Rogue One is also a movie that features three men of Asian descent — two East Asian and one South Asian — and, far from relying on stereotypes of “Asian Masculinity,” in fact subverts those stereotypes in a way that feels revolutionary for Western media. (Needless to say: spoilers.)
Let’s start with Chirrut, played by Donnie Yen. When Chirrut first showed up in the movie, I had a sense of dread: “ah, here we go with the magical Asian stereotype.” After all, he was wearing robes, carried a staff, and offered some vague, mysterious platitudes about the kyber crystal necklace Jyn was wearing. He knew martial arts, and it looked like that was going to be his defining characteristic. But the more interactions we saw between Chirrut and the other characters, the more revolutionary he seemed as a character — while the TV Tropes page may technically list Chirrut as a “Magical Asian” (your mileage may vary, obviously), in many ways, he turned the stereotype on its head. After all, here was an Asian male character who was also Force-sensitive, religious, a badass, and disabled. He was wise, sure, but he was also impish and wry.
In a lesser movie, he’d have been the Mr. Miyagi or Pai-Mei of Rogue One, whose sole purpose was to offer bland mystic platitudes while teaching the white protagonist. But Chirrut didn’t just speak in platitudes or proverbs, even though his most memorable line is a prayer chant. He made jokes and cracked wise, most memorably when he asked “are you kidding me?” as Saw Gerrera’s rebels placed a black bag over his head. He also didn’t offer to teach any of the other characters (and what good would that have done, really, in the timeframe this movie takes place in?), and Jyn, the sole white protagonist, didn’t exceed his particular skills by virtue of being white and “special.”
Contrary to standard expectation, Chirrut was the special one in this film. His fighting skills were unmatched by any of the other characters, and he moved with a grace that was lethal and deadly and violent. He never hesitated to drop his enemies and didn’t debate moral quandaries with himself or with anyone else — even as he questioned whether Cassian was going to murder Galen Erso, he didn’t offer a judgment on Cassian’s character either way.
If Chirrut were the only Asian character in Rogue One, I’d probably be more inclined to think that he embodied a stereotype. But his partner, Baze Malbus, played by actor Jiang Wen, was also Asian — and coded as a stereotypical hyper-masculine character. He was a hulking man who loomed large, with long hair, a beard, and a scowl. He didn’t do a single lick of martial arts — preferring instead to use his heavy repeater cannon — and that offset the “every Asian knows martial arts” trope we see all too often in Western media.
Baze was gruff and seemed to have little patience for Chirrut’s faith, even as he was described as once being the most devoted Guardian of them all. At the same time, there was a gentleness behind his gruffness; he wasn’t unfeeling. Baze displayed a sense of humor, both toward his partner and the rest of his team. By the end of the film, he was shown respecting Jyn, calling her his “little sister” and touching her on the shoulder, as they prepared for their suicide mission.
In that same mission, when Chirrut put himself directly in harm’s way, Baze’s terror for his friend (or lover, but we’ll get to that) was clear on his face, as was the anguish he felt when Chirrut was shot. In the middle of an intense battle, he held Chirrut, took his hand, cradled his head, and in a lesser movie, this big, hulking man would have grunted something like “don’t you dare die.” Baze does say something to that effect — “don’t leave me” — but he also prayed, because Chirrut prayed. He prayed, even though he didn’t quite share Chirrut’s faith anymore, because it was bringing comfort to his partner in his last moments. Baze was allowed the space, as a character, to express sorrow and emotion and was presented as no less masculine for all the emotion he felt.
It’s also refreshing to see the relationships that exist between both Chirrut and Baze themselves, and with those around them. The two of them obviously shared a history, a depth of emotion and understanding. Lots of people on the internet have seized upon their bond and interpreted it as a queer relationship. Even if you don’t read them as queer, these characters have an undeniably intimate and profound bond, and it is subversive to see a representation of such a bond between two men on screen. They barely touch, but they’re hardly ever on screen without each other. They bicker like an old married couple and clearly have affection for each other. It’s not often in Western Media that we get to see two men of any race so openly display the nuances of their affection and love for each other, whether platonic or queer.
If you do read their relationship as one that goes beyond a platonic one (i.e., so married), these characters become even more subversive. Despite recent gains in positive attitudes toward homosexuality, it is still considered taboo in a lot of Asian countries. In China, textbooks continue to call homosexuality a “disorder,” employment discrimination against the LGBTQ community is still common, and Chinese regulators continue to censor LGBTQ web dramas. A 2013 Pew study found that in South Korea, 57% of South Koreans believed that homosexuality is morally unacceptable. By showing these two Asian men in a relationship, two Asian men whose masculinity or ability to fight aren’t defined or affected by said relationship, there’s this (somehow still revolutionary) idea that homosexuality and masculinity aren’t mutually exclusive.
And lest you think I’m forgetting him: Bodhi Rook. Bodhi, played by Pakistani British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed, is so vital — not just for the movie (it’s his defection from the Empire that sets off the events of Rogue One), but for the greater context surrounding Ahmed’s portrayal of the character. In the movie, Bodhi is coded as younger than most everyone else around him, and he was completely and utterly terrified the entire time. He displayed little of Chirrut’s calm, or Baze’s self-assuredness.
He stuttered, panicked, pleaded — but he was also portrayed as being no less brave than everyone else. At the end of the film, he was one of the first people to stand with Jyn on her mission to Scarif. His support for her wasn’t as splashy as Cassian’s, but he was with her nevertheless. He came up with the Rogue callsign, and in the heat of battle, he helped connect with the Rebel Alliance, was responsible for preparing Admiral Raddus’ fleet to receive transmissions of the Death Star plans. Bodhi could so easily have been just a terrified, wide-eyed nerd who was in over his head — the sobbing, incompetent sidekick, if you will — but he took ownership of his role (“I am the pilot”) and he did it, even while being a terrified, wide-eyed kid who was in over his head. Most of the time, characters like Bodhi seem to flip a switch where they suddenly lose all fear and become brave and determined, but Bodhi never had that moment. He was scared throughout the entirety of the movie, yet, he wasn’t portrayed as a coward. Instead, it was his courage and his bravery in the face of his fear that made him masculine, not the bulk of his body or his attitude toward others.
It was also incredibly gratifying that a Pakistani British man plays the hero pilot in this scenario. Riz Ahmed’s hip-hop duo, Swet Shop Boys, rap about the way brown men are racially profiled when getting on planes, like in their song, T5:
Oh no, we’re in trouble
TSA always wanna burst my bubble
Always get a random check when I rock the stubble.
And Ahmed has been outspoken about being typecast, about the messy nuances of the politics of the diaspora, the way that fear, racism, and Islamophobia has colored our view of men who look like him or who have names like his. There is something deeply subversive about seeing a South Asian man play the pilot who risks his mind and his life to help a cause he didn’t have to help, a South Asian man who — in his real life — has been side-eyed in airports and feared simply for the crime of being brown. Yet, in the film, there was no questioning of his motives, no fear of his skin color. The movie’s easy acceptance of him then raises the question to audiences: Why not this man on the side of good? Why not him?
It’s so rare to see Asian men allowed to embody masculinity in Western cinema. So often, they’re reduced to stereotypes: the nerd with the cartoonishly strong accent who will never, ever get the girl, i.e. Long Duk Dong. Or they’re the villains, supposedly strong but ultimately easily taken down by the (white male) protagonist, i.e. David Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China or Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu. Or they’re terrorists, of which there are too many to name. If they’re not the “bad guys,” they tend to be old and wizened masters of martial arts with frail appearances, whose only function is to teach/help the young white male protagonist defeat the bad guy. Or their martial arts prowess is the only thing that defines them.
In Rogue One, none of that happened. Baze was allowed a full-range of emotion even as he coded as a Rambo-type character, and Chirrut was very threatening. He was lean, but nobody would mistake him as frail; he was muscular, virile even. He had a disability, but that didn’t make him any less hyper-skilled. Nor was he solely defined by his martial arts capability — his relationship with Baze, his humor, his faith all gave him characteristics that went above and beyond the simple “Magical Asian” trope. Bodhi consistently made difficult choices and faced things he wasn’t prepared to face, simply because it was the right thing to do.
In the current political climate, when American audiences (and the rest of the world) are contending with a disturbing rise in racism and xenophobia, when people feel it’s okay to tell Asian Americans walking down the street to “go back to China” regardless of where they were born, when a ban on Muslims entering the country is a proposal taken seriously by a significant portion of the population, Rogue One felt especially revolutionary and necessary. Here was a cast of minorities — a Mexican actor, a woman, three Asian and South Asian men — who took on an Empire that was overwhelmingly white. A cast of minorities who believed that “rebellions are built on hope” and did something about it.
And I get it: Diversity in Hollywood may seem like a frivolous topic in the face of the current fear of the “other,” and the very real consequences of that fear, but portraying worlds populated with nuanced people of color in our media helps to normalize worlds populated with people of color in our everyday lives. In Rogue One, we’re not all exotic, mystic teachers, or terrorists. We’re warriors in different ways, and we are heroes too.