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 offensively yellow face. 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.
25) LITTLE TOKYO, U.S.A. (1942)
Harold Huber as Takimura
I’ve already called this out as the most racist, anti-Asian film ever produced by Hollywood. The only reason it’s not higher on the list is because it’s been largely forgotten today. Though this is a fictional story, the movie was shot in a documentary style and marketed with a “ripped from the headlines/based in fact” campaign. Set on the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, good guy Michael Steele (Preston Foster) uncovers a nefarious secret in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo—the Japanese American community’s top business and community leaders are all spies for the Imperial Japanese; led by the seemingly respectable, American-born Nisei businessman Takimura (the very white Huber in yellow face) who vows to bring America to its knees. Of course, there wasn’t a documented case of JA disloyalty in real life, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this xenophobic work that makes the argument that a “Jap,” even one born in the U.S., could never be a loyal American.
24) BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
Ken Watanabe as (fake) Ra’s Al Ghul
When Christopher Nolan announced that no less a badass than Ken Watanabe would be starring in his reboot of the Batman series as Ra’s Al Ghul, one of the most formidable villains in the Dark Knight’s rogue gallery, fanboys and Asian Americans alike rejoiced. While Watanabe didn’t have a whole lot to do in the film, he was still a cool and mysterious presence that you wanted more of. And when he supposedly dies early in the movie, you just knew that wasn’t the last we would see of Ra’s Al Ghul. Well, he does return, but…as Liam Neeson, because as it turns out, Watanabe wasn’t really Ra’s, just some underling (?) pretending to be him while the guy everyone thought was the underling (Neeson) actually turned out to be the real Ra’s. Damn, foiled again by the Man! However, this is still one of the best of Hollywood’s celluloid comic book offerings, but oh, what could have been!
This is arguably the greatest of the seven collaborations between director Josef Von Sternberg and his muse (both on and off-screen) Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily is traveling on an express train through China when Chinese guerillas led by the evil warlord Henry Chang takes the passengers hostage. The Swedish American actor Oland made a career of playing Asians including everyone from Charlie Chan (which he is best known for) to Fu Manchu and does the same again here. I have to say of all the actors who donned yellow face, I’ve enjoyed Oland’s performances the most—there’s always something a little “eccentric” about his characters (the drink or two he’d take before shooting probably helped). This film is also notable for pioneering Chinese American star Anna May Wong’s work—not only does she hold her own against the larger-than-life Dietrich, but the woman who “died a thousand (cinematic) deaths” is not only still alive at the end of the movie, but commits the heroic act that saves the day.
22) LETHAL WEAPON 4 (1998)
Jet Li as Wah Sing Ku
Any film franchise or TV show that’s been around long enough and features law enforcement types eventually tackles some variation of the illegal Asian smuggling storyline. In the case of the fourth (and so far) final installment of the buddy action-comedy starring Mel “Sugartits” Gibson and Danny Glover, the plot revolved around the smuggling of illegal Chinese immigrants. And leading the charge for the Chinese baddies was Jet Li making his American big-screen debut. Fans of Li’s Hong Kong films, where he usually plays the hero, were outraged that Hollywood would relegate Li to stereotypical bad guy status. But Li saw this as an opportunity to make his mark in the U.S. by being a part of a popular action series. And Lethal Weapon 4 definitely launched his American career, but did anyone really believe that Li would’ve gotten his ass kicked by Mr. Sugartits Nazi?
21) DR. NO (1961)
Joseph Wiseman as Dr. No
This was the film that kicked off the James Bond franchise—one of the most successful in cinematic history—and the first villain intent on world domination that Sean Connery’s 007 faced off against was the good doctor, a self-described “unwanted child of a German missionary and a Chinese girl of a good family” who later became “treasurer of the most powerful criminal society in China.” In the movie, Bond confronts his nemesis in Jamaica where Dr. No is planning to disrupt an American space launch with a radio beam weapon (oh, how things were simpler back then). Dr. No established the formula for the quintessential Bond baddie—mad with power, tries to kill Bond with elaborate Rube Goldberg devices instead of just shooting him and dies violently in the end (boils to death inside his nuclear reactor). Dr. No, the man, may have failed in his plans, but Dr. No, the movie, was a huge hit and the rest is history.