Wish Dragon is a clumsy attempt, but you have to start somewhere
Longjing-flavoured Starbucks sure tastes strange, but one Starbucks never killed anyone.
The trailer of Wish Dragon popped up when I finished Spirited Away on Netflix for I don’t remember how many times. This sums up my entire response after three minutes:
Here's that trailer:
Frankly, Wish Dragon’s trailer sets up irritating expectations for an insincere, desperate money grab. Behind those cringe worthy Chinese targeting tokens presented in a clearly Western animation style, it would be an insanely derivative, tedious story which could only grow out of the American entertainment machine’s culturally condescending profiling of the Chinese audience — They are rich but unsophisticated. They see dragon, they click. An Aladdin knock-off is good enough for their LV knock-off wallets.
Haven’t you seen South Park? Get some Tegridy! I swear to Buddha if I see a parade of white surnames in the crew…
I have to admit, what got me curious was the fact that Jackie Chan produced this film. Okay, give people the benefit of doubt, I thought, it could still be some decent storytelling despite all that awkward ass-kissing.
And that’s what Wish Dragon turns out to me: decent, yet awkward. I’m afraid it’s still a frustratingly formulated and predictable story, but I see the intention, and I appreciate that intention.
What Wish Dragon got right:
- The characters actually look properly Asian, instead of having “exotic enough” names with “white enough” faces.
- The nosy, boundary-lacking relationship with your neighbours if you live in a Shikumen lilong.
- The brutal contrast between the fancy part of Shanghai that has been kissed by capitalism, and the gutters which now represent poverty more than history.
- The traffic, and what people do when stuck in traffic…
- No, not everybody is kung fu fighting, but yes, shrimp chips are to die for.
And here’s where Wish Dragon tastes like zucchini noodles —
In terms of the presentation: The characters move like they just walked off the set of The Secret Life of Pets or Sing. The bald villain looks like he could have been an extra in Despicable Me or Hotel Transylvania. The humour, including those jokes that fell flat, could have been taken straight from any Pixar or Dreamworks flicks picturing adorable animals or babies under the age of five. If you remove the three Lujiazui castles from the background, does the city really look that different from San Francisco in Toy Story?
The way Din’s mom talked to him, that’s not the way a single mom who has spent her entire life in a culture that still believes — no matter how increasingly untrue it has become — that education can create a successful life for poor kids would communicate when she found out her only son, the child shouldering the future of the entire family, had been skipping school for some random girl completely out of his league. You’d sit the kid down and walk through your entire family tree, starting with your own grandfather who didn’t get to go to college in 1937 because of the war and the lack of resources, until the guilt trip breaks the kid psychologically and puts his ass back into the classroom the next morning.
“You are not helping!” That’s not what you say to your Shikumen neighbours when they watch you discipline your kid and provide live commentary. You bring up their deepest insecurities and messy marriage dramas that you have observed by sharing the communal facilities with them for years until they go back to their units and cry themselves to sleep. Then maybe after three days of awkward silence in the hallway you bring them a dish or a new recipe because you still share the communal facilities with them so you have to fix the relationship somehow.
The correct pronunciation of “Wang” is “want” without the “t”. And based on his Chinese name on his little dragon doodle, Din’s name should have been “Ding” with a “g”. Although, well, I see why you don’t want that name for your protagonist.
And that scene with the traffic, do you really expect a Shanghai yasu (pet name for a middle aged man in Shanghai) to stay quiet when a kid has a conversation with something he can’t see in his backseat for ten minutes?
As for the story itself, Din could be a Florida boy named David who developed an unlikely friendship with the popular cheerleader who went on to become a TikTok superstar, and Li Na could be a rich Indian girl from a family of higher status who made a poor childhood friend when she ran away from home to enjoy the nature one day, the story would still work.
The core conflict in this story, the standard “hero’s journey”, the free fall at the ⅔ point and the climax, even the changes in characters at the end or the ultimate message promoted — none of them have to be Chinese and none of them developed as they did because they were Chinese. As a result, Wish Dragon gives off the same manufactured resonance that one would have felt after seeing a film about “one-child policy” set in California featuring families named “Murphy” or “Williams”. Maybe it will work in a post-apocalyptic setting after all that fire? No idea, ask Netflix.
But as I said, I understand the intention behind this production, and I appreciate that intention. As a production which has respected the background of the story and the ethnicity of the characters in its casting decisions, told a complete (although generic) story, and integrated the cultural elements as naturally as it could within the boundaries of its originality, Wish Dragon has given more value than what could be expected from an Asian/brown face on the marketing brochure of any corporation with a predominantly white leadership. It has shown more sincerity to connect than what I’ve seen on people who take offence when I can not understand their horribly pronounced “Mandarin” or “fail to show gratitude” for their effort in learning a language that has sticks for letters.
Maybe this movie only wanted to entertain, and it has done a decent job. Maybe you have to be a lukewarm vanilla smoothie of a story to get through the wires of censorship and protect your investors. Maybe the creator truly believes that vast differences in financial status shouldn’t be an obstacle for friendship or love, even in this day and age, and that’s okay.
And maybe, the Western delivery is an investment decision to maximise the audience. Remember those people you have met in real life who would say “I just don’t know how to communicate with Asians. I mean, I just feel things are done differently with them…they think differently…you know, they might not fit in?” Those people might also walk into a cinema one day.
Is it right? No. Can it be changed overnight? Sadly, no. But on the positive side, it is important to remind people that there is no real difficulty in casting Asian actors for Asian roles even in a story that white people can understand.
I think what’s hard for me to get past is that Wish Dragon could also be another example that Chinese viewers continue to get ripped off, on an intellectual level, in the entertainment field.
Do not underestimate Chinese viewers’, more specifically, Chinese millennials’ ability to appreciate a good story and discern whatever subtext you threw in a piece, especially in animation.
They were born and raised with the last glance of creativity freedom in China and arguably the best buffet of productions that has ever been distributed in that market.
When they were kids, Shanghai Animation Film Studio was in its prime. They had the luxury of browsing through abundant traditional Chinese mythology and folklore delivered in a distinctive artistic style that belonged to their identity. When they grew a little older, they were hit with a storm of Japanese imports, which subsequently introduced them to Ghibli, Toei, KyoAni, Madhouse, Gonzo, Bones and Sunrise. They learned about dreams, friendship and commitment through Dragon Ball, One Piece, Naruto and Gintama. For people who were absolutely addicted to anime, they tasted Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Neon Genesis Evangelion, maybe even Paranoia Agent, Baccano and Lain. Even now, after the Japanese nijigen has become a factory for highschoolers with superpowers, there’s still Attack on Titan.
As they continued to grow, in their teens and twenties, they had a huge library to meet pretty much any demand beyond animation: You want proper comedies that make you cry, there was Stephen Chow. You want artistic flicks that you don’t know if you have truly understood after you finish, there was Wong Kar-Wai. You want to learn something about Taiwan, there were Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang. You want something weirder, more depressing and erotic, Tsai Ming-Liang was there for you. You want TV shows about young professionals with work ethics and integrity, and women who were already strong and independent in the 80s, there was TVB. Before the pretty boys of Johnny’s, they met Takeshi Kitano and Shunji Iwai.
And on their own land, they had quality productions that real artists put years into, productions about ancient kingdoms, the rise and fall of business empires, the fate and sacrifice of normal people in strange times of wars and revolutions, the big issues in the small lives of ordinary folks. They had those stories, stories they haven’t seen on their screens for quite some time.
They saw Cixin Liu win the Hugo award before The Three-Body Problem became a Netflix series.
They knew Boon Joon-ho before Parasite. They recognised Kang-Ho Song by Memories of Murder, Joint Security Area and The Attorney.
They were not as excited about Chloe Zhao’s Oscar as they were supposed to be, because Nomadland is still a white story. And yes, they remember what happened to Aloha and Ghost in the Shell.
(Also, according to Wikipedia, Chloe Zhao is an “heiress” before she’s a filmmaker. It must be awfully important to certain people that every Asian success came from money.)
Their ideas about cinema, animation, entertainment and classics were forged before Hollywood became a summer camp for mutants in tights, and before the Western mainstream entertainment put in any effort to learn what they wanted. You want to satisfy them with a Barbie doll in Hanfu, you are likely to be greeted with a polite British smile.
People who remember the taste of Da Hong Pao deserve more than Longjing-flavoured Starbucks.
But hey, one Starbucks never killed anyone.