When Hollywood Gets Things Right! Asian Lead Actors Edition

Forget Birth of a Dragon and Ghost in the Shell, and watch these great films from the 1980s and ’90s instead.
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Forget Birth of a Dragon and Ghost in the Shell, and watch these great films from the 1980s and ’90s instead.

When Hollywood Gets Things Right! is a new Culture Pages series where we highlight titles that experts say shattered stereotypes, made nuanced observations, and otherwise did not insult entire peoples and populations. At a time when the industry continues to disappoint audiences with dubious representation or casting decisions, this series will celebrate causes for optimism, comfort, and some commendable alternative viewing options.

Logically, a movie called Birth of a Dragon that revisits a legendary Bruce Lee fight would be mainly about Bruce Lee. The martial artist and Hollywood star was linked with the mythical creature since the moment of his birth (in the Zodiac hour of the dragon in 1940, the year of the dragon), and in the 1970s he starred in the legendary kung fu flicks The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon; in 1993, he even became the subject of a biopic titled Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. But this year’s dragon movie does not, in fact, foreground Lee and his rise to prominence, according to some IMDb users who have seen the film: Instead, it focuses on the self-realization of fictional white man named Steve, who learns kung fu from Lee in San Francisco and romances a Chinese woman.

“Is this a joke? I am here to see Bruce Lee but they put the focus on some white guy,” one user wrote. “How is it possible that the main character became a sidekick to a Caucasian man?” another asked.

Those are, of course, rhetorical questions. As the BBC, the Guardian, and Quartz reminded readers last week in articles about these IMDb reviews, Hollywood has long “whitewashed”—cast white actors in the place of non-white ones—Asian stories and characters in English-language remakes and American originals. Journalists have used the term quite a bit recently in reference to repetitive, demoralizing news items such as the revelation that white British actress Tilda Swinton would play a Marvel character with Tibetan citizenship, and American actress Scarlett Johansson would play “Major Kusanagi” in the forthcoming movies Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell, respectively.

A common headline trope is the despairing and generalizing question (“Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?”; “Where Are the Asian-American Movie Stars?”; “Why Can’t Hollywood Stop Whitewashing People of Color Away?”). This is a lazy way to talk about movies. The nearly 400,000-person film industry is not a monolith, and there have been times when American mainstream and popular indie films have broken out of longtime conventions and not only starred Asian actors, but managed to upend Asian archetypes.

To collect a list of the all-stars in this small but vibrant genre, we turned to Jun Okada, an associate professor of English and film studies at SUNY–Geneseo and the author of Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movements. Okada shared with Pacific Standard her favorite moments when Hollywood gave Asian actors equal treatment—crucial reminders to all film executives out there, and great Birth of a Dragon viewing alternatives for the rest of us.

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“Chan Is Missing”

What It Is: While the premise of Wayne Wong’s 1982 film pays homage to classic Hollywood detective stories—the film follows two cab drivers who meander through San Francisco’s Chinatown in search of a Taiwanese man named “Chan” who stole their $4,000—thematically the movie rebukes nearly a century of stereotyped Asian-American characters. The title refers to the popular 1920s to ’40s “Charlie Chan” film series, whose titular Chan was portrayed primarily by white actors after 1931 (Chan is, indeed, missing from the Wong movie: The cast is entirely Asian American). As the heroes search for Chan, “they realize that what they’re trying to figure out is what is Asian-American identity,” Okada says.

Why You Need to See It:“Chan Is Missing is the first feature film to really articulate and explore Asian-American identity in a complex and entertaining way. Wong uses genre—particularly film noir—to root this film in American narratives and genres, but also updates it and makes it contemporary [and focused on] issues like marginalization of racial ‘others.’”

“Better Luck Tomorrow”

What It Is: Before director Justin Lin directed three Fast and Furious movies and Star Trek Beyond, he worked on a film that transformed the ’90s Asian-American independent film movement. Released in 2003, Better Luck Tomorrow stars a group of bored, overachieving Asian-American high-school students who get drawn into a cheat-sheet scam and drug-running operation. Part cautionary tale, part comedy, the film follows the group as their scam spirals into dark places (it was based off of the 1992 murder of Stuart Tay), while lampooning Asian stereotypes: The film’s heroes often escape suspicion by playing up their nerdy, wholesome reputations.

Why You Need to See It: Just like Chan is Missing, the movie uses these American genres that have been popular in the past in really clever ways to engage audiences and turn stereotypes on their heads. Importantly, it represents Asian-American men as more than these stereotypes that we’re used to watching in television and film. It’s so sexy and entertaining and innovative, and it rose to the top of what all those indie filmmakers did in the ’90s.”

“Double Happiness”

What It Is: While Canadian-American actress Sandra Oh is perhaps best known for playing a high-strung female surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy,1994’s Double Happiness showed her in a more vulnerable key. Oh plays Jade, a twenty-something living at home with strict, traditional Chinese parents but rebelling against their wishes by pursuing a career as an actress and dating a white man.

Why You Need to See It: “As an immigrant Asian-Canadian-slash-American story, it’s in some ways typical, but the ending is a bit more ambiguous, and really lends something to the strength of Sandra Oh’s portrayal. I love this film because of her performance: Sandra Oh is one of the greatest actresses of our generation, she elicits so much emotion, and her performances are so poignant—she’s able to draw things in her character that some people are not able to.”

“Terminal USA”

What It Is: Critics often compare ABC’s successful Asian-family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat to Margaret Cho’s 1994 television series All-American Girl—but last year, Mike Hale argued in the New York Times that experimental and punk filmmaker Jon Moritsugu’s 1994 short film Terminal USA had influenced the show too. Terminal USA, a 56-minute parody of family sitcoms—with characters including a closeted gay son and a drug-addict twin brother with an alien girlfriend—“gleefully trashed the notion of Asian-Americans as a ‘model minority,’” Hale writes.

Why You Need to See It: “The black humor and punk-rock aesthetic is so unique—you don’t see that a lot in Asian American film. Jon Moritsugu was able to bring that sensibility to a very coherent, entertaining, funny, and relatable mainstream narrative that’s also very biting. It’s hilarious and very cheeky.”

“The Wedding Banquet”

What It Is: Film critics are already suggesting that director Ang Lee may have another Oscar winner on his hands with the forthcoming drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Lee received his first for an altogether different kind of film about American identity: The Wedding Banquet, a movie about a gay Taiwanese immigrant who marries a Chinese woman to prevent his parents from finding out about his sexuality.

Why You Need to See It: “It’s very similar to Double Happiness in that it’s this kind of immigrant narrative of hiding who you really are to your parents; this kind of generational drama is very common in Asian-American films. But it’s also a masterful narrative: Ang Lee is an incredible filmmaker, and this is a very strong comedy-genre film. I love the fact that it’s a farce; it’s not just about ‘Oh, this is about Asian-American representation.’ I think the most entertaining films work with genre really well—and this one’s also so touching.”