By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Beginning Sept. 4, we are going to Mars, again, or trying to, via the new Netflix series, “Away.” The show features a diverse cast exploring space in order to advance the promise of sustainable life here on Earth. In the series, we have already made it to the Moon, and have a base there, which serves as a lift off platform for the big journey to the Red Planet.
There is controversy from the beginning—political, personal, and technical. Will the crew make it?
Will the spaceship make it? Will the planet make it? Is it worth it? These are the questions.
The diversity of the crew is not perhaps an exceptional “win” for Netflix, as it is common to feature an international space team derived of representatives from different countries; this need to satisfy political obligations takes care of diversity in a sense. However, the lead character, played by Hilary Swank, as the commander and “mother hen” of the team, is still white, as are many of the other higher ups featured in the show, resulting in what could have been an afterthought feeling to the inclusion of team members from India and China, and a Black character, from Ghana by way of Britain. Could have been, but the show quickly dispels this.
The first thing that happens in the first episode is a protest that the commander is American. We are told that, since the United States spent the most money, it’s only right. At first, the characters fall into what one might consider traditional nationalistic relationships. The United States and Britain are friends, Russia and China team up with an unspoken understanding as comrades, and India is sort of in the middle. To offset this political and stereotypical construct and demonstrate that the inclusion of each team member is genuine, every effort is made by the show to give the characters depth and to endorse the diversity card even beyond the team itself. Not only are there characters of virtually every color and creed in the show, there are also characters with mental or physical disabilities—either from birth or as a result of a debilitating condition, such as the commander’s husband, who ends up in a wheelchair—and there is a prominent LGBTQ storyline.
The series can be commended for jumping quickly into every crew member’s story, making it clear from the start that each of them has a fascinating secret we will learn if we stay tuned (sometimes sooner than later—let’s just say not all of the secrets are super well hidden). There’s the Russian, Misha Popov, who plays with puppets and has some kind of drama going on with his wife and daughter. Or the Indian, Ram Arya, who is, at first, the commander’s biggest fan, but then in a moment of anger tells the others that he, too, has sacrificed to be there. Finally, there’s the Chinese crew member, Lu Wang, whose stoic surface and loyalty to her country, we just know, is hiding some kind of boiling passion and individualism underneath.
The Northwest Asian Weekly talked to Vivian Wu, who plays Lu Wang, and who was excited to return to U.S. screens after having spent the past decade or so primarily in the Chinese film and television industry. Wu, who started her career in China, got a foot up from her role in “The Last Emperor,” as well as “The Joy Luck Club,” where she played the tragic figure of the mother who poisons herself.
“After ‘The Last Emperor,’ I moved to Hollywood to become a Hollywood professional actress,” Wu told the Weekly. “But the first 10 years…the majority of the roles I was offered were pretty one-dimensional Asian.”
Wu shared that the role of Lu was worth taking on because it was, finally, something different.
“I felt Lu is unlike other Asian roles you see,” she said. “This is a very multi-layered character with an emotional arc. She represents the new modern Chinese image and for me, it is very important to portray Chinese women in a positive light and this one is.”
While the composition of the crew in “Away,” at least on the surface, might be along certain obligatory political lines taken from real world national dynamics, Wu affirmed that the cast and the filming process was very sensitive to diversity.
“The shooting really proved that it was the right move…our creators, writers and directors were so open-minded. Apart from acting, I was welcome to voice my creative input…I was able to bring in Chinese calligraphy, tai chi, all these authentic Chinese cultural things into the show. It’s not the way I remembered Hollywood 12 years ago…This is very refreshing and encouraging.”
Wu, who remembers Seattle from a part she once played as a mafia concubine, told the Weekly, “I do hope that the audience will like Lu as much as I did.” While we can’t give any spoilers, Wu agreed that, when it comes to Lu’s secret, “Stories like that need to be seen…the struggle between Lu’s sense of duty to her country, to the mission, to her family, and [it’s] the first time ever she has allowed herself to face her true authentic self. It’s amazing. This is a great love story. It’s very powerful…From the concubine to the astronaut, Vivian has come a long way.”
“Away” offers a message about empathy and working together that resounds in today’s fractured world. As the commander says at the press conference prior to launch from the Moon, “Getting to Mars might be the hardest thing that humankind has ever tried. It requires the best of us from all of us. And maybe it’s not our nature to work together. But the future demands otherwise. We will come together now in pursuit of a dream that was once thought to be impossible. If we can do this, we can do anything.”
Is it worth it? For Wu, yes. And for the crew? It remains to be seen. Perhaps it is up to each individual, as each crew member struggles with the sacrifices he or she has made to be there—and the same would have to be said for the audience. Ultimately, “Away” is about how much we value home—even when we go far, far away in order to save it. In the show, this mission to Mars is dubbed “humanity’s greatest mission.” The Weekly asked Wu if she agreed with that and why.
“I personally feel we are a curious race. Humans are curious and the Earth is beautiful, but at the same time, the Earth, we tend to see problems, which is also human. We want to go out into space.
It’s a dream. We live for hope and we live for dreams. We live for fantasies. As a Chinese person, I was told about the Moon. From a long, long time ago, there have been these fantasies about loved ones going to the Moon. I get it. We want to go to the Moon and Mars. Why not?”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.