North Korea as Cinematic Enemy: Donald Trump and ‘Olympus has Fallen’

I’m a historian of contemporary Northeast Asia, which means that narratives having to do with the Cold War or with peace and war in the region today interest me, even when they’re awful. In 2013, I made the ultimate sacrifice for an academic and went to see Olympus has Fallen, a mass-marketed Hollywood movie that, nominally, intersects with the subject matter I have dedicated myself to study.

My students in Northern Ireland were part of the reason I was there. How, after all, could I ignore what one my students excitedly told me after class about his own experience of watching the film: “The North Koreans demanded the withdrawal of the Seventh Fleet from East Asia, and I said, ‘Hey, I know how that got there!'” Enthused, I pledged to go see it for myself, forgetting to ask him how many people got stabbed in the head during the film, and promptly set myself back £4.5, something like $7 US.

Overall, this movie was a wretched piece of agit-prop that leaned on tried-and-true formula: The inscrutable East Asian enemy, blinded by an unfathomable hatred of our way of life in America, seeks the destruction of the United States, and proceeds to unleash sneak attacks. (See: Pearl Harbor, Chinese entry into the Korean War, etc.)

First of all (and switching to present tense for convenience), this is an intensely gory and violent film. It is full of vulgarity in every respect: People are shot in the head, stabbed in the head, have their throats slit, are kicked, blown up, strangled, have their necks broken, and are stabbed in the chest, etc. The f-word is used at every turn (and only in one instance is it actually clever, and there being completely derivative from a “Die Hard” yippie-kai-yey moment). The body count from this close-up violence is immense. If this is a reflection of the appetite for bloodshed in audiences in the US and UK, God help us all, because it’s an awful, bloody, film with few redeeming values. It is, in fact, as bloody as Django Unchained, but hardly as intelligent. It has not a shred of self-awareness.

Ah, Django. Site of many a self-conscious meditation on race in America, and the limits of cinema. So why not a short bit of “where we are as a community with race discourse?” for this particular film? The Irish Times (one of my new favourite papers in the world, thanks in no small part to Clifford Coonan’s work in Beijing) had an excellent view on this back in March 2013.

But discussion of race in cinema has to go beyond demonization of an Other; it has to do with depictions of who “the nation” being defended actually is.

When it is not a gore-fest, this film is also, in part, a portrait of the US Executive Branch, the USA, and Washington, D.C. The filmmakers are hardly insensitive to the need for minority roles: There are three African-American roles in the film: A cameo for a Secret-Service member who insults the hero at a restaurant (one line), the head of Secret Service (black female, prominent), and the Speaker of the House (the unavoidable Morgan Freeman). Even the hospital scenes, whites and blacks prevail; there is no one who could be identified as Hispanic or mixed-race. The hero is white, and his girlfriend to the hero is blond haired and blue-eyed. The President is white, and everyone around him is white, except for the head of Secret Service, who is a black woman.

Unfortunately, virtually all of the Asians or Asian-Americans that appear in this film are terrorists. There is not a single Asian-American cabinet member, selective service member, soldier, pilot, General, etc., in the US government. Against this we have probably a couple of dozen of Asian roles for the terror squad, and North Korean pilots in a C-130.

There is no sense whatsoever that the US government might actually in reality be stacked with clever and qualified Asian-Americans. Even if you don’t agree with their policy stances (see: John Yoo), individuals like Victor Cha, Joseph Yun, General Eric Shinseki, and Sung Kim, etc. etc. cannot be ignored. Not to mention (just to raise examples in my own experience) Chinese-American FBI agents and cops, and Asian-American soldiers and mixed-Korean-Americans around the military bases in Tacoma, Washington.

This full exclusion of Asian-Americans from the government as depicted in the film seems primarily undertaken in order to more neatly set up the Oriental other, whose own terror justifies the massive violence undertaken to uproot them. Their own violence knows almost no limits. Their cargo airplane cruises up and down the mall, shooting up civilians as if it were Iraq’s “highway of death” and no American aircraft could stop them. American cabinet members are arbitrarily killed once taken hostage; it’s all awfully uncomfortable.

Act II of the film is the only part worth seeing, where you don’t know quite what is going on. It is a long crescendo to the assault on the White House by a North Korean commando team. These individuals seem to have arrived via thug central casting for Hollywood, who probably also appeared in Batman films as muscle for Ras Al-Ghul. Is there a section in Hollywood classified newspaper ads that handles this under the category: “Muscle, Asian”?

Which leads us to the villain figure, Kang. Only near the end of the film do we learn that Kang has been leading a double life as the head of South Korean presidential security. His ties to the North are explained in a quick blizzard of three sentences near the end: Born in the North (presumably in the late 1970s), Kang’s father got into some kind of trouble, and brought the family to South Korea across the DMZ. On that journey as a child, Kang’s mother was killed by an American landline, presumably bringing him eternal enmity towards the US, which he managed to hide while moving up into the highest echelons of the South Korean state.

Asking for a small amount of veracity here is impossible; there is no need to empathize with this villain. All that really matters is that he’s sadistic, Korean, and likes to blow things up. He even shoots his own South Korean president in the head, an act which occurs rather early in the film, an act of violence that gets rapidly swallowed into the larger bloodbath.

As for the South Korean President, he is not followed by any press as he arrives at the White House. In fact he’s greeted with a handshake not by the US President but by the Secret Service detail; there are no reporters to take pictures of the two men in colloquy. Not even a half-hearted attempt is made by the filmmakers to depict anything tangible about the alliance with South Korea, a country that may as well be Belarus.

The air power/terror equation turns totally; Americans are terrorized by North Koreans in the air. Not only that, but the US Seventh Fleet is told to turn around on live television (as if they couldn’t come back) and the 28,500 US troops in South Korea start to pull out (as if this pullout would be accomplished in half a day — begun in the morning and finished by the time the evening news airs).

To the extent that Donald Trump can be seen to be “the winner” in facing down Kim Jong-un, it bears recalling that low-information voters may have actually had a few such scenarios buried in their collective memories via simply awful films like Olympus Has Fallen. 

Image: Rick Yune as the film’s villain, Kang Yeonsak. 

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