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Rogue One is the Most Asian of the Star Wars Episodes

Rogue One
From left, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen and Rez Ahmed.

By Ed Diokno

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the latest incarnation from the Star Wars universe, is the most Asian of all the episodes produced so far.

I’m excited that the Disney production sees fit to include Asians in prominent roles in the universe.

Star Wars takes place in a universe a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but George Lucas, the Star Wars creator, has drawn heavily from our Earth, specifically Asia: From the Samurai-like appearance of villain Darth Vader, to the style of sword-fighting that (at the time) was new to western audiences more attuned to the fencing style of Europe; to the existence of The Force, what martial artists refer to as the “chi” or “ki,” the inner spirit, or force, that can be focused into a powerful punch or mind-over-matter state.

The 1959 Kurosawa samurai classic, The Hidden Fortress, was the inspiration for the original trio of the Star Wars saga, which actually started in episode 4 of the nine-film outline.

“I remember the one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress,” said Lucas, “the one thing I was really intrigued by, was the fact that the story was told from the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story. Take the two lowliest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view. Which, in the Star Wars case is the two droids, and that was the strongest influence.”

The influence comes from watching hours upon hours of martial arts films from Hong Kong and Japan that made Lucas such a fan of Japanese legendary director Akira Kurosawa. You can see his influence in Lucas work that he is best known for from the battle scenes to the wipes from scene to scene.

Even the idea of the Jedi, mystical warriors who have mastered The Force, remind you of the 47 Ronin (the Japanese original, not the remake with Keanu Reeves), who remain loyal to their clan even in the face of overwhelming odds.

But back to Rogue One, which is being released Dec. 16 in the the U.S. It takes place before the original trilogy.

The central character Jyn Ersois (British actress Felicity Jones), a badass woman who leads a band of rebels whose mission is to steal the plans of the Empire’s newest weapon, the Death Star.

Diego Luna, a Latino actor, plays Cassian Andor of the Rebel Alliance.

Three Asians make up the rest of the team. THREE! And they are not red shirts, nor are they given a token one or two lines to recite. Their characters are critical to the plot.

Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen)
Pronounced chi-RUT, he’s no Jedi, but he’s devoted to their ways and has used his spirituality to overcome his blindness and become a formidable warrior. “Chirrut falls into the category of being a warrior monk,” says producer Kathleen Kennedy. “He very much still believes in everything the Jedi were about.” He maintains that belief even though the Jedi are no longer there to protect the galaxy. As director Gareth Edwards puts it: “This idea that magical beings are going to come and save us is going away, and it’s up to normal, everyday people to take a stand to stop evil from dominating the world.”

Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen)
Heavily armored, Baze prefers a blaster to hokey religions and ancient weapons, but he is devoted to protecting his friend Chirrut at all costs. “He understands Chirrut’s spiritual centeredness, but he doesn’t necessarily support it,” say  Kennedy. Baze goes along with this Force business because “it’s what his friend deeply believes,” she adds. Think of them as a little like the galactic version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed)
Bodhi is this Rebel squad’s lead pilot. He tends to be hot-headed, but any abrasiveness is overshadowed by his skills in the air — and the void of space. “He flies a lot of cargo, one of his key jobs,” Kennedy says. “And he tends to be a little tense, a little volatile, but everybody in the group really relies on his technical skills.”

The casting is not all altruistic. I’m sure the choice of Asian stars Wen and Yen is a nod to the huge Chinese market that is predicted to become the No. 1 movie-going market, surpassing the United States.

But that shouldn’t take anything away from having Asian faces up on the big screen. Somewhere, there’s an Asian American kid out there who will come to the realization that we belong, that we exist, that we matter — even if it’s in a galaxy far, far away.


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