One of my hobbies is to look at movie posters and just insert the word white into any movie featuring a white protagonist, which is something like 90% of all movies. Or, all “mainstream” movies not starring Will Smith or Denzel Washington.
When my fourteen year old son and I saw Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner in September, I was surprised at how good the production values were. From the previews I was expecting a somewhat cheesy, low-ish budget, formulaic sci-fi teen film like The Host (based on the Stephanie Meyer book; hell yes, I should have known better. And truly, it was three times as bad as any of the Twilight films, which at least had some strengths, although I don’t remember them now… Robert Pattinson’s glitter? Vampire baseball? Rome?).
Caution: spoilers ahead.
I was also pleasantly surprised that the film, based on the 2009 book by James Dashner from Delacorte Press, featured a major character named Minho, and that he doesn’t die in any of the ways that Asian male characters usually die in films and TV shows. As others have discussed ad chinkeum, Asian male characters nowadays are either the 1.) briefly shown, nameless, silent, submissive, amoral scientist sidekick (Transcendence); 2.) briefly shown, nameless, silent, incompetent police officer (The Dark Knight); 3) briefly shown, nameless, silent, kung fu master (Transformers: Age of Extinction); 4.) briefly shown, nameless, generally silent, submissive, seedy Chinatown henchman or expendable warrior (Pacific Rim). And on and on since the beginning of film.
Usually this character dies before the audience has a chance to get attached to him. The “Chinaman” is often the canary in the coal mine, showing the audience that “Yes, this is a dangerous situation!” and “The white male hero will cut through the Asian men like a hot knife through butter, and then maybe get through some tougher (but not intelligent) black men, and then through some super tough (and maybe slightly smarter) white men, and then on to the final tough, white man-nemesis at the end.” I’ve come to see Asian men as loaves of bread that someone off camera throws at the white protagonist, it’s just THAT EASY to kick them out of the way. And not even crusty french bread loaves, but pre-sliced white bread loaves that just fall apart if you breathe on them.
And some movies are even too racist for me to watch (and my bar is pretty low), e.g. Lucy. Asian men getting gunned down by an impatient blonde party girl for speaking their own language in their own country (is it set in Korea or is it just that Choi Min-sik is in it so I think that?) is too unpalatable, and the movie looked stupid anyway.
(Whitelight. Whitescendence. The White Knight Rises. Whiteformers. White Rim. It’s pretty fun.)
So, it was a delight to see Minho a.) played by Korean American actor Ki Hong Lee and b.) a character who is physically capable (he is one of the initial maze Runners) and c.) NOT die1. On the progress side of the chart, Minho is handsome, confident, and strong and actually has lines. Although he is not the main character or even one of the most dominant males in the Glade, his skill as a Runner has earned him a great deal of respect, if not awe, from his peers.
He has taken on the most dangerous job and continues to emerge from the maze alive. Later, we find out that he has run every inch of the maze himself and has mapped the entire structure in a 3-D model that is kept hidden from most of the boys. He and the the other leaders believe that the rest of the boys need hope, and so they keep going into the maze, pretending that they are looking for a way out. Gone are the stereotypes of the Asian male nerd, weakling, etc.
However, it is one step forward, two steps back. Or something. Minho, while very brave and physically strong — inside the maze he carries a gravely wounded and unconscious Alby (Aml Ameen) almost to safety at the entrance of the Glade — it is always the white male protagonist, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), who is the most bold, the most curious, the most loyal, and the most persistent. In nearly every scene we see him do something better, sooner, faster than any boy has before. There’s no reason given as to why he’s ultimately a more capable survivor, teammate, and leader than anyone else. He just is. While Minho cannot bring Alby all the way out of the maze, Thomas runs in, narrowly escaping the walls that are closing in him, all while the boys behind him are yelling at him “No, no!” “Don’t, Thomas!” “What are you doing?”
More than once while in the maze it is Minho who wants to leave the injured Alby behind because he knows that to delay will be suicide because the reavers are predators and, apparently, there is no way to fight back. (Even though the boys have been there for three years, and there is a reaver in each section of the maze, the boys have not fashioned any weapons or defenses against the reavers. They continue to run into the maze with nothing but small backpacks. Apparently all these boys, led by a young black man (Alby) and a young white English man (Newt), just don’t have the balls or the brains to bring the fight to the reavers, though they sure know how to gang up and corral a boy sick with deadly reaver poison back into the maze to be killed by the reavers.)
It is Thomas who continues to protect the unconscious Alby while Minho runs on, although not without trying to talk some sense into Thomas. It’s not that Minho is portrayed as cowardly, he comes off as very brave and caring but realistic, but it’s that Thomas is portrayed as more loyal, more determined, and more innovative (while Minho merely runs, Thomas climbs the vines — as though no one else had ever considered that? — hides, and ultimately kills the reaver that has been pursuing them by baiting it to follow him through closing walls.
Thomas continues to show off his near supernatural skill set throughout the film, including the magical ability to talk to girls (or the one and only girl who has been delivered to the Glade). She, Theresa, recognizes him although he doesn’t recognize her. Later, he takes some magical reaver poison in the gut for the team so that he can remember the past and figure out why they are all trapped there together. When he does, he discovers — surprise, surprise, that he was the One. Or, he and the one white girl (who actually looks like she could be his sister…) are the Ones and they were collaborators with the adults who put all these boys into the Glade to run an elaborate, long-term, and often fatal experiment on them. But, his buddies forgive him because that was then and this is now and he is morally clean because he’s been so brave and useful since then. See how easy it is! Stains wash right out.
At the end, it is Minho who shows his strengths as a cool-headed warrior; when Gally (Will Poulter), a victim of Stockholm syndrome, or just a rule-bound muscle-head who has found his place in a survivalist microcosm, threatens to shoot them all so they can’t leave, Minho throws his spear handily into Gally’s chest, killing him. But, before Gally falls he gets off a shot and it hits Thomas’ little buddy Chuck, the (younger, chubbier, curly-red-headier) emotional center of the movie, giving Thomas a golden opportunity to again show us his emerging fatherly qualities as his wailing grief provides a kind of cathartic release (or is supposed to) for the audience who has been holding its breath during the tense getaway.
Minho is a good knight, but Thomas is the king. The reluctant hero, who just happens to be better at something that a black guy, an English guy, and an Asian guy + a slew of other kids have been doing for three years.
As a parent of an Asian American son, it is an ongoing struggle to find positive role models in popular culture for my boy. Taking him to see The Maze Runner, while it continued the tired all-white hero’s journey that is played out over and over again in movies, especially for children and teens, felt like progress because he could see a Korean boy who resembled him being active, strong, brave, smart, and, alive at the end of the movie. I thought Ki Hong Lee did an excellent job and I look forward to seeing him in more roles, and perhaps some day in a leading role in which he plays a fully realized character with his own arc and not just a stepping stone on the path to the white hero’s growth and triumph.
- Of course during a climactic battle with the massive and deadly cyber-insects called the reavers, there is a MAJOR Blackrifice, which was utterly predictable and utterly unfortunate. ↩