Very few things make a movie more memorable than a memorable villain. And Hollywood has a long history of featuring on-screen Asian baddies—both the memorable and forgettable, the stereotypical and the sublime, the “authentic” and the offensive. Every day this week (Monday-Friday), I’ll count down my choices for the 25 most “infamous” of Hollywood’s Asian villains—the good, the bad and the ugly.
20) MULAN (1998)
Miguel Ferrer as Shan Yu
In their continuing efforts to diversify their line-up of animated characters, Disney had originally planned to produce an animated short about a miserable Chinese girl who is saved by a British prince, but fortunately, they wisely shelved that idea and turned instead to the famous Chinese legend of Fa Mulan—a brave girl who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in battle. Yes, this version of the story has been “Disney-fied” (I don’t remember a wise-cracking mini-dragon that sounded like Eddie Murphy in the original telling), but it was well received by the Asian American community and became a worldwide hit with its grrrrl power message (this was the first Disney cartoon where the girl didn’t need to be rescued by the guy). Ferrer provided the voice for the vicious Hun leader Shan Yu and he was an appropriately frightening and formidable adversary, especially in the epic battle scenes, which have all the grandeur of a David Lean production.
The ravishing Anna May Wong, a.k.a. Chinese America’s first Hollywood movie star, plays the aristocratic princess who learns that her true father is the evil Fu Manchu and that he is seeking revenge against the British Petrie family who just happens to be her friends. Will she resist the dark ways of her father or join him in his nefarious scheme? What do you think? This film definitely reflects the racist “yellow peril” fervor of the era, but is notable for two things: 1) Japanese American star Sessue Hayakawa appears as both Wong’s love interest and the Scotland Yard detective out to catch Fu–a rare instance when the two romantic Hollywood leads were both played by Asian Americans, and 2) Wong’s charismatic performance itself, which elevates the material whenever she’s on screen. Still, the stereotypical nature of the film can’t be denied and Wong herself was fully aware of this reality. As she told a reporter before shooting Daughter of the Dragon: “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass!…We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization many times older than the West?”
Here’s a short profile of Wong from a TCM segment:
18) RISING SUN (1993)
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Eddie Sakamura
When Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name (which this film is based on) was first released, Asian American activists cried foul; fearing that the anti-Japanese sentiment of the 1980s would be further fueled by this thriller set against the backdrop of Japanese corporate “incursion” into the U.S. The film version was met with even stronger community outrage and the character of Sakamura seemed to embody all the stereotypes of the “new” Japan—rich, arrogant, deceptive, into sex with white women (including a fetish for eating sushi off naked women). However, Sakamura isn’t a complete bastard—after all, he does sacrifice his own life to help the good guy detectives (Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes). But no need to fear…the movie still has plenty of nasty Japanese baddies to carry the slack in his absence.
Adapted from a successful 1913 stage play, Mr. Wu has a lot in common with his contemporary Fu Manchu—both are stories about prominent Chinese men wronged by Brits who seek revenge. Here, silent film star Lon Chaney Sr. plays dual roles in yellow face—the 100+ year-old Grandfather Wu and his widowed grandson whose daughter is “dishonored” by an Englishman. This film pulls out all the “Oriental” clichés (Chinese girl is shamed so of course she must die), but it’s worth a look for Chaney’s interesting performance. Known as “the Man of 1,000 faces,” Chaney went to great lengths to physically transform himself into his characters (he’s still best known for his iconic Phantom of the Opera) and he endured 4-6 hour daily make-up sessions to become an Asian man. Mr. Wu never quite caught on in the U.S., but the character became popular enough in England that the phrase “Mister Wu? How do you do?” became a standard of British Panto stage performances.
Here’s a fan tribute to Chaney:
Forget the recent Denzel Washington-starring remake, the original is still one of the most chilling political thrillers ever made and feels as current now as it must have back in 1962. Laurence Harvey is the fortunate son of a powerful American political family who is brainwashed by Communist forces during his tour of duty in the Korean War to commit a political assassination. Dhiegh plays the Communist doctor who does the brainwashing in a bravado sequence where he hypnotizes Harvey and his fellow soldiers into believing they are at a garden party with a bunch of nice, old white ladies—it’s a perfect marriage of directing, writing, acting and editing to create tension and suspense. In fact, it’s so good that I’ll even forgive the ridiculous inclusion of a yellow-faced Henry Silva as a North Korean spy who goes mano-a-mano with star Frank Sinatra using an Asian fighting technique unknown at the time to Hollywood called…karate.
Check out #25-21 here…