Rich meets poor, comedy meets tragedy – but can an Asian film win Hollywood's top accolade? Scene from 'Parasite.' Photo: AFP/CJ Entertainment

Could South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s wickedly incisive black comedy Parasite lift the 2020 “Best Foreign Language Film” at the Academy Awards in February – or even the “Best Picture” Oscar?

The odds are steep. A handful of Japanese and one Taiwanese film have won the former title, but Parasite would be the first non-English-language film ever to win the latter category. Still, signs are promising. On Sunday, Parasite topped off a rich awards season that includes a Cannes Palme D’Or by becoming the first foreign-language film ever to win a Screen Actor’s Guild ensemble prize – analogous to the Oscars’ “Best Picture” honor.

Regardless of win or loss, the fact that an Asian work is in contention for the English-speaking world’s most prestigious film award suggests Asia’s soft power is finally catching up with its hard power:  In terms of economic clout, East Asia is on a par with the EU and North America.

Since World War II, Asia-specific genres – city-crushing monsters, swashbuckling samurai, kung fu fighters, dreamy animes – have both enriched and influenced global cinema. Asian filmmakers have packed US mainstream theaters with actioners and art houses with quality films; a handful of Asian actors have won global icon status.

But US acceptance has been a long time coming.

Asians suffered from racial stereotypes, watched white actors don “yellowface” and are now seeing “whitewashing” of not just Asian characters, but entire movies. Asian films have been impacted by dire dubbing and the curse of the subtitle. Prejudice has impacted actors and auteurs.

Now, as digitization hurdles both national and cultural frontiers, and as new forms of distribution come online, there are realistic hopes for a better tomorrow.

In 2000,  Ang Lee’s Chinese fantasia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon dissolved the barrier between critical and mainstream acceptance for a defiantly all-Asian film – complete with Asian actors, themes, aesthetics and subtitles – by bagging four Oscars.

Two decades later, Parasite’s six nominations indicate Americans are open to non-genre Asian films. The movie, though Asia-set, addresses a universal issue: middle-class angst amid income polarization. And signs are promising that it could seize the big one.

With Parasite on the brink of the biggest-ever success for Asian cinema in the Anglophone hyperpower that hosts the world’s mightiest film industry, Asia Times reviews the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Asian film in Hollywood.

  • Maestro Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is Asia’s best-ever chance for a best picture Oscar. Video: YouTube

 ‘Yellow peril’ and ‘yellow face’

Almost entirely forgotten today, one of the first heartthrobs of Hollywood’s silent era was Kintaro Hayakawa (1886-1973). A Japanese-American, he wielded a brooding set of good looks that swept him through decades of film following his 1915 debut The Cheat.

“Historically, Hollywood framed Asians within the ‘Yellow Peril’ framework and Asians were not considered for leading roles,” Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, a film expert at the University of Hong Kong told Asia Times. “Hayakawa was an exception to this….his ancestry made him not completely ‘yellow’ since Japan was the only imperial power within the ‘white-only club’ following victory in the Russo-Japanese War.”

It would be decades before another Asian would enjoy such a positive profile on US screens.

In a century that saw Asian colonies demand (and win) independence from European powers, and battle Western soldiers in a trio of murderous East Asian wars, the “Yellow Peril” became a 20th-century Western fear. It was reflected in cinematic representations that are, by 21st century standards, damningly prejudiced.

  • White man, beware! A (not very Asian) Fu Manchu is up to no good. Video: YouTube.

Most notorious was the Fu Manchu series, based on the novels by Edwardian Sax Rohmer. The series, which flourished in both the 1930s and the 1960s, featured a Chinese super-villain whose army of assassins – comprising Arabs, Chinese and Indians – deployed such nefarious weapons as venomous snakes, poisonous spiders and plague bacilli.

Reinforcing the un-reality of the series, the villain was not played by Asians, but by white actors – notably, horror movie stalwarts Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee – made up to look vaguely Asian. This practice of “yellowface” would rob Asian actors of countless roles.

White actors played one of the few positive Asian characters of 1930s Hollywood – Chinese detective Charlie Chan – but the most notorious example of yellowface was a 1956 film portraying history’s most powerful Asian – one who had generated centuries of European folk memory of real “yellow peril.” In Howard Hughes’ The Conqueror, Genghis Khan, played by Hollywood veteran John Wayne, stormed across Utah. The so-called “Oriental Western” today generates both bitterness and ridicule and is a staple on “Worst Films of all Time” lists.

  • Genghis Khan as gunslinger: John Wayne in ‘The Conqueror.’ Video: YouTube.

Not all Asians were portrayed as perilous. In 1958, Mickey Rooney placed a doltish, buck-toothed and myopic Japanese photographer in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; 13 years after the atomic bomb had detonated, Hollywood was still producing World War II-style ethnic caricatures. Rooney’s ludicrous characterization of“Mr. Yunioshi,” became such an icon of racial offensiveness that in a 2008 newspaper interview, Rooney apologized.

None of these portrayals were products of actual Asian cinema – but by the 1950s, far-sighted Western viewers were starting to look toward the real East.

Swashbuckling samurai, city-stomping monsters

In 1952, a motion picture featuring a compelling plot, forceful characters, brilliant actors, superb lighting and roving camerawork hit Tokyo screens. Today, it is considered one of the greatest films of all time, its director one of the greatest auteurs ever.

  • The ultimate chanbara: Seven Samurai. Video: YouTube

The film opened overseas eyes to Japan’s chanbara (“sword-fighting”) cinema. Other Kurosowa chanbara classics include 1950’s Rashomon (winner of the“Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar in 1952), Throne of Blood (1957) and Yojimbo (1961). Other chanbara would win niche Western audiences, notably the Zatoichi “Blind Swordsman” movies, the ridiculously bloody “Lone Wolf and Cub” series and the kinkier “Nemuri Kyoshiri/Son of Black Mass” series.

Beyond genre film, Kurosawa’s mastery of cinematography would be hugely influential. So would his films. Seven Samurai was remade in the US as The Magnificent Seven, a classic Western; Yojimbo was remade in Spain as A Fistful of Dollars, a classic “spaghetti Western.” The two remakes launched a plethora of Hollywood stars, while the original provided a star vehicle for Toshiro Mifune, who would achieve a modest Hollywood breakthrough.

A very different Asian star arose in 1954. Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (a Japanese portmanteau of “whale” and “gorilla”), an irradiated, dinosaur-like sea-dragon, crushed Tokyo under his clawed feet – then, in a rash of sequels, defended earth from outlandish, invading monsters. The “guy-in-a-rubber monster suit” would became a kitschy, beloved icon of Asian cinema, eventually trampling American cities in a series of remakes that, despite their CGI, lacked the charm of the originals. The franchise has generated 35 films thus far; it is still going strong.

  • Stand by for a “tidal wave of terror” – it’s Godzilla! Video: YouTube

Samurai were not the only eastern warriors to fascinate American filmgoers. In the 1970s, another Asian combative culture would travel West – via celluloid.

Rise of the kung fu superhero

The 1960s brought counter-culture to the US. A new open-mindedness toward things Asian became visible in cuisine, music, religion – and martial arts.

Japan’s judo and karate, and Korea’s taekwondo globalized in the 1950s and 1960s , partly due to American servicemen learning them in Asia, and due to their promotion as combat sports. China’s secretive kung fu would win fame not via sport, but via cinema.

The 1970s birthed not just a new genre, but the first-ever Third World superstar. Hong Kong’s Bruce Lee came to America in 1959. Personally charismatic, he taught kung fu to Hollywood professionals who recognized his potential.

Lee’s contacts won him TV bit parts – notably as the white hero’s high-kicking sidekick in The Green Hornet – but his hopes of being the hero of a series about a Shaolin monk wandering the 19th century American West were dashed: He was considered “too Asian” for the role. (It went to US actor David Carradine, who – despite his inability at martial arts – made it his own in the TV series Kung Fu.)

Lee returned to Hong Kong to leverage his Green Hornet fame in a newly thriving film scene. In 1972, the Shaw Brothers kung fu film Five Fingers of Death had taken the top spot at the American box office – the first foreign film to achieve the feat, Magnan-Park noted. Shaw had set up cinemas in Chinatowns worldwide, and from thence, kung fu films went global.

  • Five Fingers of Death kicked off the global kung fu movie boom. Video: YouTube

In Hong Kong, Lee made three superior kung fu flicks for Raymond Chow’s then-new Golden Harvest studios. They outdid their contemporaries by showcasing Lee’s martial skills, ripped physique and undeniable charisma. Hollywood took note. Lee got the call.

The result was 1973’s Hong Kong-Hollywood co-production Enter the Dragon. Combining Lee, black and white co-stars, a Hong Kong location and US production values, it was an instant global hit, one of the finest action films ever.

At a stroke, Lee had demolished stereotypes.

Previously, “Asian men were presented either as lecherous villains, emasculated into sexual non-entities or allowed to be the good racial sidekick to the white alpha male hero,” said Magnan-Park. “All this changed with Bruce Lee.”

“Bruce Lee was the tipping point,” agreed Michael Hurt,  Social Science Korea research professor at the Center for Glocal Culture and Social Empathy at the University of Seoul. “The representation of Asians shifted away from passive and sexless to a kind of hyper-masculine manly mode – he was a kung fu badass.”

But Lee never enjoyed superstardom; he died, aged 32, of a brain aneurism, pre-release. Early death enshrined him in legend. To this day, he is recognized worldwide as the 20th century’s greatest Asian cultural icon.

  • Enter the Dragon: Kung fu lands in Hollywood. Video: YouTube

A handful of copycats came and went before “the next Bruce Lee” emerged.

Jackie Chan had been an extra in Enter the Dragon, but he – along with fellow Chinese Opera chums Sammo Hung and Yuan Biao – did not follow Lee’s macho formula. Instead, Chan blended zany slapstick and jaw-dropping physical stunt work to kung fu, conveying the genre triumphantly into the 1980s. His fame would lead to a series of Hong Kong-Hollywood co-productions in the 1990s and 2000s.

Other martial arts stars would follow: China’s Jet Li, Thailand’s Tony Jaa, Indonesia’s Iko Uwais and Chinese-American Donnie Yen. Women, too, would get their kicks, notably Malaysia’s Michelle Yeoh and China’s Zhang Ziyi.

Human waves 

Following the positive developments in Asian cinema in 1970s, there was a backlash in Hollywood portrayals of Asians in the US as the decade wound down.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, American troops discovered Asians could fight. The enemy was racially demonized: The “Japs” (World War II), the “Chinks” and “Gooks” (Korea) and the “Dinks” (Vietnam). The latter became filmic whipping boys as the US wrestled with post-traumatic Vietnam stress.

“Asians became reduced to their most simplistic forms,” said Hurt. “Simplistic cartoon characters – in simplistic revenge fantasies.”

Asians were largely invisible in the best Vietnam pictures, such as Platoon (1986) and Apocalypse Now (1979).  In others, such as The Deer Hunter (1978) they were deeply villainous. In others, they were mere cannon fodder – notably in Slyvester Stallone’s Rambo (1985), in which the righteous white hero refights (and wins) the Vietnam War.

In a similar vein, an actor incubated by Bruce Lee – American karate champion Chuck Norris – avenged his death at Lee’s hands in the climactic duel in Way of the Dragon (1972) by mowing down hordes of yellow and brown extras in a series of 1980s and 1990s B-movies.

  • Prepare to die, hundreds of Asian extras – Chuck Norris is on set. Video: YouTube

A new hero/villain also emerged: the ninja. The shadow assassins of feudal Japan clearly fascinated US audiences, but the sub-genre lacked a Kurosawa or Lee; the leading ninja actor, Sho Kosugi, never elevated the genre above shlock.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong cinema was shifting. Highly stylized, noir gangster flicks, borrowing from chanbara, kung fu and Sam Peckinpah’s films, appeared. Blending expertly choreographed, ultra-violent, slow-motion gunplay with emotively melodramatic plots, this was the “heroic bloodshed” or “gun fu” genre.

A Better Tomorrow (1986), 1987’s A Better Tomorrow 2 and 1989’s The Killer brought a new Asian star, Alain Delon-ish Chow Yun Fat, and a new Asian director, John Woo, to global attention. Both would transition to Hollywood.

  • Style, melodrama, body count: A Better Tomorrow II. Video: YouTube

Amid the gunsmoke and splatter, the decade also saw the emergence of a world-beating studio that would produce some of the finest work in a gentler Asia genre.

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.

Part 3 of this series, covering ongoing issues facing Asian films, actors and auteurs in Hollywood; remakes and whitewashing; the factors of dubbing and subtitling; the rise of digital distribution; and the probability of a better future, can be read here. 

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