Film Threat (US), March 9, 2009
The Asian Conundrum
by Violet Glaze
I got a joke email forward a while ago with the title “Everything I Know I Learned From Watching Porn.” Most of the items were pretty obvious, like “All women wear high heels to bed” and “10 seconds of cunnilingus is more than enough”. But the one that really got me thinking was the truism “All Asians are female”. So true — and It’s not just Silicone Valley that ignores the idea of Asian men as sex symbols or romantic leads. Hollywood’s got the same bias. Why the reluctance? Is there any role taken by James McAvoy that Takeshi Kaneshiro couldn’t handle?
Isn’t Tony Leung just as dashing a strong, silent type as Clive Owen?
It’s like the studios give one Asian man a shot at romantic lead-dom every 20 to 30 years, and when it doesn’t pan out they’re relegated to the usual stereotypes of kung fu masters or bucktoothed buffoons. Here’s a tour of the past century of Asian actors missing (or half-missing) their shot at leading man stardom.
The first Asian romantic lead in Hollywood was Sessue Hayakawa, and mentioning him isn’t a great illustration of my theory, because Hayakawa was actually quite popular in his day (he made over $5,000 a week in 1915 — that’s over $100,000 in 2009 dollars) and was as popular among moviegoers as other matinee idols of the day. He’s most remembered among modern audiences for his Oscar-nominated role in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), but that role has nothing to do with the sexually magnetic romantic persona he crafted in earlier silent movies like The Cheat (1919). Maybe “romantic” is stretching it a bit, since in the movie’s most famous scene he brands a woman’s shoulder with a hot iron after she tries to renege on the cash-for-nookie deal she struck with him as a cover for losing embezzled charity funds. I saw this scene for the first time as a kid watching a PBS documentary on Cecil B. DeMille, and believe me, it’s not easy to forget. I especially remember the white steam rising off the shrieking woman’s flesh and the great black wedge of Hayakawa’s tuxedo looming over her bent body, like a vulture hunching over prey. Maybe this scene is just another iteration of the Fu Manchu stereotype of the cruel and perverse Chinaman, but any woman who likes the sensual menace of movie vampires (Twilight, anyone?) can understand the appeal. Women of the time liked it too, much to the ire of anti-miscegenation fanatics. Hayakawa paid them no mind and went right ahead forming his own Asian-positive production company to combat the frustrating stereotyped roles that kept pursuing him, entertaining Hollywood friends at his gigantic “Castle” home, traveling the world as an actor, fighting the Axis powers as part of the French Resistance in WWII, and becoming an ordained Zen master in 1961. (Did I also mention that before he even came to Hollywood, he survived a suicide attempt where he stabbed himself in the stomach 30 times?) Hayakawa was an extremely interesting guy, the kind of ultra-Renaissance man who is the exception who proves the rule – to break the Hollywood curse on Asian men, you’ve got to be pretty effin’ incredible.
James Shigeta was pretty effin’ incredible, too. Born in Hawaii in 1933, the NYU-educated actor and singer was the first Asian man the studio system gave a real, deliberate crack at being a leading man. Take a look at scenes from his earliest movie The Crimson Kimono (1958) (that is, if you can find it, since it’s not released on DVD, but Turner Classic Movies shows it every once in a while), a noir romance about an Asian cop in Los Angeles’s “Little Tokyo” who falls for a white woman. Shigeta’s really unique in scenes from this movie (and others like Bridge to the Sun (1961), where he also romances a white woman), in that he doesn’t let his screen presence fall prey to the idea of the ineffectual, sexless Asian. He’s passionate and tender, leaning subtly and enticingly into the personal space of the actress playing against him and using any excuse to place a gentlemanly hand on the small of her back or around her shoulders. Shigeta has worked solidly since the late ’50s, but even so he’s not remembered among the other Caucasian romantic leads of his day. His unflashy style has become obsolete when every Asian lead after him has to have some kind of martial arts allure – thanks, in part, to the next actor on our list.
Bruce Lee was never really a romantic lead, but he’s definitely still a secret sex symbol among quite a few women (and gay men), and the object of many straight men’s “man crush”. The California-born son of a Hong Kong actor family couldn’t break into mainstream Hollywood stardom no matter how hard he tried, even after a recurring role on TV’s The Green Hornet and a scene-stealing interlude of destruction in Marlowe (1969), where he turns James Gardner’s office into so much splintered wood and shattered glass. When he was passed over for the title role in the TV series Kung Fu in favor of David Carradine, a disgusted Lee returned to Hong Kong and immediately rocketed to fame in a series of chop socky movies, culminating with a return to Hollywood in the joint Warner Brothers/Golden Harvest venture Enter The Dragon (1973). Bruce Lee’s legacy for Asian men in cinema is complicated. On one hand, his charisma is undeniable, on a par with Brando and Valentino and all other movie greats who could command an audience’s attention. His sex appeal and physical prowess is also undeniable, and a direct affront to the idea of Asian men as anti-masculine, work-obsessed neuters. But his screen persona is curiously chaste, rarely acknowledging women’s possibility as a romantic partner, and his precedent as a martial arts athlete par excellence has pretty much ruined the chances of any Asian actor who can’t break boards with his face.
After Bruce Lee’s tragic accidental death in 1973 (three weeks before the release of Enter The Dragon cemented his place in the superstar pantheon), things were pretty slow for male Asian leads, until a goofy Chinese/English/Hawaiian kid from Toronto entered the pop culture lexicon in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). Ted “Theodore” Logan isn’t explicitly referenced as Asian, and maybe that’s part of why Keanu Reeves has attained a mainstream longevity and range that eluded Shigeta and Lee. He’s Asian, but not quite, and there’s something malleable about his handsome leading man looks that doesn’t scream “foreign”. (Lee was 1/8th German, but you wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t told you.) Reeves has been given a chance at many kinds of material, including romantic comedy, Shakespeare, and experimental indie films. But the movies he’s most known for fall squarely within the limited parameters for Asian actors in Hollywood – buffoons (the Bill and Ted movies) action and kung fu heroes (Speed, The Matrix movies), and inscrutable mystics (The Matrix, and, if you count surfer dude obliviousness as a kind of Zen bliss, Bill and Ted). And Hollywood must still be tone-deaf to the idea of an Asian man as an object of sexual desire if Diane Keaton chooses a crabby, flabby Jack Nicholson as her true love over Keanu Reeves the doctor (!) in Something’s Gotta Give (2003).
Which brings us to the strange case of Daniel Henney. Who? If you have to ask, you must not be a Korean woman. This model and actor from Carson City, Michigan is the hottest thing Seoul-side, so Brad-Pitt-megaton-famous that he’s incapable of walking down the street without being mobbed by (female) fans. But even though he’s ridiculously, ridiculously handsome (go ahead, Google him – I’ll wait) he didn’t catch Hollywood’s eye because – surprise! – he’s Asian. (Actually, half-Asian – his mother was adopted from Korea as a toddler, and was raised thoroughly Americanized in a non-Korean family. Henney didn’t speak Korean at home and only learned as an adult.) After a career as a model, he tried (unsuccessfully) to break into American television before appearing in the South Korean TV romance drama My Name Is Kim Sam-Soon. His appearance there catapulted him to pan-Asian fame and the attention of American movie makers. He’s recently been cast in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (he’s prominent in the trailer), and it remains to be seen if he’s able to break out into romantic leads in a way that his predecessors haven’t (and his Asian-American contemporaries John Cho and Aaron Yoo probably won’t.) Wolverine is an action movie, traditional province of Asian actors in a post-Bruce Lee world, but maybe he’s the heir to Hayakawa’s unique example that Hollywood’s been waiting for. We’ll see.