I’m sure that most of our readers are familiar with Hollywood’s long history of “yellow face” casting a.k.a. the practice of hiring non-Asian actors to portray Asian characters, oftentimes with exaggerated and stereotypical make-up and mannerisms (Note: this is not to be confused with Hollywood’s “white washing” where an Asian character is transformed altogether into a non-Asian i.e. The Last Airbender and 21). And if you think yellow face is a thing of the unenlightened past, think again. With the recent announcement that Mickey Rourke would be playing Mongolian badass Genghis Khan, it seems yellow face is still alive and well.
But is every example of yellow face “bad”? If you put aside the problematic racial politics, are there any yellow face performances that are interesting and worth checking out? Well, let me put forth an argument for the five performances below. And to be honest, I’m actually curious to see Rourke play Khan. Regular readers of this blog know I have some history with the actor and wish him well, but I think Rourke is such a bizarrely fascinating actor that I sort of want to see what he does with such a role. It may be a complete train wreck, but I suspect it could very well be an interesting train wreck.
But until then, check out my personal choices for the most interesting yellow face performances to date (in no particular order after the jump):
I hear some of you saying, “But Khan isn’t Asian!” Really? If the character’s name wasn’t enough of a give-away, keep in mind that Khan is described as being Indian and the ex-ruler of a big chunk of Asia following Earth’s Eugenics War of the 1990s (hmm, I must’ve slept through that one). And since Montalban is a non-Asian actor, this counts as a yellow face performance though it’s devoid of the usual offensive stereotypes (the Hispanic Montalban also played Japanese in the 1957 film Sayonara). Khan is a genetically engineered “superman” who first appeared in the original 1960s Star Trek TV series before he returned in the 1982 feature film to become one of the most memorable screen villains ever—a 23rd Century Captain Ahab obsessed with destroying his Moby Dick a.k.a. James T. Kirk. Director J.J. Abrams has hinted that Khan may return in an upcoming installment of his Star Trek reboot (“Certain people are destined to cross paths and come together, and Khan is out there.”). Let’s hope if he does, this time we’ll see a real South Asian face reacting to Chris Pine’s cry of, “KHHHHHAAAAAN!”
Here’s Montalban sporting more of an “Indian” look from the original Star Trek series:
There are a number of yellow face performances from the Golden Age of Hollywood that I could’ve selected for this list (Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in The Good Earth or Sam Jaffe in Gunga Din, for example), but this early effort from director Frank Capra (who would later helm the perennial holiday favorite It’s A Wonderful Life) is more complicated and subversive than that era’s usual fare. The great Barbara Stanwyck plays an American who comes to China to marry her white missionary fiancé. The Chinese Civil War is in full swing and during a skirmish, Stanwyck is kidnapped (or is she rescued?) by the mysterious General Yen who holds her captive in his palace. What makes this film interesting is the complexity of General Yen’s character—he’s not your average stereotypical Chinese—and the real mutual attraction that develops between him and Stanwyck. Stanwyck’s dream sequence where she imagines herself being both attacked and saved by Yen is one of the most subversive critiques of society’s branding of the Asian male as the yellow peril. But since this is 1930s America, of course Yen must die by suicide before he and Stanwyck can consummate their love.
Here’s a fan-made trailer for the film:
Yes, this is a cartoon, but that doesn’t make it immune to yellow face. Apu is the Indian proprietor of the local Springfield Kwik-E-Mart frequented by main character Homer and the rest of the Simpson clan and he is voiced by the very talented but also very white Hank Azaria. On the surface, Apu embodies many of the stereotypes of South Asians in the U.S. from the convenience store employment to the accent, but over the years he has grown into one of the most endearing and interesting characters on the program. The show’s writers have allowed Apu to explore his religious faith as a Hindu, become an American citizen in the wake of anti-immigrant sentiment, have an extramarital affair with the Squishy Lady, hang out with Paul and Linda McCartney and father a whole brood of children (eight in all). I have to admit I’ve really grown to like the guy so thank you and come again!
I remember really loving this movie as a kid and that was largely due to Grey’s tongue-in-cheek performance as the Korean martial arts master Chiun (And what is he the master of? A made-up martial art called Sinanju). Fred Ward is a secret agent candidate that Grey must train to do things like run on water and dodge bullets (15 years before Keanu stole the same trick for The Matrix). I think this is the first time I saw an actual yellow face performance and being too young to know what that meant, I was very confused about why this Korean guy was clearly not Korean. Or even Asian. But what made this work for me was the fact that Grey seemed to be in on the joke and had fun with the whole ridiculousness of playing the wise Asian master. Consider that Chiun spends the film uttering lines like, “You did not ask to be white. So perhaps that is not your fault. You did not ask to be here. Perhaps that is not your fault, either.” Grey understands there’s only one way to tackle a part like this and he does so with gusto.
In my opinion, pretty much every film featuring a yellow face performance would have been improved had an Asian actor actually played that part. Except this one. In this case, I will defend to the death the notion that this part belongs to Linda Hunt and to her alone. Not only is Hunt playing Asian in this powerful drama set against the backdrop of the 1965 Indonesian coup attempt, but she’s also playing a man. And a dwarf. And she is neither of those three things. Yet, she’s so believable that she not only steals the movie from stars Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, but won an Academy Award in the process. I’ve written about her work in this film before so I won’t repeat myself here, but if you’ve never seen this movie (directed by Peter Weir of Dead Poet’s Society and The Truman Show fame), check it out and I dare you to tell me that anyone else could have done it better.