Fear is a Virus: Xenophobia in Mostafa Keshvari’s Corona (2020)

In an interview for the Rhode Island International Film Festival in August 2020, Mostafa Keshvari, the director of Corona, stated: “The virus doesn’t discriminate … we need to learn from the virus and treat each other the same.” The idea of making a film to call for unity and solidarity came to Keshvari in January 2020 when he was reading about attacks on people of Asian heritage. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many Asian Americans have been subjected to coronavirus-related xenophobia in the United States. The country has witnessed “a sharp uptick in reports of public racial abuse of ‘Asian-looking’ individuals” since the outbreak allegedly started in Wuhan, China. Keshvari’s film, Corona—Fear is a Virus (2020), is a timely fictional representation of such stigmatisation.

The film focuses on xenophobia pertaining to East Asians and Asian Americans, specifically on anti-Chinese sentiments. It focuses less on the actual health emergency, but showcases the increasing xenophobia that Asian Americans have had to face during the coronavirus pandemic. Keshvari has pointed out how he wanted the film to be about discrimination, using “the virus as a metaphor for the fear of each other.” In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the virus has variously been called “Wuhan virus,” “China virus,” “Chinese virus,” or “kung flu.” This racialisation of the virus in discourses surrounding the pandemic has led to increasing stigmatisation of people of Asian heritage, particularly people from China and/or Chinese Americans. The seventy minute film explores this racialisation and the ensuing Sinophobia to which one of the protagonists is subjected. In this essay, I examine how such Sinophobia is represented in Corona.

Officially released in September 2020, Keshvari directed the film at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in February 2020. Corona—Fear is a Virus is set exclusively in an elevator. The film was shot on a limited budget in two days in one single take with much improvisation on the actors’ part. Since there have been difficulties with the usual distribution mechanisms in cinemas and film festivals, Corona is available on various platforms instead. Due to its timeliness and quick production, the movie has been accused of being exploitative. The accusation of being exploitative in cinema implies that people might not be ready to watch a movie that deals with such a current issue, i.e. while the pandemic is still raging across the world. Exploitative also suggests that the director only made this movie to “make a name for himself.” Instead, one could argue that such a film is necessary as it serves the purpose of addressing the social issues and ramifications of the virus as a signifier of a socio-cultural crisis in the U.S.

Corona features a variety of people: a young woman (played by Zarina Sterling), elevator maintenance personnel (Emy Aneke), a landlord (Josh Blacker), a pregnant woman (Andrea Stefancikova), a man in a wheelchair with a swastika tattoo on his forehead wielding a gun (Richard Lett), and another tenant of the building (Andy Canete). I examine how the film portrays and criticises their Sinophobic attitudes as an unnamed woman of Asian heritage (Traei Tsai) enters the elevator and causes people to panic when she has to cough and the elevator gets stuck. Even though the film was shot in Vancouver, Canada, the movie trailer mentions that there are over 900,000 elevators in the U.S., inviting viewers to situate Sinophobia in a larger North American context. This statistic notably serves an important purpose, and when combined with the fact that all the characters remain unnamed and that the location is not highlighted, it becomes clear that the events of the film could happen anywhere; and, indeed, to anyone. The confined space of the elevator represents what French philosopher Michel Foucault has called a heterotopia (from the Greek for “other spaces”). Unlike utopias, heterotopias are “counter-sites,” in which “the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (Foucault, 1967: 3). The third of the six principles for heterotopias states that “[the] heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (Foucault, 1967: 6). In this sense, the elevator represents a microcosm of society where people from various backgrounds are stuck in a vertical heterotopia.

The nurse is presented as the timid ‘Other’ who barely speaks any English. Traei Tsai, who plays the nurse, has noted: “My character spoke Chinese, but I speak fluent English. I had to really tune out all the racial slurs and what-not that was happening in the film.” The actress also recounted some of her personal experiences during the coronavirus pandemic when “she felt the uncomfortable gaze of people and has had others physically move away when she turned down a grocery store aisle or got on an elevator”. The nurse is passive in her timidity, yet she is also perceived as threatening at the same time, which highlights the paradoxical nature of racial stereotyping. This representation of the nurse addresses a notable dichotomy in Asian stereotyping—that is, the model minority and the “yellow peril” as two seemingly opposite stereotypes that are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. The racially charged discourse of the “yellow peril” is a stereotype constructed in fear of the “yellow race” from East Asia that was seen as threatening the “white race” at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. In the United States, this fear predominantly manifested itself in the opposition to Chinese immigration as exemplified in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

East Asians have long been stereotyped as a threat. In the contemporary context of the coronavirus pandemic, this threat comes in the form of disease-related racialisation, which is why Corona makes an important contribution to confronting such stereotypes. When the woman of Asian heritage—who later turns out to be a nurse who can actually help the pregnant woman—enters the elevator, panic ensues as people react in different ways. The pregnant woman is frightfully holding her belly. The young woman looks apprehensive, covering her nose: “Do you understand that there is a virus going around in this building?” Waving her phone, she also symbolically alludes to the spread of fake news. Without evidence, there is just panic based on hearsay and racist stereotypes. This misinformation is significantly shown to be another kind of virus. The white supremacist’s eyes are wide open with raised eyebrows, the swastika tattoo on his forehead in full display: “Just open the borders up and then they bring their diseases in.” The landlord is holding his hands up, exclaiming: “Oh my God, there’s no room … there is no room.” His gestures indicate that he is literally shooing the woman away, like an animal, to keep her from entering the confined space. The nurse’s yellow sweater and jacket are deliberately reminiscent of the “yellow peril”, and notably call attention to preconceived and prejudicial racial associations. When she has to cough, the majority of the characters start to worry, but the elevator maintenance person asks helpfully, “Are you sick?” Reproaching the other characters, he exclaims: “You’re acting like you’re seeing an alien or something … this is how you all treat people.” The character who seems the least prejudiced is the only visibly non-white character in the film, implying an alliance among minorities.

As people are waiting for help, the elevator maintenance worker again assumes a mediating role when asking everyone: “Do you believe in God?” In a religious reference, he says: “I think we’re all being tested.” This test of humanity speaks to a person’s understanding of others and sense of compassion in the face of adversity. The director has echoed this call against xenophobia when discussing his own responsibility as a filmmaker: “I hope it gives people a sense of understanding, that they can look at themselves and judge themselves for the actions they are making during this time … Because, you know, one day we’re going to look back and see how we acted and how we behaved in these extreme circumstances.” In this sense, Corona asks viewers to reflect on race relations in the United States. It draws attention to the perilous position of Asian Americans amidst the current pandemic. Its critique of anti-Asian sentiments is a call for solidarity in light of the health emergency. I would argue that, rather than being exploitative, such a film can help people reflect on the pandemic and its immediate effects on individuals, whether it is the disease itself or Sinophobia as a consequence. The film is a strong condemnation of Sinophobia that warns viewers of dormant historic stereotypes resurfacing during the pandemic.


Works Cited

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About Jana Fedtke

Dr Jana Fedtke is Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Her research and teaching interests include transnational literatures with a focus on South Asia; gender studies; and postcolonial literatures. Dr. Fedtke’s work has been published in, for example, Online Information Review, Journal of Further and Higher Education, South Asian History and Culture, Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives, and South Asian Review.
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