All Asians Look Alike: James Shigeta Edition

As most of our readers know by now, pioneering actor James Shigeta passed away on Monday. As I was prepping to post my blog paying tribute to the late icon, I googled his name to find some appropriate images and this is the first thing I saw staring back at me:

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In case, you don’t know who that is—it is not James Shigeta. In fact, it’s my fellow Offender and Tony Award-winning playwright of M. Butterfly David Henry Hwang.

Farewell, James Shigeta!

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I had been hearing about the legendary James Shigeta from my old friend Dexter for several years before making my feature The People I’ve Slept With. It is extremely tragic that my friend Dexter also passed away in 2011—at the young age of 41—who was a personal friend of James. When I needed to cast the role of Angela’s Dad—a fun loving and classy Asian American gentleman–Dexter recommended James. I instinctively thought would be a fabulous idea. Dexter set up a meeting with James, his agent Jeffrey Leavitt, Karen Anna Cheung (who played Angela) and me. I remember we went to the loudest restaurant ever in West Hollywood and we all thought James would be fabulous to play Angela’s Dad.

Original Offenders: James Shigeta

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It was a revelation: a Hollywood movie made in 1959 that starred an Asian American male lead who saved the day, beat out his white romantic rival, and ended up with the white leading lady. That in a nutshell sums up Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono, which introduced audiences to a young Japanese American actor named James Shigeta as a Japanese American police detective investigating the murder of a stripper in downtown Los Angeles.

I’ve written about the film before (here and here) so I won’t go into detail now but if it was a revelation to learn that such a progressive film could have been produced almost sixty decades ago, it was even more of a revelation to discover that an actor like James Shigeta existed back then. Here he was—a full blown Asian American leading man who starred in Hollywood films at a time when most Asian men were lucky just to get a few lines in a movie as the hero’s sidekick or the bad guy.

The Boys I’ve Made Movies With

Last Friday, I was driving back from the valley on the 101 freeway and I got a SMS from a fellow filmmaker, Nick Corporon, who texted me out of the blue and said, “OMG Boo Boo is in the new X-Men?? Bryan just tweeted a wall of cast photos and there he was right below Peter Dinklage.”

That wasn’t news to me because my producer Chris Lee introduced Booboo to director Bryan Singer at the Hawaii International Film Festival. Bryan and his team came to the Hawaii premiere of White Frog and cast Booboo because of enjoying his performance in White Frog.

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.

10 Romantic Films You Probably Didn’t Know Existed

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us and perhaps you’re looking for a romantic movie to share with that special someone, but you want to find something off the beaten path. As great as they are, there are just so many times you can watch Casablanca or When Harry Met Sally or Titanic or any number of your usual stand-bys. Well, here are ten romantic films (in no particular order) that you may be unfamiliar with, but that are all worth a look.

1) IL MARE (2000)
Director: Hyun-Seung Lee

Forget the American remake of this Korean sci-fi romance (The Lake House with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves) and stick with the far-superior original. My Sassy Girl’s Jun Ji-Hyun and Lee Jung-Jae are the ultimate star-crossed lovers: they both reside in the same lake house, but while he lives in the present, she lives two years in the past. The two can only communicate via letters left in their “time traveling” mailbox. As their timelines are about to converge and it looks like the lovers will finally meet face-to-face, a tragedy strikes unless…well, let’s just say that this is a time travel story so anything is possible, especially for a movie that believes that even time or death can’t get in the way of true love.

Five Films Where the Asian Male Lead Gets the Girl

Korean star Jang Dong-Gun made his American film debut this past weekend in the martial arts Western The Warrior’s Way. A number of Asian Americans have pointed out that Jang gets to share an on-screen kiss with co-star Kate Bosworth—a rarity in Hollywood for an Asian male to be both a lead and a romantic lead (watch almost any American film starring Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan or Jet Li to see how chaste their relationships with their leading ladies are).

But as rare as this is, this isn’t a “first” as I’ve heard some folks proclaim. Hollywood has indeed produced other films where the Asian male lead does get the girl (sometimes even “defeating” his white rival in the process). Here are five of them in no particular order:

1) THE CRIMSON KIMONO (1959) 

No other non-Asian probably did more to advance three-dimensional portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood than director Samuel Fuller (see my previous post on this topic here) and nowhere else did he do it as well than in this gritty, crime noir set against the backdrop of L.A.’s Little Tokyo. James Shigeta and Glenn Corbett are best friends and LAPD detectives investigating the death of a stripper. Beautiful Victoria Shaw is the witness who steals the hearts of both men; creating a racially tinged tension in their friendship for the first time. Since this is a Hollywood movie where an Asian American man and a white man both vie for the same white woman, it’s obvious who’ll win in the end, right? Well, luckily, this is Fuller who never did the obvious. Shaw realizes she loves Shigeta and the two even share a passionate and controversial (at the time of its release) kiss in the middle of the Little Tokyo Nisei Week parade.

Original Offenders: Samuel Fuller

fullerwithgun(This is the first of what may become a regular feature profiling individuals, Asian American and non-Asian alike, who have made a contribution to our culture and history but may not be well known to the current generation)

In my humble opinion, maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller may have done more to create realistic and positive portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans than any other non-Asian in Hollywood. Although he had a long career as a filmmaker starting as a screenwriter in 1936 that lasted until his death in 1997, Fuller was never as famous as his directing contemporaries like John Huston and John Ford, but he made an indelible impact on American film–influencing a whole generation of future mavericks like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Curtis Hanson. His movies were accused of being barbaric and rough, but that’s what made them so powerful. His canvas was the mean urban streets littered with crime or battlefields where war was ugly and messy, but he found both the poetry and the truth in these worlds. That’s what made his work so memorable.

Movies That Should Have Starred Asians: Bad Day At Black Rock

badday21Director John Sturges’ 1955 film Bad Day At Black Rock is a lot of things—one of the tautest action films made (with a brisk running time of only 81 minutes and not a single frame of film wasted); a movie with some of the finest acting from the toughest screen guys around including Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine; but most of all—it’s probably the best film that Hollywood has made about Asian Americans that features no Asians in the cast. I make this last statement with all sincerity because I love Bad Day At Black Rock, but, as great as Tracy is in this, I also think it would have been a far more interesting film had his part been played by an Asian American actor.