The 2005 stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is probably the most mainstream Asian-American movie out there. However, you won’t be seeing Asian Harolds and Kumars anytime soon — and part of that might ironically be due to Western hegemony.
As East Asia’s national cinemas gain increasing prominence, they’ve started dipping into genres that were formerly Hollywood’s exclusive domain. China’s started churning out “foreign military intervention epics” like Wolf Warrior II, and South Korea’s trying out superhero movies like Psychokinesis. However, there’s one distinctively Hollywood genre that East Asian cinema won’t be emulating anytime soon: the stoner movie.
No country for drug men
While Hollywood churns out numerous movies depicting drug usage (or dealing) in a comedic, artistic, or romanticized light, there’s a notable absence of such films from East Asia. In almost all East Asian movies, anything associated with drugs has a special degree of evil. Sure, there are East Asian film protagonists who abuse alcohol or gamble — but invariably, anyone who touches drugs is a bad guy, or plagued with tragedy at the very least.
We could easily conclude that because East Asia doesn’t have a tradition of youthful drug experimentation, there’s little context for stoner movies. After all, that’s a fair assessment. In East Asia, recreational drugs aren’t just uncommon; they’re completely taboo and heavily penalized. While Hollywood stars get Instagram likes for drug use, East Asian celebrities caught using comparatively “soft” drugs like marijuana experience public shaming and jail terms.
We could go on and on about draconian drug policies in East Asian countries—but what’s more interesting is taking a step back to explore why recreational drugs are so taboo, and what further implications that might have for East Asian media.
One easy, but incomplete, explanation for East Asian taboos against drugs is the influence of traditional value systems like Legalism or Confucianism. Traditional values might explain the punitive harshness of East Asian drug regulations, but not necessarily attitudes towards drugs themselves. Conversely, there are numerous accounts of cannabis usage in traditional Chinese medicine as well as Taoist (another one of East Asia’s major philosophies) literature. Nothing in East Asian tradition directly says “drugs are bad”—so why the hate?
Ironically, East Asia’s negative attitude towards drugs may have its roots in Western hegemony. While Westerners now criticize those attitudes for being excessive, it’s easy to forget that the actions of powers like America and Britain helped them flourish.
Cold War hits high times
In nations like South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, Cold War realities shaped drug policy. When the Nixon administration kicked off its “War on Drugs”, these American-allied countries followed suit with added zeal. As drugs had associations with counterculture movements opposed to the Vietnam War, fighting drugs became conflated with fighting communism; aggressively following America’s lead also allowed these countries to more easily receive development aid.
South Korea is perhaps the most salient example of this phenomenon. Before the 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon for Korean youth to smoke marijuana (which grows naturally on the peninsula). However, when US-backed military strongman Park Chung-hee rose to power, he saw marijuana use as a national security issue. Park felt that countercultural influences on South Korean youth undermined his authority, and therefore enacted several stringent anti-drug measures. His government then created anti-drug films and persecuted drug-using celebrities, humiliating them for their “degenerate” practices and conflating their misdeeds with communism.
In America, counterculture—and its associated drug use—managed to survive, become “cool”, and bring stoner movies into Hollywood’s mainstream. East Asia wasn’t so lucky. In the absence of restraining democratic institutions, US-backed regimes snuffed out recreational drug use with all their authoritarian might. After all, it’s hard to make drugs seem “cool” when they get you detained by secret police.
Weed? Opium? Close enough!
However, there’s another bigger, more far-reaching reason why East Asia has never developed an American-style drug culture: the trauma of opium.
Starting in the 1700s, the British East India Company began trafficking opium into Qing China, hoping to make up for a trade deficit. Recreational usage—and addiction—skyrocketed among Chinese, seriously undermining the Qing Dynasty’s economic and political strength. When Qing authorities tried cracking down on opium in 1839, Britain launched the First Opium War, which China lost. This kicked off what’s known in China as the “Century of Humiliation”, during which Western imperialists — not just Britain, but also America and others — ruthlessly undermined China’s sovereignty.
The Opium Wars didn’t just affect China—they had reverberating impacts throughout the region. For one, Japan saw what happened to China at the hand of Western imperialists and resolved to not experience the same fate. It aggressively excluded the opium trade from its shores; when Japan colonized Taiwan in 1895, it launched a concerted campaign to eliminate opium usage. Such efforts made an indelible impact that influences discourse in the region to this day.
Thus, there’s an existential and nationalistic dimension to drug attitudes in East Asia. When recreational drug use triggered your region’s biggest national humiliation in the past few centuries, it’s very logical to do everything possible to prevent a recurrence. Sure: opium might not be marijuana—but when your country’s gone through a “Century of Humiliation”, what’s the difference?
Don’t just take my word for it—as a brief from China’s embassy to the US expounds, eliminating drugs “is the historical responsibility of the Chinese government”, because “in old China, drugs once brought hideous disaster to the nation”.
The flag of nationalism flies high
Amusingly, all this nationalistic sentiment creates one rare exception to the “anyone who touches drugs is a bad guy” rule of East Asian cinema. If a protagonist has unassailable anti-imperialist credentials or tendencies, some association with drugs might be tolerated.
An example of this is the recent Hong Kong-Chinese movie Chasing the Dragon, which ostensibly takes its title from the euphemism for smoking opium (which weed enthusiasts have also co-opted). The film’s two protagonists are a corrupt cop and drug lord — you heard that right, a drug lord. This is pretty unprecedented for Chinese cinema, which more often prefers its drug lords hunted down by state authorities (see Operation Mekong).
Despite this, the film was a huge success among Mandarin-speaking audiences because of its nationalistic undertones: the two protagonists unite to fight evil British colonialists who prey on the ethnically Chinese populace of Hong Kong. In this case, the drug lord might be tainted by narcotics, but he redeems himself by fighting Western imperialists.
At the end of Chasing the Dragon, the drug lord suffers—but is still able to reminisce longingly at his actions and see them as heroic. This contrasts with the bleak endings of other triad movies like Infernal Affairs, where gangster characters reflect regretfully upon their lives. In Chasing the Dragon’s case: although drugs are still evil and inimical towards national survival, anyone who performs a great service for national survival can balance that evil out.
Does this mean that we’ll see an Asian Harold & Kumar, as long as Harold and Kumar are Chinese propaganda mouthpieces or Korean independence fighters? Don’t count on it — there’ll still have to be a massive shift in cultural and historical attitudes before East Asian countries even begin consider making a mainstream stoner movie.
Ultimately, stoner movies exist to provide audiences with laughs and a sense of youthful rebellion. There are far easier ways—drunken buddy comedies, raunchy rom-coms—through which nations like China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan can scratch that itch without addressing historical trauma.
So sorry, Harold and Kumar, you’ll have to stay in White Castle… there’ll be no trips to Asia for you two anytime soon.