Fast forward for Asians in Hollywood

Jackie Chan, Ken Watanabe, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri… Asian actors have made their presence felt in the West. But when will they become an integral part of Hollywood, wonders parvathi nayar

October 09, 2010 08:06 pm | Updated December 17, 2016 04:41 am IST

Roshan Seth

Roshan Seth

Unless you are a die-hard fan, John Cusack headlining the recent film Shanghai isn't a particularly newsworthy fact. What, however, is worth noting, are the number of talented Asian actors in the Mikael Håfström movie, such as Ken Watanabe, Chow Yun-Fat and Rinko Kikuchi.

A sign that Asians have arrived in Hollywood? Unfortunately not yet, even if their presence is stronger than ever before. Two of Shanghai's actors Kikuchi and Watanabe may be Academy Award nominees — for Babel and The Last Samurai respectively — but they belong to a list of just eight actors of Asian descent who have received Oscar nominations in the acting category.

Set in Asian milieu

Films set in Asian milieus such as Shanghai, Memoirs of a Geisha or The Joy Luck Club would seem to be obvious celluloid worlds in which to find Asian actors, but even this isn't something you can take for granted. Asian fans regularly complain about the whitewashing of Hollywood — i.e. casting white actors as characters who should technically be played by Asians, such as the recently buffed-up Jake Gyllenhaal as the hero Dastan in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time .

Or take the raucous controversy created by the lack of enough Asian actors in M Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender . Guy Aoki from Media Action Network for Asian Americans was quoted as saying that “Shyamalan, who's Asian American himself, has fallen for the cynical assumption that whites will not pay money to see Asian Americans starring in a film.”

While Asian actors probably did themselves a service by not being part of the critically-reviled Airbender , unhappily, Shyamalan's alleged “cynical assumption” is probably true — even in the case of popular Asian talent. For example, the presence of Korean pop sensation Rain in Ninja Assassin or Speed Racer didn't exactly set the box office on fire.

There's also the problem of typecasting. As Daniel Dae Kim (of ‘Lost' fame) remarked about the Hollywood stereotyping of Asian American actors: “We've been portrayed as inscrutable villains and asexualized kind of eunuchs. Even Jackie Chan in his movies rarely gets to kiss his female lead.”

Still, it's encouraging that roles are being tailored around the star quality of an Asian actor, most notably the aforementioned Chan. His breakthrough blockbuster role was in the 1998 action comedy Rush Hour — which reportedly earned US$130 million just in the U.S. Other Hong Kong exports who've made their mark in the West include Jet Li, Chow Yun-Fat, and of course, Bruce Lee. Malaysian actor Michelle Yeoh became well-known as the 007 girl who more than held her own in Tomorrow Never Dies ; she even made it to the People magazine's list that year of 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.

Indian presence

Closer home, an Indian presence in Hollywood has yet to take off — though we could stake a claim on Oscar winner Ben Kingsley, as he is half-Indian. Directors Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta have done much to increase the profile of Indian actors in the West through their respective movies such as The Namesake and Earth . Incidentally, there's a lot of widespread interest in Mehta's next film, an adaptation of Salman Rushdie's “Midnight's Children.”

India's “serious” actors who have appeared in Western films include Shabana Azmi in John Schlesinger's Madame Sousatzka and Naseeruddin Shah in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ; Om Puri is a rare example of an actor who landed many roles both in British films such as East is East (1999) and in Hollywood films such as City of Joy (1992). Aishwarya Rai made an important breakthrough as “leading actress” in Pink Panther 2 and Mistress of Spices — but the roles did her little justice.

Though he wouldn't have been top-of-mind as a potentially successful Indian cinematic import, Anil Kapoor made his presence felt thanks to Slumdog Millionaire — which, in turn, led to his much-talked-about role in the latest season of ‘24', recently aired on TV.

TV, in fact, might pave the way forward for Asians in Hollywood, given the decidedly multi-racial look of ‘Lost' or ‘Heroes'. Roles in hot TV serials have helped the careers of actors such as Ken Leung, Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh.

The Holy Grail sought by Asians in Hollywood is the widespread signs of blind casting — i.e., where Asian actors are picked for their performance ability rather than ethnic fit. While there are increasing examples of this — Gong Li in Miami Vice , Maggie Q in Mission: Impossible 3 or Watanabe in Inception — it's not nearly enough.

Promisingly, though, there's a new young breed of Asian faces vying for attention such as John Cho in the new Star Trek , or Justin Chon in the Twilight films. This generational change could well be the catalyst for a greater Asian presence in Hollywood. As with the African Americans, perhaps the Asian American needs to first become an accepted part of the U.S. landscape, before Asian faces become a standard ingredient of the Hollywood product.


* Ken Watanabe as the charismatic Katsumoto in The Last Samurai, the samurai leader who eventually befriends Tom Cruise's character, Captain Nathan Algren.

* Jackie Chan as Detective Inspector Lee in Rush Hour, who breathed new life into the often clichéd genre of buddy cop flicks.

* Tabu as Ashima in The Namesake who transitions with such grace from blushing Indian bride to a mother caught between two worlds in the U.S.

* Roshan Seth as the reflective Jawaharlal Nehru in Gandhi, for which he received a nomination from the BAFTA Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

* Michelle Yeoh as the graceful martial arts exponent Yu Shu Lien in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which was actually an international co-production that included Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia and Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S.

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