portrayals of Asian characters, from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. In fact, when I contemplate just for minute Hollywood’s long tradition of reinforcing Asian stereotypes, and how a heroic “Chinese” character in Avatar 2 might help redefine our image of a people, I envision some justifiably laughing at my notions of a “slippery slope.”