The Evolution of Asian Cinema

The Evolution of Asian Cinema

Photo by James Hargis Connelly – © MPTV – Image courtesy

Though Asian actors have been performing in movies for more than a century, they were often cast in one-dimensional roles that stereotyped them as either hopelessly passive or brutally aggressive. In many cases, Asian characters were often played by non-Asian actors in “yellowface.” For example, in 1919, the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong made her screen debut (although uncredited) as a 14-year-old lantern-bearer in The Red Lantern, a silent film that starred the Russian actress Alla Nazimova as a half-Chinese, half-white outcast.

Anna May Wong also appeared as a “Mongol slave” in the 1924 classic The Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks. The sumptuous film was an early example of a transcontinental Orientalism that juxtaposed flying carpets and veiled harem-dwellers side-by-side with Mongol despots and Chinese rituals.

The role of the sinister Mongol prince was played by the Japanese actor Sojin Kamiyama, and that of the court magician (in a Middle Eastern capital!) by the Japanese-German Sadakichi Hartmann, reinforcing the stereotype that all Asians look alike, are inscrutable, and therefore could be conveniently plugged into any script about the “mysterious Orient.”

Though Hartmann had established a reputation as a playwright, surrealist prankster, and photography critic, his role in The Thief of Bagdad was also uncredited. To add insult to injury, his cultural contributions were dismissed by John Barrymore, a drinking buddy who described him contemptuously as “a living freak presumably sired by Mephistopheles out of Madame Butterfly.” Hartmann may have gotten his revenge, however. In 1942, together with WC Fields and Errol Flynn, he stole Barrymore’s corpse from a morgue and propped it up at a table for a parting shot (of bourbon).

With the advent of talkies, the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa became the first actor of Asian heritage to play leading roles and achieve a reputation as a “sex symbol.” He made his first talkie in 1931, appearing in Daughter of the Dragon. Later in his career, he became famous for his role as Kuala, the pirate captain in the 1960 film The Swiss Family Robinson. Three years earlier, Hayakawa had earned a best-supporting-actor nomination for his role as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

But these stereotypical portrayal of Asians persisted. A case in point is the depiction of Charlie Chan, the fictional Honolulu police detective whose benevolent persona was conceived as a rebuke to these misrepresentations of Asians as the “Yellow Peril.” Though East Asian actors played the character in some of the early Chan movies made from 1926 to 1931, it was not until Swedish-American actor Warner Oland took on the role that the films achieved box-office success. After Oland’s death in 1938, the Caucasian actors Sidney Toler and Roland Winters portrayed Chan.

The onset of World War II further complicated the issue of Asian representation in cinema, with films depicting the Japanese as bloodthirsty and untrustworthy. During the American Occupation after the war (1945-1951), the U.S. military exercised strict censorship, even forcing auteurs like Yasuhiro Ozu and Masahiro Makino to remove scenes that were deemed objectionable, such as images of Mount Fuji or references to the bombing of Tokyo. But in 1950, Akira Kurosawa’s iconic Rashomon became a hit in the West. It was a double-edged samurai sword: while Kurosawa’s artistic merit was valorized, the film also reinforced the old images of Japan as being a warrior culture.

By the 1970s, filmmakers like Bruce Lee were celebrating Asian prowess in the martial arts with such films as Enter the Dragon, which despite its cinematic qualities once again depicted its characters in a stereotypical light. In the decade that followed, a new generation of filmmakers, weaned on the activism of the 1960s, started making movies that sought to smash the stereotypes once and for all. Who Killed Vincent Chin?, a hard-hitting documentary by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña, helped galvanize the Asian American community into action by interrogating the case of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American auto worker who had been murdered by his coworkers because he was thought to have been Japanese and therefore a threat to their jobs. The film won an Oscar nomination in 1987.

Gregg Araki is a Japanese American filmmaker whose works have challenged the old stereotypes, notably through his association with the New Queer Cinema movement. His 2010 film Kaboom was the first winner of the Cannes Film Festival Queer Palm. The Los Angeles-based director started his career by making low-budget but critically acclaimed films like Three Bewildered People in the Night, The Long Weekend (O’ Despair), and The Living End. In the mid-1990s, he created three films in what has been called his Teenage Apocalypse trilogy for their incisive exploration of adolescent alienation, sexuality, and aggression.

In recent years, films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha showcased the richness and complexity of various Asian cultures, departing from earlier stereotypes. Actors like Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li began appearing in mainstream Hollywood productions, challenging the long-held notions that Asians were relegated to specific roles, or that Asian characters had to be portrayed by Caucasian actors in “yellowface.”

In 2018, Crazy Rich Asians marked a watershed moment for Asian representation in Hollywood. Directed by Jon M. Chu and based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, the film featured an all-Asian ensemble cast and was celebrated for its portrayal of contemporary Asian life without resorting to stereotypes. The film’s success at the box office demonstrated the commercial viability of diverse storytelling and paved the way for more inclusive narratives.

Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the 2022 American absurdist comedy-drama film Everything Everywhere All at Once continued to smash the old stereotypes while becoming one of the most acclaimed films of recent vintage that depicted Asian characters as more authentically multidimensional. In this film, Michelle Yaoh stars as Evelyn Quan Wang, a Chinese American immigrant and laundromat owner who is thrust into a bizarre reality involving alternate universes. She is ultimately tasked with saving the multiverse from destruction while she also undergoes an IRS audit. A far cry from The Thief of Bagdad and Anna May Wong.

And then of course, there’s the spectacular success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the Korean film that in 2020 became the first non-English language movie to win an Oscar for best picture.

Despite these triumphs, the old stereotypes die hard. In a 2021 article for the Huffington Post, Marina Fang alluded to Anna May Wong’s lament that “when I die, my epitaph should be ‘I died a thousand deaths’”—a reference to the many times her characters were killed off in her movies. Fang noted that in 2019, “over a quarter of Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander (API) characters in the year’s top 100 movies at the box office were dead by the end of the movie, and all but one died violently.”

She was referring to a study by two academics, Nancy Wang Yuen and Stacy L. Smith, that took a comprehensive look at API representation in more than 1300 films. only 44 of which had a lead or co-lead who was API. The study also found that API characters are often “silenced, stereotyped, tokenized, isolated, and sidekicks/villains.”

In the article, Yuen was quoted as saying: “People often ask me whether representations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are improving. … “Unfortunately, when representation looks like tokenism, Hollywood is doing the bare minimum for inclusion.”

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