7 Hollywood Biopics with Asian Leads

It’s award season in Hollywood, which means that the studios are releasing their “prestige” projects in the hopes of winning Oscar gold. And when it comes to awards and prestige, nothing has traditionally topped the biopic. This season is no different with a range of biopics from Lincoln to Hitchcock to Hyde Park on Hudson vying for critical glory.

But what’s usually missing from the biopic helpings are films starring Asians. There’s no shortage of interesting Asians worthy of their own movie, but oftentimes when Hollywood comes calling, changes are made ranging from marginalization (the Dalai Lama playing second fiddle to Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet) to an out-and-out race change (I’m looking at you, 21). Very rarely does the film feature an Asian at the center of the story and when it does, the project is usually made outside the studio system (i.e. Michelle Yeoh’s turn as Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady). But occasionally there are exceptions and here, in no particular order, are seven of them.

1) THE LAST EMPEROR (1987)
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

The winner of nine Academy Awards (and a total of 13 nominations though none were for the excellent cast), The Last Emperor was the critical darling of 1987; a true epic worthy of the master of the genre, David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia)—right down to the appearance of Peter O’Toole aka Lawrence himself. In chronicling the life of Pu Yi, the titular last emperor of China, director Bertolucci (responsible for such world cinema classics as The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris) didn’t forget Lean’s lesson to never allow the epic canvas to dwarf the characters. And in this case, those characters were birthed via career-defining performances from Asian American actors like John Lone and Joan Chen–who steals every scene she’s in as the tragic empress desperately attempting to hold on to a life that has been violently ripped from her grasp.

2) BRIDGE TO THE SUN (1961)
Director: Etienne Périer

Based on the 1957 autobiography by Gwendolen Terasaki (formerly Gwen Harold), the film details the marriage of a blond all-American girl from Tennessee (Carroll Baker) and a Japanese diplomat named “Terry” Terasaki (James Shigeta). After Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, Terasaki, a pacifist who tried to avert the war, is repatriated back to Japan along with Gwen and their hapa daughter. Facing prejudice and obstacles in both America and Japan, the couple do their best to hold their family together under difficult circumstances. Though it’s dated in spots, the film still holds up today and is a fine showcase for Shigeta who was a romantic leading man in Hollywood films like Flower Drum Song and Crimson Kimono during a time when the idea of an Asian American romantic male lead didn’t exist.

3) HEAVEN AND EARTH (1993)
Director: Oliver Stone

The final work in Stone’s Vietnam War trilogy (following Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), the director chose to tell this story from the point-of-view of the Vietnamese and turned to Le Ly Hayslip’s excellent autobiographies When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace to do so. The seventh child born to poor farmers, Hayslip endured hardships including rape and torture during the war and survived as a drug courier and prostitute before marrying an American civilian contractor (played by Tommy Lee Jones) where a new life involving hardships of a different sort awaited her in suburban San Diego. Although the film failed at the box office, it distinguished itself from the glut of late 80s/early 90s Vietnam War projects by looking at the war through the eyes of the “enemy.”

4) DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY (1993)
Director: Rob Cohen

Yes, it’s full of inaccuracies and some of the sequences are cheesier than the inside of a Velveeta factory, but if you’re an Asian American dude, tell me you weren’t cheering during the opening scene when Bruce Lee kicks racist white sailor ass or when he and future wife Linda walk out of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in disgust over Mickey Rooney’s yellow face performance or when Bruce displays his sexual prowess or…well, you get the point. Between this and the indie film Map of the Human Heart, which was also released in 1993, Jason Scott Lee (who starred in both projects) showed the world that an Asian American man could be sexy, smart, strong and the hero of his own narrative. And channeling martial arts legend Bruce Lee in this instance also reminded audiences that the younger Lee wasn’t the first one to do so either.

5) KUNDUN (1997)
Director: Martin Scorsese

The filmmaking legend behind such violent dramas as Raging Bull and Mean Streets may not seem like the obvious choice to helm a biopic about the Dalai Lama, but Scorsese found in this story a chance to revisit a familiar obsession in a different setting—a psychological exploration of a conflicted man struggling with a rapidly changing world while trying to maintain his beliefs and traditions. But while many of Scorsese’s protagonists either tragically lose that battle (think Daniel Day Lewis’ Newland Archer in Age of Innocence or Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull) or win a perverted victory (Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Rubert Pumpkin in The King of Comedy), the Dalai Lama meets a different fate. Though he is forced to leave Tibet for the good of his people, his is a story of hope signaling a shift in Scorsese’s approach as an artist. As he told reporters at the time of the film’s release, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had more of a tendency to look for people who live by kindness, tolerance, compassion, a gentler way of looking at things.”

6) GANDHI (1982)
Director: Richard Attenborough

Attenborough, who had been trying to get this project off the ground since 1952, gave the full epic treatment to the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi who led the Indian revolts against British rule through non-violent protests. But the film wouldn’t have been as successful as it was had it not been for the then-unknown Ben Kingsley who wowed audiences and critics in the lead role—winning an Academy Award for Best Actor in the process. While the film is appropriately inspiring, there are moments when it almost collapses under the weight of its own self-importance and Attenborough’s tendency for melodrama, but it’s Kingsley’s performance that anchors the film and makes it work. Fortunately, the studio’s original choice to star in the picture, Dustin Hoffman, wasn’t available because he was busy shooting Tootsie. As fine an actor as Hoffman is, this is a role that Kingsley (whose father was Indian) was born to play.

7) FAREWELL TO MANZANAR (1976)
Director: John Korty

Based on Jeanne and James D. Houston’s popular book detailing the autobiographical experiences of Jeanne and her Japanese American family (the Watasukis) during their time at the Manzanar Relocation Center during WWII, this was the first mainstream American production to tackle the Japanese American internment experience. Yes, it was “just” a made-for-TV movie and like the book, it tries too hard to be all things to all people and not offend the white audience, but it featured a powerhouse cast of veteran Japanese American actors including Nobu McCarthy (as Jeanne), Mako, Pat Morita and Clyde Kusatsu and won 2 Emmys for an all-too rare glimpse into a watershed moment in Asian American history that few Americans are even now fully aware of.

3 thoughts on “7 Hollywood Biopics with Asian Leads

  1. Love the common thread: exotic, foreign, sexual object. Maybe Richard Aoki with a laser gun will be the first true “American” biopic to dispel the alienation.

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