Part 1 of this series, featuring prejudicial Asian representations in Hollywood, Yellow Peril and yellowface, and the post-war rise of the chanbara, kung fu and ‘gun-fu’ genres, can be read here.
Part 2 of this series, covering anime, Asian art house cinema, neo-wuxia films, and the rise of the non-genre Asian film in Korea’s Hallyuwood can be read here.
Coming to America
The possibility of Asian auteurs and actors replicating their Eastern success in the West’s most competitive film market has led Hollywood to issue invitations to cross the Pacific.
Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong-produced Hollywood epic Enter the Dragon provided one template: The blockbuster has withstood the test of time as one of the great action films. Others, however, met with varying success.
Bruce Lee’s successor was Jackie Chan, but the latter’s Hollywood offerings, such as the Rush Hour series, arguably lack the energy of his original works. To be fair, his earlier works benefited from Chan’s early-career vigor, his Hollywood exposure coincided with Chan’s middle age. And the Chinese slapstick humor of his Hong Kong oeuvre could not translate.
Chan also faced a two-track pay system: He received a lower salary for Rush Hour (1988) than American co-star Chris Tucker (who also had the best lines), noted Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, a film expert at the University of Hong Kong.
- Jackie Chan’s Hollywood break was not necessarily his finest work: Rush Hour. Clip: YouTube
Moreover, the US films of Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat suffer from the dilution of their “trademark action credential,” according to Magnan Park.
Auteurs, too, have fared less than well in Hollywood. Hong Kong director John Woo attempted to introduce Hong Kong-style “heroic bloodshed” to Hollywood with the Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target (1997). That, and his following films, suffered Hollywood oversight – notably in toning down his violent action.
Asia auteurs often fail to do well in Hollywood because, “…what they were able to accomplish in Asia cannot be easily replicated in Hollywood since there is too much oversight that hampers the creative possibilities,” said Magnan-Park. “They go through a process of Americanization as they attempt to work with the system.”
The control exercised by major US studios manifests itself in various ways.
Parasite writer and director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer ran into creative difficulties with Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein and never won a mainstream theatrical release. Korean directors Kang Ja-gyu and Lee Myung-se were unable to agree on scripts with Hollywood partners, while Woo discovered Hollywood stars were empowered to overrule directorial decisions, Magnan-Park noted.
Perhaps only one Asian auteur – Taiwanese Ang Lee – has shifted seamlessly into Hollywood. Though best known for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), he has crossed all genre boundaries, making English costume drama Sense and Sensibility (1995), superhero movie Hulk (2003) and gay romance Brokeback Mountain (2005).
- Hong Kong director John Woo’s Hollywood debut Hard Target lacked the epic spine of his Hong Kong thrillers. Clip: YouTube
Whitewashing and remakes
The days of “yellow face” acting appear to be past, but a new term has risen: “whitewashing.”
A number of stories made into Hollywood films ditched Asian characters for Caucasians – such as the live-action remake of Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell (2017) and the Marvel property Dr. Strange (2016). These earned opprobrium from Asian-Americans and generated debate over minorities’ dis-empowerment in the US film industry.
A number of Asian films won what might be considered the ultimate accolade by receiving complete makeovers. Some remakes were superb – notably the adaptions of Akira Kurosowa’s chanbara films, which transitioned the action to the American West.
- Akira Kurosowa’s Yojimbo was superbly remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars – the breakthrough vehicle for a certain Clint Eastwood. Clip: YouTube
However, many Hollywood remakes have been off-target. The Americanized versions of Korean comedy My Sassy Girl (2001), Korean thriller Oldboy (2003) and Japanese horror flicks The Ring (1998), Death Note (2006) and The Grudge (2020) do not, by critical consensus, hold a candle to the originals.
And remakes raise a broad question. If the Asian originals were good enough to catch Hollywood’s eye, why are remakes necessary in multi-cultural America? Magnan-Park offers one answer. “The most extreme form of whitewashing is to just remake the original Asian film with an all-white cast, story and setting,” he said.
Even so, he notes that the domestication of foreign film for local audiences is not a one-way street: Asian film makers have also remade Hollywood films.
- The unsettling Japanese ghosts of The Grudge did not transition well to Hollywood. Clip: YouTube
Dubs, subs and art houses
Asian languages present a conundrum that also impacts European film in Anglophone America: subtitles or dubbing?
Historically, Americans preferred dubbing, though it produces mismatches between actors’ mouths and the sound coming out. This was especially so with kung fu film – which also engendered some memorable translations. (Example? “Hey fatty! You, with your face, have hurt my instep!”)
Subtitles are less invasive, but have not been favored, with the belief being that they demand too much work from the audience. That subtitle bias may, now, be evaporating.
“When Ang Lee was trying to get a green light for Crouching Tiger, the issue for producers was subtitles, so he turned on the TV to CNN and showed them the subtitles and showed that text and visuals can support each other,” Magnan-Park said.
In 2000, Lee’s subtitled film won widespread acceptance. “I was shocked to see it get a national release – I saw it in the Mid-West,” said Michael Hurt, Social Science Korea research professor at the Center for Glocal Culture and Social Empathy at University of Seoul. “It was the first time in my life that an Asian film could be seen as an Asian film and not be domesticated – and dubbing is the ultimate domestication.”
One reason subtitles are now winning acceptance may be millennial media habits: Ubiquitous messaging services and social media both require constant texting.
Closely entangled with subtitling is the issue of US domestic distribution of foreign language films.
- Red Sorghum: The Chinese neo-classic became art-house fare in America. Clip: YouTube
“The issue with Asian films is it gets into art cinema in major metropolitan centers,” said Magnan-Park. “If you don’t live in a major center, you have to live somewhere with a major university with a student-run cinema. If not, you are really looking at DVD or the internet.”
There are signs that Asian film is breaking out of its confinement to the art house circuit. Parasite writer and director Bong Joon-ho’s films, for example, are following in the footsteps of Crouching Tiger and entering mainstream theaters.
“My Korean-American mom wanted to see The Host and in 2005 I was faced with a conundrum – ‘How will she see this?’ – but she ended up seeing it in an art theater in Dayton, Ohio,” said Hurt. His mother recently watched Parasite in a standard cinema. “US audiences need domestication much less these days,” Hurt added.
Digitization, in addition to changing attitudes toward subtitles, has enabled distribution beyond the geographical boundaries once controlled by studios. Korean films, which won global prominence after the internet gained regional and global traction in the late 1990s, have particularly leveraged this.
“Young people are seeking Korean films on websites and YouTube channels … Netflix and the Korean Film archive have been particularly useful,” Frances Gateward, an expert on Asian film at California State University, told Asia Times. “Korean cinema has a cult status among Americans viewers as cutting edge and cool – and rightly so!”
Bong Joon-ho’s whimsical Okja, complete with its global cast, reached the world via Netflix. Clip: YouTube
Netflix – which distributed Bong Joon-ho’s fantasy Ojka (2017) – recently agreed to acquire 40 Korean dramas over the next three years and runs a wealth of subtitled, international content across multiple geographies. All are accessible to anyone with a credit card and a PC or smartphone.
“I don’t think anything is more interesting in media right now than Netflix,” said Hurt. “The back gate to the American screen is Netflix, in a way.”
The need for new and original content to run on upcoming on-demand services that are appearing to compete with Netflix, such as Disney and HBO, suggests expanding opportunities. Does an Asian genre remain undiscovered?
If so, it probably won’t be from China. “Censorship and authoritarianism are not the key ingredients to creating the next globally popular hit,” said Magnan Park, noting the failure of recent Chinese blockbusters such as 2015 actioner Wolf Warrior to win over global audiences. However, Chinese capital exports to Hollywood are winning roles for Chinese actors in joint-financed films like shlock monster movie The Meg (2018).
India’s massive Bollywood musical genre has largely failed to connect to global audiences, beyond ethnic Indians living overseas. Whether it can leverage digitization to break the bonds of its cultural specificity is, as yet, unclear.
- A combination of Chinese and Hollywood capital produces a monster: The Meg. Clip: YouTube
Beyond Asia: A multidimensional future?
In America’s current “woke” era, in which racial identify is becoming, for some, a greater defining characteristic than passport nationality, and at a time when global capital combines to fund film across borders, the definition of Asian film – and even Asian stars – is becoming fuzzier.
Singapore-based comedy hit Crazy Rich Asians (2018) centered on an Asian family and Asian mores – but was a US production. It is not an entirely new trend. Three highly acclaimed, Oscar-winning Asian-themed films were not, in fact, strictly Asian films: Anglo-Indian co-production Gandhi (1983), The Last Emperor (1987 ), an Italian film made with Indian cooperation, and Anglo-US film Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
- Anglo-Indian co-production Gandhi won a Best Picture Oscar, commercial success in both markets and catapulted Anglo-Indian actor Ben Kingsley to stardom. Clip:YouTube
“They are Asian-content films designed to appeal to US and European mainstream audiences,” said Magnan-Park.
Still, such films provide vehicles for stars to shine. Super Rich Asians has proven to be a propellant for Anglo-Malaysian model, TV presenter and actor Henry Golding who – with a range of A-list projects lined up – now looks like becoming Hollywood’s next Asian leading man.
Biracial and bi-cultural thespians such as Golding, Gandhi’s Anglo-Indian Ben Kingsley and Slumdog’s Anglo-Indian Dev Patal enjoy an advantage in the US that “pure” Asian actors like Toshiro Mifune, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan did not: They speak fluent, unaccented English (though with English accents – a plus in Hollywood). The same is true of one of Asia’s top breakout actresses, Malaysian Michelle Yeoh, who was educated in the UK.
English fluency also enables Korean-American stars like John Cho, Stephen Yuen, Sandra Oh – albeit, the latter two have had greater successes on the small screen than the large.
- Though a Hollywood, rather than an Asian production, Crazy Rich Asians may have created the next Asian leading man: Henry Golding. Clip: YouTube
A new era?
While European film awards organizations, such as Cannes and Berlin, have long awarded Asian films with leading prizes, no Asian film – indeed, no foreign language film – has yet won a Best Picture Oscar: As previously noted, Best Picture winners Gandhi, The Last Emperor and Slumdog Millionaire were not strictly speaking, Asian movies, despite their casts, themes and settings.
The global dominance of Hollywood is one issue. While non-American film professionals cannot ignore Hollywood, the reverse is not the case. “I don’t think people in Hollywood are required to be open to foreign films,” said Magnan- Park. “All the chatter in the industry is about what is happening in Hollywood.”
Some experts opine that deep-seated anti-Asian bias squats at Hollywood’s epicenter.
“I think Bong is being polite when he attributes the lack of acceptance of Asian, or Korean, films to a subtitle bias,” Frances Gateward said. “I am just going to put it out there and say it is cultural bias: Eurocentrism.”
But others are more upbeat.
“I think what has changed is that the [US] audience is willing to watch films with diverse casts,” said Darcy Paquet, an academic and film critic who subtitled Parasite. ”What has not changed is that the people making the decisions are white men, for the most part.”
And yet, Hollywood managerial attitudes may be in flux. In addition to its Palme D’Or at Cannes, Parasite grabbed multiple top-drawer acclaim across the Atlantic at the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors’ Guild awards. That leaves just the biggest show still to come: The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Awards. And the academy’s makeup is changing: It has hit its 2016 20% diversity target for members, suggesting greater-than-ever open-mindedness toward non-white film.
Will Parasite walk away with Best Picture?
That cannot be known until February 9. But whatever the result on Oscar night, its status as a landmark in the history of Asian movies’ acceptance in America – on a list that includes (for different reasons) Seven Samurai, Godzilla , Enter the Dragon, A Better Tomorrow, Spirited Away, Raise the Red Lantern, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Oldboy – looks assured.
Super poor infiltrates super rich – and Hallyuwood infiltrates Hollywood. Parasite. Clip: YouTube
Part 1 of this 3-part series, featuring prejudicial Asian representations in Hollywood, and the rise of the chanbara, kung fu and “gun fu” genres, can be read here.
Part 2, which covers Japanese anime, Chinese wuxia and art house theater, Asian cinema’s influences on Hollywood, and the rise of Hallyu/K-film and non-genre Asian film can be read here.