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Why I'm Not Seeing "Lucy"

"Lucy" will be discussed soon on the podcast but at least one member of Scarjo-loving TFE refuses to see it. Here's Matthew Eng to tell you why. - Editor

I don't care if Lucy is every bit the gloriously silly and shamelessly outré action fireworks show that gung-ho summer audiences have made into a "surprise hit." I care even less that Luc Besson has managed to curb his own gonzo cheese-fest tendencies to a running time of less than 90 minutes, compared to the ceaselessly spinning tops and chiseled self-mythologizing of every Christopher Nolan movie post-Insomnia. And, though it's been tempting, I finally don't care that Besson and Co. have seemingly put the newly-rejuvenated Scarlett Johansson (so good in Under the Skin; so great in Don Jon) on a pedestal of full-out Film Goddess proportions, in a genre where movies in which women are front and center and not merely killjoy bystanders or fatal love objects is an all too well-known rarity.

That last fact has been my greatest lure towards shilling out for Lucy (aka Scarlett), but I refuse to believe that we should have to tolerate, much less applaud, any old action movie, no matter how dire the prospects, because some Hollywood bigwig has had the amazing insight to put a more-than-deserving actress at the forefront. I, too, was giddy about Angelina Jolie snatching Salt right out of Tom Cruise's hands, until I actually sat down and watched the thing, only to realize what a sorry, secondhand vehicle Jolie was actually driving. If you really want to watch a fully-realized femme figure take names and kick ass with the full support (and smarts) of the filmmakers behind her, then by all means rent/stream/buy the Alien series or the Kill Bills or the Terminators, or, for something less familiar, take a gander at Kathryn Bigelow's exquisite Strange Days, in which a bravura Angela Bassett is every bit the strong and stalwart action heroine she needs to be, while also, you know, playing a recognizable human being.

But what finally set aside any and all chances of me seeing Lucy was this image, ℅ of Rena Meownegishi, who found it and translated. [more ...]



Yep, that's right. As a shackled ScarJo eyes one in a seemingly endless supply of her movie's menacing Asian henchmen and soon-to-be blood-splattered victims, she is literally sitting in a torture chamber whose walls have been graffitied with the Chinese words for "APPLE", "ORANGE", and "GRAPE".

The idiocy of the production allowing this to fly is enough to be outraged by, but then I remember that moment in the trailer where ScarJo shoots an Asian cabbie point-blank for not speaking English, only to turn the gun on a fellow Asian cab driver, and ask him the same question, to which he hilariously agrees with all the wide-eyed, rapid head-nodding, stooge-like energy that he's been directed to emulate, and surely not for the last time. There's more where that came from, as the movie's trailer is quick to prove and which a number of excellent think pieces  have admirably taken it to task for.

the villains

I am so, so tired of anonymous Asian baddies. I am tired of mainstream filmmakers who clearly see Asian men and think to themselves, "Oh, there's a filthy drug lord! Or a torturous Triad member! Or a mercenary with maximum bloodlust!" I am tired of Hollywood who don't merely turn a blind eye to this but applaud it, and it's not just the suits but its most lauded (and it should be added in this case, politically active) stars, who should frankly know better.

I'm even more tired of the audience members who are quick to interject the irresponsible plea, "Oh, come on, it's just a movie! Just enjoy it!" But it's not. It's an entire way of seeing certain people, of using them for the sake of entertainment, while embedding this false and infuriating notion of who we are and what we do into the minds of moviegoers for whom Asian men look like nothing more than grisly, growling, gun-toting characters in this month's pop-action extravaganza, meant to be hated, meant to be discarded. These aren't just characters. And it's still never just a movie.

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Reader Comments (28)

It's been a few days since I've seen Lucy, but I'm still really, really annoyed at all the praise it is getting because it's so incredibly problematic. And not in the "It's science is bullshit!" kind of way. I can go along with goofy science.

What I can't go along with is not only the wonderfully outlined racism as detailed above (and in many other places! the Anonymous Asian baddies thing is ON POINT), but also the incredibly sexist overtones of the film as well. Why does practically every female led blockbuster have to feature a "woman is betrayed by a person she trusts" origin story? As soon as the first five minutes establish that Lucy becomes ~Lucy~ because a guy she likes makes her a drug mule against her will, I was soooo over it. It's also why I hated Maleficent.

It's just such a problematic movie. In so many ways, and it's a shame because it's always nice to have more proof in the bank against the "female leads can't open movies!" thoughtline.


July 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKacey

Kacey - that's a good point too but I think my love for Scarlett glossed that complaint over because i liked her performance.

July 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Nathaniel- It's a great performance! Which I think is what makes me more disappointed (same probably goes for Maleficent, if I think about it). Thankfully, I have the other two films in the Scarlett Johansson Otherwordly Being trilogy (Her/Under the Skin/Lucy) to make me happy.

Lucy may just be further proof that the third part of a trilogy is always the weakest. Even the estoeric ones.

July 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKacey

Scar Jo is quite good in it but point taken by Matthew. I also wondered when Scar Jo would speak some Mandarin—she's in Taipei, after all—or when the TAIWANESE gangster would speak some Mandarin. But she never did, despite becoming supersmart, while he, well, the actor , Choi Min-sik, is Korean, so I assume he was speaking Korean. I just know it wasn't Mandarin.

Love the above translation in the prison. I wondered why they took her there in the first place, to be honest. She's a drug mule. Why not just ... put in her a hotel with a guard? Why not just put her on the plane? Why WAIT?

Not a fan of the movie but Scar Jo, yes, is good in it. That scene where she talks to her mother on the phone? Nice.

July 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Great Post, but I actually felt like Scarlett was rather bland in this one.

July 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNikki

Great post! A problem not often enough recognised or addressed.

July 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Matthew's reign continues. Awesome.

July 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

That room was not in a prison. Wasn't it in a restaurant?

July 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenteryenRN

Lucy is pretty bad. It does not capitalise on the fun, but instead follows an unsatisfying "what is life?!" trajectory. I hope it had veered towards exploring the identity of women and addressing gender-imbalance in cinema, particularly in these type of sci-fi or action films, usually depicting men as the heroes. And of course, it fails the Bechdel test. Lucy isn't a damsel, but she's not a heroine. She just goes crazy and kills people. Ahem. Make that: she kills Asians - every member of an insensitive (RACIST) amalgamation of Asian people. It's watchable but it's really not good.

What's really funny is that why is the film depicting white Americans like Lucy and her friend, living/studying in Taiwan when they don't like it, don't speak the language, complain about Asianness/being white in Asia.

When Lucy angrily stares at the male flight attendant after he serves her the champagne is one clear and I'd say, undebatable example of racism.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Mai

Though I must say I would've been happy(er) if the ending/last act made the film a prequel to Under the Skin. It was totally going there at one point! (you know the scene!)

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Mai

I enjoyed "Lucy." What really rubs me the wrong way is that no one is absolutely outraged that the frickin' GREAT actor, Choi Min-Sik (yes, he and his guys were speaking Korean), wasn't even given an interesting part to work with. If you don't know Mr. Choi's work, I suggest "Failan," "Oldboy," "Crying Fist," "The Quiet Family," "Shiri," etc. He's one of the world's great actors, who shouldn't be playing second-fiddle to even Scarlett Johansson.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJFK

Let's allow for the possibility that the since the converted holding cell/room was supposedly in the back areas of a restaurant; the writing on the wall made sense. Reminders painted on the wall showing where certain types of produce should be stacked when the food shipments arrive? Plus a reminder written a bit larger and more central reminding workers to keep the area clean and hygienic? BTW, I am totally with you taking umbrage at the stereotyping used. However, I still loved the movie with its over the top SciFi/action and for Scarlet J...Morgan F...and Amr W.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHarriet B.


July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

I have no interest in the movie for so many other reasons, but I also don't think the Chinese on the wall are mistakes, especially if it really was the back of a restaurant. If the Chinese in movies are not correct, they generally don't translate to anything coherent. See bad Chinese tatoos/google translate.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkin

...yeah the writing on the wall I think deserves some slack, as it isn't a prison, it's just an anonymous room the drug people are using to hold Lucy. WHY they felt the need to hold her there is another matter, and probably far more ridiculous.

And maybe I don't see enough of these types of movies, but aren't there just as many "anonymous Eastern European baddies" as there are "anonymous Asian baddies"? I don't feel like this is something that is only happening to one ethnic group. But, if you wanted to point out that Lucy only goes after the Asian members of the cartel and not the one white man, you would have an interesting point.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Denny- The problem with the "anonymous Asian baddies" trope is that it is about 80% of the Asian characters created in American cinema. The other 20% are science nerds that help give white people the technology they need to defeat te Anonymous Asian baddies.

It's not that anonymous Asian baddies is a trope that happens a lot, a lot of baddies are anonymous, the problem is is that it's the sum total of the roles Asians can get in American cinema, which is frankly insane.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKacey

Kacey--What is the Asian community doing to counter act the "Asian Baddie" trope? Almost every other ethnic or minority or oppressed group has gone out and created cinema in the image they want to be presented in. All have been pretty successful at this, but I don't see any Asian American cinema made by Asian Americans. There is lots of Asian cinema, but that also includes lots of Asian baddies. If you are going to depend on someone else for your image, you are giving them permission to abuse that image.

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry


It's not solely the Asian communities job to make sure Asians are represented well in cinema. It's not solely women's job to make sure women are represented well in cinema. It's not solely blacks jobs to make sure black people are represented well in cinema. It's not solely LGBTQIA+ people's jobs to make sure their community is represented well in cinema.

There are many reasons for this. First of all, the idea of human responsibility. You know doing what you can to be a good person and all that. Secondly, there is the idea that minority groups such as these don't have the opportunities to make widespread films with characters that fully represent them. Of all the movies given wide releases this summer, all but 3 were directed by white men. It's hard to fix a problem when you can't get in the door to fix it.

And it's not as if Asia isn't making strides to fix the problem. It's becoming a major major source financing for Hollywood. Think about how the Mandarin was handled in Iron Man 3. That whole character is handled for the worse most likely if China doesn't step in to help finance that movie. Hopefully an impact of the Asian markets increased stake in Hollywood means that we'll get more nuanced Asian characters soon. It's time for that.

Also who is to say that Asians ARENT making cinema that's in the image of how they want to be presented? They are probably indies that aren't getting distribution. Which links back to the whole idea of "it's hard to fix a problem when you can't even get in the door to fix the problem."

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKacey

I kind of loved it. fast-paced, fun, interesting...

July 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Maybe when Hollywood figures out how to take photos of their fucking cast instead of photoshopping them together during the obligatory "pan across the living room wall" moment...

MAYBE then... They'll afford the fucks to take care of some Chinese chicken scratch.

Which I think it's obvious to everyone that's precisely what it is to these people behind big desks greenlighting these motion pictures.

That being said, glad to see Besson hasn't lost all the luster for the camp and goofy he so brilliantly crystallized in that 1-2 punch of The 5th Element/The Messenger.


No, but seriously.... What a double feature.

August 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLucas

Kacey, If this were a perfect world, I could see your point and I"m not saying you are wrong with your protest, but it's a personal victory, not one that will change the course.

There is an old adage something like: "If you don't like the dialogue, change the conversation." African Americans are doing it. Gay and Lesbian film makers are doing it. Women are doing it. It wasn't easy, but its happening. It won't happen over night either, but its better now than it was 20 years ago.

August 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

@Henry: "What is the Asian community doing to counteract the Asian Baddie trope?"

Just because there isn't a strong response against an example of racism, doesn't mean the racism is justified. Having minority groups speaking out and representing themselves in their own art doesn't diminish the continuing oppression and discrimination perpetrated by wider media and society. It's systemic. But people like filmmakers do have the opportunity to address this and choose not to be racist, sexist, homophobic etc. in their art.

Kacey mentioned the word responsibility. I can't really say more because I can't articulate my ideas well enough beyond that I think Lucy is a dumb, racist movie and that I disagree with a lot of what you said.

August 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Mai

I'm disappointed your piece ends so abruptly. You have a book's length worth to say about Jennifer Lawrence's performance in American Hustle. Neither she nor the movie deserved that level of critical scrutiny. However this issue deserves more investigation. Not so much about Hollywood's intentions. They are pretty plain. They are white supremacist patriarchy and people continue to remain surprised by their business practices. My one criticism toward the Asian community is their desire to remain inoffensive to the white supremacy patriarchy that is American. There is a racist term for the inoffensiveness of the Asian community it's called Model Minority. You can read up about this destructive title. Especially because Asian-Americans are outside the abusive language from conservative politicians against Hispanics, blacks, every category of Indian, and middle eastern persons. There is a price for being inoffensive to the gatekeepers of a man-made prejudicial system and that is invisibility.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful


You're assuming Asians aren't doing anything to try to change the conversation which is a MASSIVE and UNFAIR assumption. Like I said before, they're are films with Asian characters being made they just aren't getting the distribution they would get in other situations. Because of institutionalized racism in the industry. I would get further into it, but I'm sick and it's 5AM so I won't.

Secondly, as Anthony so wonderfully reiterates, it's not the oppressed's job to "change the conversation". For so many reasons, but including: it is so much harder for the oppressed to get their voices heard. The system isn't in favor of it, that's why it's OPPRESSION.

I'll point back to the first paragraph of my early post and underline it and highlight it. Oppression is not okay just because you can't hear the protests against it. Simple as that.

If you like Lucy, /fine/, you have every right to. But recognize it's problematic. Because it is.

August 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKacey

The first thing that came to my mind when I saw the translation of that graffiti was: it's a joke. That is, the nonsense words are quite intentional. Most Westerners won't know how to read Chinese characters, so why not make them random? It's B. Kliban style humor, Monty Python's Hungarian phrasebook stuff. That's what popped into my mind anyway.

As for anonymous bad guys, they come in all kinds, not just Asian -- think of any film where the good guy has to fight an army of bad guys -- just as ass-kicking protagonists come in all kinds, and not just the "magical black men" that hyper-race-conscious Fox news types like to compare President Obama to. I haven't seen the movie, but so far I have no reason not to, and no reason to condemn it.

August 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdackmont

The Asian community's responsibility? What the fuck does that even mean? Look on youtube there are so many god damn Asian voices speaking out against racism daily. We don't get much coverage for it, because we don't have the giant media institutions which are dominated by white people saying it for us. So you probably don't see it, but again, that's your fault because you don't take the time to listen to it. We see and say the same shit everyone else does. Also, we are not a monolith so we can't speak with one singular fucking voice, fuck off with your stupid fucking racism.

February 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFuck off

Not even what the wall says i saw symbols for protection slavery and rape

I watched Lucy on HBO because I never saw a ScsrJo movie and I liked her voice in the movie HER. it was also fast paced and fun. However I wondered immediately, why is this self proclaimed party girl type an exchange student in China? It seemed so weird. She should have been a language student stidying Chinese, at least. I understand your frustration with stereotypes. I think the tv show The Walking Dead, is a show where strangely enough, racial diversity and equality is prevalent. At first they have a black stereotype, but they evolve from that. Also they have many bad ass females. I never thought of Asian men in a negative light but I believe you! Lol.

June 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie shampaner

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