Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li – Such mixed feelings

Street Fighter, how you confuse me. Let us count the ways.

You are not a very good movie, and most of your characters need a couple dozen more IQ points, but at your core you contain a master-student fighting movie in which the student just happens to be a young woman. Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) doesn’t get involved in martial arts because she is assaulted or to avenge her family. This is a tiresome trope, see The Forbidden Kingdom for a good example, and you are a refreshing change of pace. Chun-Li’s father teaches her wu shu from an early age, and it’s so NORMAL for her, it’s lovely. You dress her in clothes that cover her body despite a fanboy contingent that I’m sure would have preferred otherwise. Cute clothes, yes, but also reasonable clothes.

She has strong arms and she is allowed to fight on her own instead of being saved. She is treated respectfully by her teacher, and she is not sabotaged by romantic or sexual entanglement plotlines. No one makes an issue of her gender when she’s learning or fighting. She is not treated as a woman, she is treated as an ally and an opponent.

Then you invent Maya Sunee (Moon Bloodgood), a homicide detective, and put her in charge of such important tasks as Boob Display, Being Flirted With, and Getting Shot. Why can’t you make up your mind how you feel about women? Are they subjects or objects? Are they capable or eye candy?

You send Chun-Li into the slums of Bangkok, and give her (terrible voiceover) lines like “Every night was struggle. Every meal was a gift.” This is supposed to bring us along on her journey from desiring revenge to acting as a protector of the weak. You call upon our compassion for the poor. Yet you ignore the fact that with one phone call, the comfortable heiress could have gone back home to Hong Kong overnight. The people she is developing all this identification with aren’t living this way as an exercise in personality development. They’re suffering and dying. Do you not have a clue how obnoxious this sounds? A character with ten tons of privilege complaining about voluntary deprivation?

Cantana (Josie Ho), the only female Bad Guy, is really scary. She’s not an accessory, she’s a force in her own right. But then you turn her into a predatory lesbian, in a scene that loudly telegraphs her lesbianism as perversion and her Achilles heel. Was there no other way to advance the plot?

I appreciate that the casting is so diverse. Kreuk, Bloodgood, Ho, Robin Shou, Edmund Chan, Taboo, and Michael Clarke Duncan outnumber white guys Chris Kline and Neal McDonough handily among the major characters. But you remember that rumor about the possibility of casting Jessica Alba as Chun-Li? I’m not sure that casting Kreuk was that much better. I don’t want to invalidate her status as a woman of color. She is. But you cast her as a character that in the original source material was completely Chinese, rather than having a mother who is played by an actress who looks white. (The actress in question is Emilze Junqueira, and she is apparently Brazilian from what I can find online.) Did you really think no one would notice when you selected actresses to play Chun-Li as she grew up and each one looked less Chinese? Starting with a little girl who looked just like her Chinese father, then going step by step until you got to Kreuk, was not exactly subtle. What was going through your mind here? Did you feel like you had to establish her Chinese cred?

I just don’t know how to feel. I have struggled with how to rate you, because there is such an amazing mixture of good and bad here. I think Chun-Li is an action heroine that could wake up men who ordinarily dismiss women in action roles, because she is a strong, respectable character. I randomly found this review of the movie on Firefox News that warms my heart a little, especially this part:

Now, don’t go thinking this is some featherweight chick flick just because the lead character is a woman. And you should also put that notion out of your mind that this is an “all action, no plot” kind of movie. This film is about a girl who is given the opportunity to right a major wrong. It is a decision that will mark a drastic change in her life. In fact, if she falters this new path could lead to a quick death.

I never thought of Kristin Kreuk as a leading lady. When I heard that she had been cast as Chun Li I was very skeptical, at first. I didn’t think the pretty little heartbreaker from Smallville was strong enough to portray the emotional and physical demands of “The Strongest Woman in the World”. There are rare (very rare) moments when I am pleased to admit my misjudgments. Take a picture because this is one of those moments. Ms. Kreuk gets my respect for the stunt work she did but I was more in awe of her dramatic chops. I am a major Chun Li fan and Kreuk portrayed Chun Li as the hero I know and admire.

I just wish that there wasn’t so much other crap mixed in.

Chun-Li herself, in another film, with this kind of casting diversity, would have been a Heroine Content Greatest Hit. But she’s stuck in this one, and there’s only so much I can ignore. So with a heavy heart, I can only give it 2 Stars. So close, my friends, so close.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.