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Camera Obscura 19.1 (2004) 150-179

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The Legend of the White-and-Yellow Black Man:

Global Containment and Triangulated Racial Desire in Romeo Must Die

How may I touch you across this chasm of flown things?
—Li-Young Lee, The Winged Seed

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Figure 1
Jet Li in Romeo Must Die (dir. Andrzej Bartkowiak, US, 2000)
[End Page 150]

Searching his murdered younger brother's apartment for clues to guide his investigation, Han Sing (Jet Li), the protagonist of Romeo Must Die (dir. Andrzej Bartkowiak, US, 2000), discovers an object that plays as curious a role in his personal history as it does in the politics of the movie. This object is, of all things, a deflated basketball. Preserved through untold years despite its dilapidated condition, it evidently serves as a memento of some importance; at the very sight of it, Han falls almost immediately into a trancelike state, and the screen soon dissolves into the one and only flashback of the movie. In the span of that flashback, we witness a constitutive moment from Han's childhood: he and his younger brother, Po, adrift at night in an ocean that threatens to drown [End Page 151] them; their only flotation device, a buoyant and increasingly baffling basketball. "Which way are we going?" Po asks in Cantonese as he clambers onto his brother's back.1 "Toward the lights of Hong Kong," replies Han. Totally repressing the obvious question of exactly how two children could have ended up in this highly unusual predicament—afloat in the middle of the ocean, using a basketball as a life preserver (a pickup game gone horribly wrong? a round of horse taken way too far?)—the movie abruptly returns to the present, with Han still transfixed by this strangely resonant remnant of his childhood.

With all its unexplained oddities, this scene neatly captures some of the latent social anxieties that suffuse Romeo Must Die and that make it a particularly worthwhile cultural document. Linking a prominent US media sport with yellow male immigrant experience, the scene seems to announce yellow masculinity's sudden emergence into a field of public visibility: an Asian American man literally has the ball here.2 Furthermore, insofar as the basketball serves as a metonym for black male athletic prowess, the scene suggests a subterranean affiliation between yellowness and blackness—an affiliation all the more surprising given the movie's premise of internecine black-and-yellow racial violence. And yet, however novel these representations may seem, they hardly offer an emancipatory racial iconography. With the image of two Chinese children struggling to dog-paddle their way to a nighttime shore, the scene conjures up familiar fears of wetbacked illegal immigrants sneaking their unwelcome way onto US soil. Moreover, with its ludicrous narrative of personal salvation through basketball—surely the ultimate hoop dream—the scene underwrites the brutal and exploitative farce of professional sports as a palliative for economic injustice. Furthermore, though the scene links blackness and yellowness, it does so only to separate them all the more emphatically: in the dream work of the scene, an emblem of black male potency becomes a symbol of yellow male helplessness (the basketball is conspicuously flaccid when we first see it, and the children use it not to display any kind of physical prowess, but simply to keep their heads above water). Finally, though ostensibly global in scope, the scene remains emphatically national [End Page 152] in orientation: the children may be swimming toward "the lights of Hong Kong," but as I have tried to suggest, they have clearly been constructed by the terms of the US racial imaginary, so that the potentially disruptive perspective of the global is contained within the horizon of the national. What this scene dramatizes, then, is a kind of ruling-class panic attack, simultaneously invoking and assuaging anxiety over insecure national boundaries, guilt over economic injustice, uncertainty over interracial alliances, and disorientation in the face of globalization. Far from challenging...


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pp. 150-179
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