By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Entertainment Reporter
Bullet Train never convincingly explains why in 2022 one can set a film in Japan and have the focus on White and Black characters. Adding a Latino character with a few actors of Japanese descent isn’t really diversity except by the numbers. The curious casting is unfortunate because this could have been a good action film if one didn’t care about the larger issues.
The film begins with Ladybug (Brad Pitt) getting introduced to his new code name. He’s shambling through Tokyo, on his way to the beginning point of a Shinkansen (bullet train) that runs between Tokyo and Kyoto. Ladybug is talking to his handler, Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock) on his cellphone. Ladybug considers himself singularly unlucky, many of his “easy-peasy” assignments have deadly complications although Ladybug seems to help out people in the end. His first mishap is losing the key to a station locker after running into a scruffy Japanese man, Kimura (Andrew Koji). Via the locker, Maria provides Ladybug with his requested work supplies. He still manages to get into the locker at the station and boards the train.
Ladybug’s mission is a simple theft and delivery. He must find a silver combination briefcase with a train sticker on its handle and get off at the next station. He finds the briefcase, but he’s detained.
The briefcase was brought on to the train by twins Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). Tangerine stowed the briefcase with the other luggage in an unattended area of their rail car. The case holds the ransom money that the White Death (Michael Shannon) paid for his son (Logan Lerman) who had been kidnapped. Tangerine and Lemon sprang the relatively useless son and are taking him to Kyoto to handover.
However, when Tangerine and Lemon leave the son to look for the briefcase, Ladybug has already stolen it, and when they return to the son, he’s dead.
Lemon and Tangerine begin their search for the thief and the killer, but these Lemon, Tangerine and Ladybug aren’t the only assassins on this train. Kimura, who inadvertently caused Ladybug to drop the key. He’s also on this train, talking to his father, the Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), by cellphone. Kimura is looking for the person, Prince (Joey King), who pushed his only child off of the department store roof. His father is watching over Kimura’s comatose son.
Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2 and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) keeps the plot clear despite the furious action scenes. The choreography of the fight scenes is inventive and fun to watch. The dark humor mostly works and there’s wit and clarity in Jonathan Sega’s cinematography (Deadpool 2 and Transformers: The Last Knight), but the sense of place is never quite there. The decision to change the gender of The Prince doesn’t really work. Sara Evelyn’s costume design and King’s too mature appearance (King is 23) establishes her as a woman determined to exploit male fantasies of school girls instead of someone who looks innocent.
Why the production team decided to keep this bullet train in Japan if they didn’t want to star actors of Japanese descent? Even the inclusion of a Latino assassin (Benito A Martinez Ocasio, aka “Bad Bunny,” as the Wolf) could have been a Japanese Brazilian or Japanese Peruvian or Japanese Mexican.
Oddly, even the annoyed passenger, featured prominently in the trailer and the film, is White (Nancy Daly). Did the writer and casting think that a Japanese person couldn’t be just as annoyed, especially at a White person?
There are other high-speed trains in other countries. This diversity casting would have worked better on the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse). I could easily imagine this cast on the LGV Nord (Ligne à Grand Vitesse Nord) goes from Paris-Nord to Calais and commonly carries tourists. The plot could keep the element of organized crime. Even the sword-play could have used a UK or France-based school for East Asian martial arts and not necessarily featured someone of East Asian descent.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, screenwriter Zak Olkewicz said the decision to cast non-Japanese actors “just shows you the strength of the original author’s work and how this could be a story that could transcend race anyway.” That sounds like White privilege providing an excuse for exclusion. The setting is Japan. The suggestion of Olkewicz’s script is that a White race infiltrates a Japanese crime organization. The White and Black characters can seamlessly glide through Japan and are not worried about the Japanese law enforcement on one of the oldest and most traveled bullet train lines.
Furthermore, if the literary work was so good, then the casting of people of East Asian descent shouldn’t be a problem. Films like Parasite, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Crazy Rich Asians proved that good films, even with varying amounts of subtitles, can also do well at the box office.
In Bullet Train there isn’t just whitewashing. It is also a blackout of East Asian characters. The casting Bullet Train is a symptom of a larger problem: A new kind of racism that defines diversity in terms of Black and White. Here we are in 2022, and yet major films set in East Asia focus on White and Black characters. That makes East Asians underrepresented and misrepresented in movies set in the countries where they are the majority. Casting White or Black characters where an East Asian character would make more sense is not diversity.
Bullet Train is not an anomaly. It is a symptom of a more widespread problem. For a more in depth discussion, visit my blog: AgeOfTheGeek.org.
Bullet Train premiered on 1 August 2022 at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and across the country Friday, August 5.
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