Ke Huy Quan’s Oscar win and strong rapport with Harrison Ford have led fans back to The Temple of Doom. Despite its stars, its problems remain.
Ke Huy Quan’s Oscar win for Everything Everywhere All at Once caps a comeback story for the ages. Quan debuted at the age of 12 — playing Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom –– only for his acting career to fade as an adult. His enthusiasm during awards season has been infectious, and his Oscar hopefully cements a spectacular return to prominence.
Quan’s former costar Harrison Ford has been particularly supportive, and Oscar night ended with the two embracing after Ford announced Everything Everywhere’s win for Best Picture. That, and Quan’s personal journey, have prompted fans to give The Temple of Doom another look. Those returning to the film for the first time in a while, however, are in for a shock. While Quan is irresistible and Ford is in fine form, the movie itself has aged exceedingly poorly. Its racism has become positively disquieting to modern eyes
The best parts of The Temple of Doom all involve Quan, from his crackerjack entrance behind the wheel of Indy’s getaway car, to his eventual rescue of Indy from the clutches of the Thuggee cult. He exhibits the same exuberance on display during his Oscar run, and his chemistry with his costar is electric. Indy treats Shorty like a peer, not a sidekick and their mutual devotion to each other gave every 1980s kid an instant surrogate for Indy’s adventures. One notable scene that remains the film’s high point is the one where they accuse each other of cheating at cards.
Quan is a bright spot in an otherwise very problematic story. The original Raiders of the Lost Ark is hardly clean on this front, but Temple of Doom seems to lean into the nastiest stereotypes whenever it can. That starts with the Temple itself, which reinvents the 19th century Thuggee cult as monstrous enslavers of children. That includes the infamous “heart-yanking” sequence in which high priest Mola Ram pulls the heart out of a screaming human sacrifice while shirtless natives howl with infernal joy. It’s not subtle, to say the least
The racist tropes don’t stop with the villains. Hindu culture in general is depicted as either barbaric or simplistic, marked by the film’s infamous “gross-out” feast — in which guests are served a combination of overtly disgusting dishes — which comes shortly before Indy’s duplicitous Indian hosts try to murder them. The local village of friendlies, who lost their children and the sacred stone that protects them, are portrayed as superstitious and child-like in the face of the hero’s “hard-headed knowledge.” Shorty’s entrance in Shanghai comes amid sinister Chinese gangsters trying to murder Jones, along with jokes involving rickshaws and fearful locals that tread dangerously close to caricature.
The pity of it is that it detracts from a technically well-made adventure film. While Spielberg has since all but disowned the movie, many of his signature touches appear throughout, and his ability to construct a fast-paced action scene remains unparalleled. Quan navigates it all with deceptive ease, with help from Ford who’s always lively in his favorite role. Amrish Puri, who plays Mola Ram, deserves credit for a memorable performance (and went on to a long career playing villains in Bollywood) despite the character’s problematic nature.
Unfortunately, too much of the film is mired in demonization and caricature for the technical merits to take hold. Watching the movie now is more or less waiting for Quan to do his thing while trying hard not to cringe in the interim. The actor’s Oscar triumph is a fantastic story, and it may even bring Short Round back for more adventures. Certainly, fans are going to be seeing a lot more of him in the future. It’s a shame that his first outing was so hamstrung by such toxic content. Both he and Shorty deserve better.
A native Californian, Robert Vaux has spent over 20 years as a professional film and television critic: working for such outlets as Collider, Mania.com and The Sci-Fi Movie Page. His favorite superhero is Nightcrawler and his lucky