Very few things make a movie more memorable than a memorable villain. And Hollywood has a long history of featuring on-screen Asian baddies—both the memorable and forgettable, the stereotypical and the sublime, the “authentic” and the offensive. Every day this week (Monday-Friday), I’ll count down my choices for the 25 most “infamous” of Hollywood’s Asian villains—the good, the bad and the ugly.
15) KARATE KID II (1986)
Yuji Okumoto as Chozen Toguchi
The original 1984 Karate Kid was a sleeper hit so a sequel was a no-brainer. This time, Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) follows mentor Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) to his ancestral home of Okinawa in order to take care of some unresolved family matters. Daniel meets the lovely Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) but also confronts bad apple Chozen (Okumoto) who doesn’t like Daniel at all. The blond bullies and karate tournament of the first film are just a walk in the park compared to the vicious Chozen who wants no less than to fight Daniel “to the death.” Will Daniel-san triumph over insurmountable odds and that completely-useless-in-real-life crane kick to defeat Chozen? And will he win the hand of the beautiful Kumiko? If you have to ask those questions, you obviously don’t watch enough Hollywood movies. “Live or die, man? Live or die?!”
14) THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933)
Nils Asther as General Yen
Pre-Hays Code Hollywood featured its fair share of films about “innocent” white women ravished “against their will” by mysterious Oriental men (see #12 below for another example). Director Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life) tried his hand at this sub-genre with this story about a woman (Barbara Stanwyck) who travels to China to marry her missionary fiancé, but is kidnapped and held captive by the aforementioned General Yen (Asther in yellow face) when war breaks out. What elevates this film above others like it, is its embrace of Stanwyck’s sexual awakening at the hands of the good General (in the film’s most famous scene, she dreams that her jailer and her rescuer are both General Yen). In fact, witnessing the chemistry between the two leads leaves no doubt what should’ve really happened between them, but alas, because of the anti-miscegenation laws of the era, the two couldn’t end up together and General Yen commits suicide by drinking his bitter poisoned tea like any good Oriental should.
13) INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)
Amrish Puri as Mola Ram
Before settling on the idea of having Indy battling a Kali Thugee religious cult in India, producer George Lucas originally planned to set the second film of the popular adventure series completely in China where Indy would’ve stumbled onto a lost valley of dinosaurs and even encountered the Monkey King. Ah, what could’ve been… But instead we have Indy going up against Mola Ram, the evil high priest of this cult that practices child slavery, black magic and human sacrifice. The writers added elements of Aztec human sacrifices and European devil worship to make the character more terrifying though the Thugees didn’t practice these rituals in real life. What resulted was one of the darkest films in both Lucas’ and director Steven Spielberg’s oeuvre (the PG-13 rating was created partially in response to this film) and led to original Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan’s refusal to work on the project: “I just thought it was horrible…I think Temple of Doom represents a chaotic period in both their [Lucas and Spielberg] lives, and the movie is very ugly and mean-spirited.” Well, unless you enjoy watching children being tortured and hearts ripped out of still-living men ‘cause then it’s totally awesome!
12) THE CHEAT (1915)
Sessue Hayakawa as Tori
This is the film that made the Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa Hollywood’s first Asian movie star and sex symbol during the silent era. At the height of his popularity, Hayakawa received as many fan letters as heartthrob Rudolph Valentino (the Brad Pitt of the day), mostly from white women who longed for a taste of the exotic. In The Cheat, Hayakawa plays the wealthy Tori who lends innocent Fannie Ward the money to pay back the gambling debts she is hiding from her husband. And what does Hayakawa want in return? Some tender white meat, baby, that’s what! Hayakawa is definitely the villain of the piece—at one point, he even brands Ward with his hot poker (see clip below and, yes, the sexual innuendo is intentional)—but his understated and smolderingly sexy performance won him a legion of (mostly) female fans. Which just goes to show that there were apparently a lot of freaky women in the early 20th Century who fantasized about being branded by a virile Asian stud. Think about that the next time you visit your grandma in the retirement home.
11) KUNG FU PANDA (2008)
Ian McShane as Tai Lung
The snow leopard Tai Lung may just be the scariest baddie to ever grace an animated feature aimed at families. Deadwood star Ian McShane’s voice is pretty frightening as it is, but when you see what this leopard can actually do (check out the clip below), you have yourself a foe with all the menace of a Hannibal Lector and all the fighting skills of a Jet Li. Now that’s a villain! The film was a huge hit for studio Dreamworks (its biggest opening for a non-sequel) and even made a splash in China, where the movie is set, becoming the first animated feature to gross more than 100 million yuan at the box office. So is it any surprise that Dreamworks announced there would be six Kung Fu Panda films in the series with the first sequel slated to hit screens later this year, featuring a new villain with a weapon so powerful, “it threatens the very existence of kung fu?” Only time will tell if this new antagonist will be able to outdo Tai Lung’s supreme badness.