Movies

Kate Was Accused of Anti-Asian Violence. Now It’s Netflix’s No. 1 Movie.

Is the thriller’s twist enough to redeem it?

She wears a Japanese-looking smiley shirt, a cigarette dangling from her lips, and bandages and blood all over her body. Behind her, some out-of-focus Asian guys.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Kate. Netflix

When the trailer for Kate, a new Netflix film starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Woody Harrelson, was first released last month, some viewers expressed concern. At a glance, the movie, which sends Winstead’s titular assassin rampaging through Tokyo, seems like yet another film wherein a white American protagonist mows down nameless character after nameless character in a foreign country. In fairness, if the premise seems depressingly familiar (not to mention ill-timed after an eruption of anti-Asian violence), the filmmakers—director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and writer Umair Aleem—appear to be aware of this: They supply Kate with a biracial sidekick, and a major twist late in the movie attempts to turn the formula on its head. Still, the apparent self-awareness is too little, too late, and doesn’t redeem what is fundamentally a xenophobic trope. While the revenge thriller seems to want to be seen as a female John Wick, making it only the latest in a recent spate of neon-hued movies about female contract killers (the trailer touts that it’s from “a producer of” Atomic Blonde, and it arrives less than a couple of months after Gunpowder Milkshake), this bloody tourist trip through Japan is ultimately more like one of Kate’s fellow Netflix originals, the controversial and culturally insensitive Jared Leto yakuza flick The Outsider.

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To explain the movie’s problems, it’s important first to explain the movie’s setup. This, too, is familiar: Our hired gun decides it’s time to retire, but not, of course, before one last job. Unfortunately, before Kate can get out, she’s poisoned with Polonium-204, leaving her with just 24 hours left to live. Intent on finding out who wants her dead, she sets off on a killing spree, slicing, shooting, and punching through dozens of nameless yakuza characters on her way to Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the boss behind the crime family she believes to be the culprit.

The twist is as follows: Kijima isn’t, in fact, the bad guy. Her manager and mentor Varrick (Woody Harrelson) has been the puppetmaster the whole time, working with Kijima’s advisor Renji (Tadanobu Asano) behind his back to overthrow him and merge forces. In other words, all of this violence has been due all along to the intervention of a white guy. But the switcheroo—and Kijima’s turn into Kate’s ally—doesn’t change the fact that most of the film’s Asian cast serve as nothing more than cannon fodder for our hero.

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The character of Ani (Miku Martineau), Kijima’s niece, appears to be similarly calculated to serve as a remedy. Though we first meet Ani as the daughter of the man we see Kate assassinating at the beginning of the movie, she ends up becoming Kate’s sidekick. As it turns out, Renji’s plan for ascension includes wiping out all of Kijima’s family, and Kate is too soft-hearted to let Ani just die. Martineau is charming, but there’s not that much of Ani outside of her relationship with Kate. When left to her own devices, Martineau makes it work—the scenes in which Ani finds new clothes for Kate, and later, when she takes selfies with the two of them, are novel in a movie that otherwise takes itself pretty seriously—but the progression of the plot, which involves Varrick attempting to turn Ani against Kate with the knowledge that Kate is responsible for the violence brought down upon her family, makes it clear that Ani exists largely as just another plot device in Kate’s story. Kate has to feel remorse, but not for slaughtering a bunch of yakuza. She just has to care about Ani—pay no attention to the mountains of corpses piled up behind her.

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The film’s exploration of Japan is equally superficial. Early cityscapes feature anime sequences being projected onto buildings as Kate runs by them; the Japanese band Band-Maid appear in a concert scene; there’s a brief kabuki performance; and there is, naturally, a fight between two katana-wielding yakuza. All of these moments add up to a vision of a nation of 126 million as seen through the eyes of a tourist, as there’s nothing that goes beyond the usual stereotypes. While it may be fair to say that Kate, as a film, doesn’t have the time to go deeper, that argument also means that it didn’t have to be set in Japan, either, if this was going to be the end result.

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Kate gestures at being different, something fresh and subversive, but at the end of the day, it’s just reheating old clichés. The action scenes, taken at face value, stand out for how violent they are (and Winstead has repeatedly proven herself a more than capable action hero), but within the context of the film, the added brutality is only more dispiriting, leaving a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth. If the movie tries to hide behind self-consciousness—the Japanese characters repeatedly call Kate a stupid foreigner—it never proves its own perspective to be any deeper than that of its protagonist.

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