Not Coming to Theaters Near You: The China Menace

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To be clear, I’d be the last person to endorse anything that whips up fear of the proverbial “Other.” But MGM’s recent about-face on a remake of Red Dawn, a 1984 film pitting the agents of a Soviet takeover against a gang of plucky American teens (led by Patrick Swayze and a 19-year-old Charlie Sheen), smacks of cowardice. As my colleague Michele Travierso details on TIME Newsfeed, the film’s producers only belatedly realized they might have erred with its plot (which replaces the scheming of Moscow with that of Beijing):

Filmed in 2009 in Michigan and set to be released last November, the Red Dawn remake was put on hiatus… The producers needed a modern substitute for the Soviet invaders and they thought of China, a country that tends to be, well, easily offended.

So instead, the remake’s 21st century All-American heroes will rescue the U.S. from… the great North Korean peril. Really? Sure, Kim Jong Il and his generals are a nasty, megalomaniacal bunch. But the idea of a North Korean invasion is comical — they may as well draft in the Janjaweed or Somali pirates. Justly or not, the Soviet Union was a genuine bogeyman in the American imagination for decades. You can applaud MGM for deciding not to play up the threat of a latter day Cold War with China — a confrontation that some believe is simply inevitable — but it’s clear MGM wasn’t too worried about invoking such cultural tensions when it first set about making the film. Instead, as the Los Angeles Times notes, the rationale to switch focus to a Pyongyang goon squad was entirely commercial:

Potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business with the rising Asian superpower, one of the fastest-growing and potentially most lucrative markets for American movies, not to mention other U.S. products. As a result, the filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from “Red Dawn,” substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.

It’s simply one more sign of China’s undeniable global clout. On one level, your humble correspondent thinks this is fantastic — when, in recent memory, have the potential hurt feelings of people on the other side of the world superseded Hollywood’s eagerness to tell a good old-fashioned yarn of American triumph? But the Red Dawn episode is also illustrative of the U.S.’s fundamental dilemma with China. It just can’t stand up to an ascendant Beijing, a budding superpower whose growing geo-political heft compels American acquiescence and silence over Chinese human rights abuses, restriction of press freedoms and the suppression of ethnic minorities. It’s a lot easier to appear tough and righteous when set against pariah dictators like Kim or Muammar Gaddafi. It’s a lot harder when those autocrats are your treasury’s creditors — and unchallenged rulers of your movie industry’s next hot market.