AUSTIN, Texas — It’s pretty clear from all the exaggerated gore scenes in the film, which spat and spewed gallons of fake, water-like blood that director James McTeigue wanted the audience to have a little fun while watching this martial arts movie. Underlying the obvious, though, what is not so apparent for action-movie goers is that Ninja Assassin is an epideictic argument of proposal that defy American stereotypes of Asian male masculinity while also trying to explore Western colonialism in today’s cultural context.
The film is about a disillusioned assassin named Raizo (Jun Ji Hoon) who is seeking retribution against his merciless master. He was taken in by the Ozunu Clan as an orphan and forced to participate in brutal combat, training to become a lethal ninja assassin one day. During his teenage years, Raizo begins to harbor resentment towards the gang and especially his master after they killed his clan sister whom he had developed a romantic relationship with. Stricken by her lost throughout his journey, upon the completion of his first assassin assignment, he decides to break free and fight the clan to avenge her death. Raizo escapes barely alive and from then goes on the run, waiting for the opportunity to take the entire clan down.
The most appealing thing to me about Ninja Assassin is Raizo, played by Korean pop star and stage name Bi Rain. I remember when I saw the movie back in 2009 on the week it debut. I kept thinking to myself throughout the entirety of the film that this actor is the most attractive Asian man I have ever seen. Raizo doesn’t embody the physiognomy of the typical male from Asia. He looks about 6 feet tall. He has the body of a Greek God. His facial features are attractive and masculine, resembling a body-builder-bone-structure type. The tone of his voice is deep and sounds mysterious, similar to Christian Bale in The Dark Knight. Despite his shoulder-length-long hair, Raizo is still the ultimate alpha male at first sight. This could not be more evident to the audience that he is their protagonist.
The one thing though that might throw them off this conclusion is that he is Asian. The film is marketed to an American audience since the movie is in English, and Western culture defines Asian male appearances as those opposite of Raizo. By having a Korean actor play an alpha male lead role in a multi-million-dollar-Hollywood film, McTeigue is essentially breaking Western stereotypical norms of Asian male masculinity.
Raizo is the number one person viewers see half-naked the majority of the time. The only other half naked Asian men they see are a few gangsters at the beginning of the film, and they too are quite built. McTeigue is appealing to the audience’s sense of emotion by trying to catch their physical interest for Raizo. By having him shirtless in almost every scene, the audience is always reminded of his muscular figure and rip-hard abs.
McTeigue features Raizo’s sculpt body by devoting several scenes entirely meant to emphasis how macho he is. In one part, audiences see him do slow handstand pushups and as if that isn’t already difficult enough. He is doing them on a plank of embedded six-inch nails sticking upward. The screen shows a wide shot and viewers get to see this action from head to toe. They see a medium shot of his chest along with his biceps and triceps. The camera then scrolls from his legs to the plank of nails to end the shot. This scene is actually just a preview for the audience to get a close up on the contours of Raizo’s body.
A few scenes later, McTeigue stresses Raizo’s muscles even further when viewers see him practicing his martial arts using several different weapons. This time, though, his half-naked body is greased up to accentuate his muscles more. He’s jumping, flipping, kicking, spinning, whipping and slicing the air with his swords and rope-like weapon, all while the camera is switching rapidly from image to image with some scenes in slow motion. At one point, he is even looking directly into the camera as if saying, “Do you notice my body?”
These scenes are solely used for the audience to admire his figure. It is set up to signify that this Asian man can look masculine. He is not short or skinny. He is not nerdy or feminine. Most importantly he is not asexual. The film shows two love scenes and both of them involving Raizo. His physical features exude the male equivalent of the female sex goddess, which means he is not only interested in woman but that they are also interested in him.
By placing so much emphasis on his body throughout the film, McTeigue is proposing that Asian male masculinity has changed in today’s society. He is arguing against the stereotypical views Westerners have always portrayed Asian men to be. He successfully makes this argument by hiring an Asian actor who fits well with the criteria that make up the alpha male to play a lead role.
McTeigue also successfully makes this argument by marketing the film to a young to middle-age American audience, who are better aware of stereotypes and more likely to accept this idea than an older audience base. The majority of the people who go see this film will more than likely have some kind of interest in Asian culture or ninjas, so they will also be less critical of McTeigue’s proposal on Asian male masculinity.
The second proposal McTeigue makes is exploring Western colonialism in today’s social framework. The film portrays the Ozunu Clan as this rich and powerful, covert organization who is ruthless and uncompromising. They murder anyone who goes against them even their own members. They are an unstoppable gang who break the law without any policing present.
In the film’s climax near the end, an American police force is shown invading the once secretive Ozunu Clan hideout. As Raizo is about to get killed, the gate to the clan’s hideout explodes. Armored hummer vehicles speed in and bullets start to fly carelessly at whatever and whoever was on the other side. An agent shoots a flare into the air, and the audience gets sky view of the clan’s hideout and military choppers hovering in.
Bullets continue to fly as more police agents run in shooting. The clan men dressed in their ninja costumes try to flee but many of them eat bullets. “Hit it!” the commander shouts as an agent is seen using a bazooka to blow up a section of the hideout. Some ninjas go flying because of the explosion as more policemen force their way throw the exposed entrance to the Shinto like house. When they enter, again the agents shoot anything that moves without question. This final battle can be described as a ruthless bloody war between two opposing forces with absolutely zero remorse for human life by the American side.
The film was produced in recent years following the Bush era. The police force’s intrusion into the Ozunu Clan’s hideout and mass murdering everyone can be seen as symbolic of America’s invasion in Iraq. When the Middle East became a problem for the U.S., we invaded Iraq and killed thousands of terrorist before clearly understanding the situation. The climax in Ninja Assassin signifies this because just like the war, the police force raided the hideout and shot every ninja just months after pursuing the clan before clearly understanding what they were going into.
The portrayal of the final battle scene between ninjas and police show that McTeigue is exploring America’s invasion of the Middle East. Through showing the senseless shooting, he is proposing that Western invasion in a foreign setting without a clear grasp of the situation only results in a bloody mess.
At the same time, McTeigue’s argument about the war can also be seen as his interpretation of what modern day Western Colonialism looks like. After the U.S. invaded the Middle East, it gained control over all the territories it invaded and used such things as oil for its interest. Similarly in the film, when the American police force invaded the Ozunu Clan’s hideout. It gained control over that territory and from then on can use that location for any purpose it wants.
The film contains the action, blood and gore and the main reason audiences came to see it, which is a ninja weapon versus automatic weapon showdown. For movie goers who came to see Ninja Assassin purely for the violence aspect, they will miss these epideictic arguments of proposal by the director.
One set back on McTeigue’s proposal on defying Asian male masculinity is that critics might argue that he isn’t actually making this argument at all, but rather he is trying to market star sensation Bi Rain. Viewing the film years ago, I thought they had discovered Bi Rain and decided to make him a Hollywood star since he is an amazingly, attractive Asian male. Little did I know, I found out a few months ago that Bi Rain is actually a famous singer, movie and drama actor in South Korea. He was so popular that Time Magazine listed him as the number one most influential person beating Stephen Colbert who took second place. While the argument is plausible that McTeigue is only marketing Bi Rain to a young, American audience through the film, putting an Asian actor with a physique that defy the norms of Asian male masculinity at least sheds some positive light on the stereotypes.