Last week I blogged about five otherwise decent films ruined by Asian stereotypes. Today, I look at five films (in no particular order) with problematic portrayals of Asians but that contain at least one performance by an Asian actor that make the movies “better.” So without further ado:
On the face of it, the plot for this movie sounds pretty ridiculous: White soldier (Tom Cruise) travels to 19th century Japan and becomes the titular “last samurai” when all the other samurais are killed off, then proceeds to retire to a Japanese village to live out his life with his Japanese love. But what gives the film its weight and verisimilitude are the performances of the Japanese cast and, in particular, Ken Watanabe as the leader of the samurai rebels who takes Cruise under his wing and mentors him. Watanabe (who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work) grounds the film with a talent and charisma that appears so subtle and effortless that before you even realize it, you have witnessed the birth of a true American star.
Here’s the original preview trailer:
Best known today as the first “color” film to receive a wide release (using an early two-strip Technicolor process), this is basically a retelling of the Madama Butterfly story transplanted to a Hong Kong setting: white guy hooks up with Asian girl, gets her pregnant, leaves her to marry his American sweetheart, then distraught Asian girl kills herself. What gives the film its heart is the performance of a then 17-year-old Wong as the jilted girl. Eschewing the over-the-top dramatics of most silent film actors, Wong brings a heart-breaking realism to her performance; effectively launching her career as the first Chinese American movie star.
Here’s the first part of the film (you can watch the whole movie in multiple parts on YouTube):
Mickey Rourke starred as a New York City cop and Vietnam vet determined to bring down the Chinese gangs led by Triad leader John Lone. Asian American groups nationwide protested the film’s stereotypical depiction of Chinatown and the Chinese American community; leading Year of the Dragon’s producers to attach a disclaimer at the start of the movie. And while the film is indeed problematic on a whole number of levels, Lone himself gives a star-making turn as the villainous Joey Tai—delivering a performance that is by turns menacing, charming and sexy. Effectively employing his Chinese opera background in everything from the way he walks to the ruthlessly effective economy of his movements, Lone creates one of the most memorable screen bad guys.
Here’s the original trailer:
Need proof that there are no small parts, only small actors? Look no further than Ahn’s role here. Made at the height of World War II, the great Katharine Hepburn and a cast of mostly white actors in yellowface play Chinese villagers who stand up to the invading Imperial Japanese Army. Ahn, Hollywood’s first Korean American actor and son of real-life Korean independence fighter Dosan Ahn Chang Ho, has one scene (he’s uncredited and his character doesn’t even have a name) as a Chinese rebel who inspires Hepburn to fight the Japanese but manages to blow even a legend like Hepburn away. While Hepburn and the rest of the cast try to act “Oriental,” Ahn creates a real, three-dimensional human being devoid of stereotypes and in just a few minutes of screen time, gives the film a dose of integrity it badly needs.
The second in the popular adventure series was criticized for its portrayal of its Indian characters who enjoyed such activities as monkey brain eating, ripping your still-beating heart right out of your chest and enslaving children to work in a mine. But the film also gave us one of cinema’s best child sidekicks (sorry Shia LaBeouf from the last crappy Indiana Jones movie whose title I can’t even remember) in the form of Quan’s Short Round. Here’s a kid who could drive a car at high speeds through the streets of Shanghai, hang off a bridge over a river full of hungry crocodiles and was always ready with a funny quip. What else could a hero want in a sidekick?
Here’s the original trailer: