The Whitewash cover - Writing page.jpg

It sounded like a good idea at the time: a Hollywood spy thriller, starring, for the first time in history, an Asian male lead. With an estimated $350 million production budget, and up-and-coming Hong Kong actor, JK Jr, who, let's be honest, is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but probably the hottest, Brood Empire was basically a sure thing. Until it wasn't.

So how did it all fall apart? There were smart guys involved. So smart, so woke. So woke it hurts. There was top-notch talent across the board and the financial backing of a heavyweight Chinese studioAnd yet, Brood Empire is remembered now not as a historical landmark that smashed the bamboo ceiling in Hollywood, but rather as a fiasco of seismic proportions.

The Whitewash is the definitive oral history of the whole sordid mess. Unofficial. Unasked for. Only intermittently fact-checked, and featuring a fool's gallery of actors, producers, directors, film historians and scummy click-bait journalists to answer the question of how it all went so horribly, horribly wrong.

Excerpt

LeBron Chew: Click Bae Editor-in-Chief

Look, I didn’t get into this business to write super-sanitised PR bullshit for celebs, like sample meal plans and fitness routines with sweaty, post-workout centrefolds. You want that stuff, go crying to GQ. Go crying to Men’s Health. I got into this business for the leaks! The sex tape stuff. The ‘Who’s boning their kid’s nanny?’ stuff. The ‘Who’s secretly addicted to ice?’ stuff. The ‘Who’s got a love child stashed away in Burma?’ stuff.

 

There used to be a time when Click Bae was churning out so much nasty viral content that readers affectionately called us ‘The Black Death’. I was really proud of that. We were known for rooting around, elbow-deep, in celebrities’ rubbish bins, hiding in their shrubs, hacking their browser histories, uploading their nude selfies, leaking their personal emails. We might not have been the first to do it, but we were the best at it.

So when the JK Jr no-holds-barred, all-access offer came in, I’ll be honest with you, it gave the writing staff a serious identity crisis.

Was this what the infamous Click Bae had become?

Hetty Lin: Click Bae Research Division Team Lead

Oh, I was all for it. JK Jr is tall, has movie-star looks, a strong jaw, abs for days, and pecs you wanna slather oil on and just slip and slide and … what was I saying? Oh right, I wanna have mouth babies with him and he’s not even my type. I don’t usually go for the Manly Man look. I like my men pretty, and thin. Like boy band thin. Like thinner than me. Like thin to the point where I start to hate my own body.

LeBron Chew: Click Bae Editor-in-Chief

We put it to a vote. The editorial staff was split down the middle, 50/50. And guess who got to cast the tie-breaking vote? Me. I was leaning towards 'no'. Okay, more than leaning. But then JK Jr showed up unannounced at the Click Bae office and basically seduced everyone. No advance team, no entourage. Just him. Shook all of our hands. Looked us right in the eye. Remembered everyone’s name. Spoke Canto with the local dudes like Wong Kim, and perfect English with ‘rexpats’ like me and Hetty. That was his term for expats who grew up in the West but returned to the motherland in adulthood. Turns out JK Jr grew up in LA. We talked pro ball, In-N-Out Burger, favourite kung fu movies. He was like one of those social butterflies back in high school who’d flit between groups, who could speak jock, geek, goth and theatre nerd fluently.

He gave us his personal number, told us to call him anytime. I mean, we were giddy. By the time he left, everyone had a crush on him. So I voted ‘yes’, and we embedded our Click Bae journalists into JK Jr’s daily life: starting with Damo.

Damon ‘Damo’ Smith: Click Bae In-House Photographer

Nah, yeah.1

 

Cannes, 2017. That was a good one, mate. That’s when I knew I’d gone to a whole new level as a pap. You put in your 10,000 hours, you get a knack for these things. Only a rookie photographer would low angle for an upskirt right from the get-go. Are you kidding? The festival organisers aren’t dummies. Stick your camera up someone’s skirt, that’s the quickest way to get your press pass revoked. You gotta approach it from another angle, mate. Do your homework. Like, which limos are picking up which starlets? From which hotels? When are they due? What’s the rough order? And who’s the best value for our media partners in the US, UK, China, Pacific? I’ve got a whole team on the walkie-talkies, mate, it’s nonstop chatter. Prep. It’s all prep. Then, maaaaate, it comes down to instincts, picking ya moment. And you know what? Nine times out of ten, you snap the shot and check it and you’ll get panties. And, you know, for the ninety-nine per cent that’s fine. Perfectly fine. I’m not knocking panties. Panties pay the bills. But to get to the one per cent, the elite, you’ve gotta get a gander at the pleasure pad.2

 

If you don’t bring your A-game, you’re never gonna catch the snatch. Your regular pap’ll get to the ground, but his form’s all wrong, he’ll tweak a muscle, worse, he’ll get us all busted for a blatant upskirt attempt. You get arrested for that shit these days. That’s why I do yoga six days a week. Preparation is key. You need the zoom lens, you need to get there early, form up at the front of the pack. Inch forward, right, give yourself, say, a half-metre, a third-of-a-metre clearance, here comes the limo with international starlet Fan Bingbing, and then – I’m talking smooth – you do the splits. No kidding. Jean-Claude Van Damme style. Drop the camera to your crotch, angle fifteen degrees up, shoot. It’s money, every time. And the organisers on the lookout for any blatant upskirt shit are so bamboozled that you get an extra three seconds before they come over to see what’s the matter. By that time, you’ve reversed the split and stepped back, indiscernible from the rest of the crowd. Like a ghost.

That extra three seconds is where you catch the golden muff. Every shot. Gold.

Hetty Lin: Click Bae Research Division Team Lead

JK Jr kept asking us to touch his abs. He said – and I quote – ‘You see that crack there? That groove? The ab crack? That’s called the linea nigra, baby.’3

LeBron Chew: Click Bae Editor-in-Chief

Not all our readers were happy about our constant JK Jr coverage, but we had faith. Because of Click Bae, other industry rags started giving him space on the columns too, and later, when he landed the highly coveted Brando X role, it was Click Bae who had a front-row seat to the greatest fiasco in film history.

Hetty Lin: Click Bae Research Division Team Lead

The very first special we did with JK Jr was our B&E feature. That’s ‘Break and Enter’. Our B&E series has been super popular. It started out super illegal too, guerilla-style, but the more popular it got, the more celebs wanted in on the action. Now, ninety-nine per cent of the time, we have these bogus photo shoots, with contracts and everything. Like ‘Hetty can break this window but she can’t open that door’ and ‘Hetty can sniff this but she can’t lick that’. No master bedroom access, no peeking in the fridge. Argh! It can be a pain, and sometimes it’s not even their real home, or their real underwear. And of course they get rid of all the incriminating stuff in advance. Takes all the fun out of it.

But JK Jr? He was totally cool with it. Didn’t tidy up. Didn’t lock anything away. Didn’t wipe his Pornhub search history or anything. Turns out he’s kind of into feet.

I should really get a pedicure.

Anyway. It was a thrill. I hadn’t felt that alive in years. Also, for all you Click Bae fans inspired by our B&E series to do your own hands-on research, here’s a tip straight from the Click Bae Legal Department. Did you know that if you break and enter but pixelate your face in the selfie, it actually makes you immune to criminal and civil prosecution?

Wong Kim Ark: Click Bae In-House Legal Counsel

Tsk. That is absolutely untrue. Please tell Hetty I need to speak with her.

LeBron Chew: Click Bae Editor-in-Chief

If you’ve never heard of the Brando X spy novels that the movie is based on, then you’ve clearly been living under a soundproof rock for fifty years. Even white people have heard of it!

The Brando X series is huge in Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Southeast Asia. I grew up reading The Dream and Slumber Co and Glamour Kill. Globetrotting action, espionage, honey pots, guns and kung fu. What’s not to like?

After decades of rumours and several false starts, the long-awaited Brando X film finally made it to production. Hollywood studio Lallation Films entered into a historic partnership with China’s S.H.A.M.E.L.E.S.S. Productions. No expenses spared. Word on the street was the budget of Brood Empire – the first Brando X film of a planned trilogy – was between USD$300 and $350 million.

The plan was to roll out the yellow carpet for a simultaneous worldwide release. Imagine, a blockbuster spy film produced for the Western markets and starring, for the first time, an Asian man in the lead role.

Lallation Films brought over the cream of the Hollywood crop, from set and costume designers to VFX. And S.H.A.M.E.L.E.S.S. secured all the financing, the production crew, the best stunt teams. The marketing was relentless. Billboards, TV spots, blimps. A Super Bowl LIV commercial. But when the trailer was leaked, months ahead of the Super Bowl, with a white guy in the lead role … that was the beginning of the end.

Henry Lavida: Executive Producer of Brood Empire

Well, you know what they say. A film is never finished. Yes, the re-edits are ongoing. No, there’s nothing the matter. It’s very much standard practice …

In all honesty, we realised, admittedly a little late in the game, that there were some improvements – nothing major – to be made, because we’re, um, perfectionists here at Lallation Films. We’ve got a few scenes to reshoot, and we’ll re-release when it’s ready. But all’s well on our end. We couldn’t be more thrilled. Hundred per cent.

LeBron Chew: Click Bae Editor-in-Chief

The whitewashing made news in Hong Kong and China. The whole thing kind of turned into a national joke, but was soon forgotten. And in the Western press, the story barely rated.

The folks here at Click Bae kept wondering, where’s the hard-hitting journalistic exposé? Where’s the poorly assembled oral history? Eventually, we thought, why not write it ourselves?

So we held a meeting and put together a plan to interview everyone involved, from the actors, to the producers, to the financiers, to a bona fide film historian.

Eric Dutton: Adjunct Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies on the phone to the Click Bae team

Let me get this straight. You’re going to pay me to read aloud █████’s original transcript, word for word? Just pretend that I’m the █████ ██ from NYU?

Is that even legal?

No, I’m not … No, no, don’t get me wrong … No, it’s just. Look. I get why you approached █████ first. He’s the foremost expert in the field. We all look up to him. He’s always keynote speaker at conferences, providing cultural analysis on CNN, MSNBC. Of course you’d want him for your documentary, or whatever this is. Evidently your working relationship broke down, and I won’t pry into that, but I’m also interested in why you didn’t reach out to, say, Alexander Zahlten from Harvard, or Derek Wang from Cornell. They’re all authorities in Hong Kong–US film studies. And even across the pond there are a ton of great talents. Fan Yuan Yuan from Zhejiang University has an amazing vlog series on haiku that thoroughly covers the China-Hollywood angle.

Oh, you did? How many? And they all said no?

No no no don’t get me wrong, I thank you for the offer, I’m flattered, even though I was so far down your list. To have made the list at all is … What I’m saying is, I am happy to give my own analysis. My own expert opinion on this subject.

True, I may not be Asian, like █████ – and perhaps that’s been to the detriment of my career – but I am quite literally an expert in the field. My PhD thesis was on Asian representation in film and cross-pollination between the Hong Kong and Hollywood film industries.

Uh-huh, I see where you’re coming from. It just seems like a waste to have one expert recite, word for word, from the transcript of another expert and without attribution. I mean, you might as well have hired an actor to simply …

 

No no no, don’t hang up, it’s fine. It’s fine. I’m your man. So the payment, is it in Hong Kong or Australian dollars?

LeBron Chew: Click Bae Editor-in-Chief

It was a truly global endeavour.

Who could have known that an oral history of a whitewash would end up including tales of literary theft, TV Westerns, a lost kung fu masterpiece, and the wild and lucrative world of Chinese streaming? We went on to publish this complete oral history, in both Chinese and English, first on our website and now in book form.

Go on. Turn the page. Enjoy the car crash.

 
 
 
 

 

1 [Translated from the Australian]: Yes.

 

2 [Translated from the Australian]: Vagina.

 

3 In fact, the linea alba. The linea nigra is the brown streak that often appears running down the abdomen of pregnant women.