MANAA Video Guide
for something to pop into your VCR? Interested in movies about
Asian Americans? How about Western-language films that portray
the meeting of Asia and the West in terms besides the same tired,
old stereotypes? Or maybe even a vintage Hollywood film featuring
a pioneering Asian American actor?
If your Asian American-movie jones needs to be scratched, your
friends at MANAA are happy to make the following suggestions.
Below is a list of titles on VHS video that you can enjoy in
the privacy and comfort of your home, turning your domicile
into your own private Asian American cinématheque.
Yes, we want you to have fun watching some worthwhile (and sometimes,
not so worthwhile) manifestations of the moving image. But there's
also a more serious side to this list. We at MANAA are fighting
for more balanced and equitable images of Asian Americans in
the mainstream media. We want to push the Asian image forward,
past the invisibility and the clichés. And we need your
help and support to do this. But the only way to know where
the Asian image is going is to know where it's
been . By checking out the titles in this guide,
we can all begin to imagine what the Asian image will look like
when it's no longer living in the shadow of the stereotypes.
IN THE GUIDE?
The MANAA Video Guide features works from Western countries
with prominent Asian characters, often played by Asian American
actors (both U.S.-born and immigrant). But we particularly want
to emphasize those Asian characters who challenge stereotypes.
This means different things for different eras. For example,
the character played by Sessue Hayakawa in "The Cheat"
(1915) would certainly strike us today as a stereotype. But
having an Asian actor play such a major Asian role in a Hollywood
movie was unusual for the time, and Hayakawa's part in that
film enabled his subsequent Hollywood stardom. The same can
be said for Anna May Wong's early roles. What's more, some South
Asian viewers have problems with the character of Mowgli, played
by Sabu and Jason Scott Lee in their respective versions of
"The Jungle Book" (1942, 1994). But in order to acknowledge
the pioneering efforts of Asian American actors, even some of
their more problematic portrayals are listed in the guide.
Each year, MANAA presents its Media Achievement Awards to recognize
those who have helped to advance the Asian image in the mainstream
U.S. media: film, theatre, broadcast, print, etc. Past awards
have recognized such films as "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,"
"The Joy Luck Club," "Picture Bride," "Rumble
in the Bronx," and others. The guide mentions those works
that have received Media Achievement Awards in the entry for
NOT IN THE GUIDE?
First of all, all works must be available on VHS video. Sadly,
this forces us to omit some important titles. Many of Anna May
Wong's starring vehicles aren't available, particularly Daughter
of Shanghai (1937) and Dangerous to Know (1938)
, films that would provide a rare glimpse of an Asian American
leading lady in "golden age" Hollywood. James Shigeta's
co-starring roles in The Crimson Kimono (1959)
and Bridge to the Sun (1961) are--alas--nowhere
to be found in the video stores. Also unavailable are some television
films with strong Asian themes and Asian American casts: If
Tomorrow Comes (1971), Judge Dee and the Monastery Murder (1974),
Farewell to Manzanar (1976), Hot Summer Winds (1991)
, and the Vanishing Son and All-American
Girl series (both 1994-95). We look forward to adding
these titles to the guide as soon as they come onto the market.
Because the guide is designed to spread awareness of video titles
that resist the stereotyping of Asians, there are certain kinds
of Asian-themed films that have been intentionally omitted:
Films that limit Asia or Asian America to an "exotic"
backdrop for a non-Asian lead ("You Only Live Twice,"
"The Year of the Dragon," "Big Trouble in Little
China," etc.)--unless it has some redeeming feature.
Films that fall back on the over-used cliché of pairing
a white male lead with an Asian female love interest--or "white
knight" movies, for short ("The World of Suzie Wong,"
"Come See the Paradise," etc.). Romances between Asian
women and white men are only included when they cast a critical
eye on such a relationship or when the love story isn't the
central focus of the film.
Films with white actors in lead Asian roles ("The Good
Earth," "Buckaroo Banzai," etc.)--unless, again,
it has some compensating value. This is not to disparage the
many talented white actors throughout the world, but to protest
the lack of equal, commensurate opportunities for recognizably
Asian American actors to compete for white lead roles.
Films with ethnically Asian stars in non-Asian roles (Lou Diamond
Philips in "La Bamba," Jason Scott Lee in "Map
of the Human Heart," Brandon Lee in "The Crow,"
Pheobe Cates in "Princess Caraboo," etc.). The guide
makes one historically significant exception: Merle Oberon in
Films from Asia (Bruce Lee's Hong Kong movies, Japanese samurai
Asian productions that are shot in the English language just
to break into the American market ("Shadow of China,"
Films where the Asian talent is kept off-screen (movies photographed
by James Wong Howe, directed by John Woo, etc.).
Okay, let's go to the movies! Pull up your favorite chair. Keep
the clicker where it's in ready reach. And get the popcorn ready.
Here we go
The Cheat (1915) Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Cast: Sessue Hayakawa, Fannie Ward, Jack Dean. As you might
guess from the year it was made, this movie is basically a "yellow
peril" potboiler. A white American woman (Ward) borrows
money from a Japanese merchant (Hayakawa), and when she can't
pay it back, he brands her--literally--as one of his possessions.
The most disturbing scene shows a white mob calling for the
merchant to be lynched. But a funny thing happened on the way
to vilifying the Japanese character: it made a star out of Sessue
Hayakawa. While not representative of his subsequent starring
roles (which are hard to find on video), this xenophobic melodrama
enabled the Japanese-born Hayakawa to become Hollywood's first
Asian American movie star. Looking back, one has to wonder if
the film is in denial about any erotic attraction between the
white woman and the Asian man, an attraction that couldn't be
acknowledged at the time. Hayakawa is probably best-remembered
for his role as the prison-camp commander in the excellent war
film "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957), for which
he received an Academy Award nomination. He died in 1973. (Kino
The Tong Man (1919) Directed by William Worthington.
Cast: Sessue Hayakawa. One of Hayakawa's own productions, this
silent movie presents the actor in a more sympathetic role.
However, the story is still set against a typical backdrop:
the intrigues of the Chinese mafia. (Grapevine Video)
The Toll of the Sea (1922) Directed by Chester
M. Franklin. Cast: Anna May Wong, Kenneth Harlan, Beatrice Bentley.
Don't get too excited. The story is basically "Madame Butterfly"
transplanted from Japan to China (at least the creators could
tell the difference between the two cultures). However, this
movie features Anna May Wong (1907-1961) in one of her first
starring roles. More significantly, "The Toll of the Sea"
holds a place in motion-picture history as the first feature
film shot in the old two-color Technicolor process (which would
be supplanted in 1933 by the more realistic three-color process).
(Nostalgia Family Video)
Shanghai Express (1932) Directed by Josef von
Sternberg. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, Warner Oland.
Set in civil-war-torn China, this Marlene Dietrich vehicle portrays
Asia as little more than an exotic backdrop for a Hollywood
icon. However, it's one of the few Anna May Wong talkies available
on video. Although she plays only a supporting character, her
role is pivotal. Also, it's fascinating to see her talents utilized
by a top-notch director like von Sternberg. What's more, when
Anna May stabs a yellow-faced Warner Oland as the Chinese villain,
the moment may be seen as an allegory: an Asian American actress
"puts the knife to" Hollywood's misrepresentation
of her ancestral culture. (MCA Home Video)
Wuthering Heights (1939) Directed by William
Wyler. Cast: Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven. Hey,
wait a minute. What's this movie doing on the
list? It's an adaptation of the classic Victorian novel by Emily
Brontë. It doesn't have anything to do with Asia. Or does
it? In fact, the film's star, Merle Oberon (1911-1979), is part-Indian.
She was born in Bombay to an English father and a Sunhalese
mother. This lineage gave Oberon her "exotic" looks
that British audiences, and later Hollywood audiences, found
so fascinating. What makes Oberon's story of particular interest
is the great lengths to which she went to conceal her Asianness.
She denied being Indian, cultivated her makeup and lighting
to look as pale as possible, and even concocted a phoney life
story that had her born in Australia. The biographer Charles
Higham believes that Oberon's perpetuation of this ruse ultimately
wore her down emotionally and led to her death at age 68. Oberon's
portrayal of Cathy in this highly acclaimed adaptation is probably
her best-known and best-loved performance. The film ranked no.
73 on the American Film Institute's list of "The 100 Best
American Movies," the only entry on that list in which
an "Asian" performer gets top billing. (HBO Video)
Phantom of Chinatown (1940) Directed by Phil
Rosen. Cast: Keye Luke, Grant Withers, Lotus Long. This is a
very low-budget B-movie of poor quality. Its uninspired story
of an Asian detective, James Lee Wong, solving a murder mystery
is only a cheap attempt to cash in on the Charlie Chan movies
of the era. But unlike Chan, the Asian detective hero in this
film is an acculturated American , and he's
played by Chinese American actor Keye Luke, not by an actor
in yellowface. Luke's character is a confident, clear-speaking
man of action. In an era when Asian stereotypes ran rampant
in Hollywood, Luke's stereotype-busting lead role redeems this
otherwise lackluster thriller. (VCI Home Video)
The Jungle Book (1942) Directed by Zoltan Korda.
Cast: Sabu, Joseph Calleia, John Qualen. If Merle Oberon was
technically the West's first South Asian movie star, its first
openly South Asian star was Sabu. This native
of India first broke into films as the child star of the British-produced
"The Elephant Boy" (1937). As he grew, he continued
starring in such British films as the re-make of "The Thief
of Bagdad" (1940). "The Jungle Book" features
Sabu in his first real adult starring role as Rudyard Kipling's
Mowgli. The film was produced in the United States by the British-based
Alexander Korda, driven overseas by World War II. The story
is set in India, and all of the supporting characters appear
to be played by white actors in brownface. Still, Sabu holds
the screen as the heroic main character, and this Technicolor
movie remains very enjoyable as an example of the era's fantasy
filmmaking. Sabu would go on to have a career in Hollywood,
playing "exotic" supporting roles in A-movies like
"The Arabian Nights" (1942) and lead roles in B-movies
like "Sabu and the Magic Ring" (1957). He died in
1963. Although quite popular in his time, Sabu is barely remembered
today. Jason Scott Lee would inherit the role of Mowgli in the
1994 re-make of "The Jungle Book" (see below). (Memory
Lane Home Video)
Go for Broke! (1951) Directed by Robert Pirosh.
Cast: Van Johnson, the Heroes of the 442nd Regimental Combat
Team. While unexceptional by today's standards,
this Hollywood combat movie features real Japanese
American war heroes playing themselves--albeit in supporting
roles--as they re-create their tour of duty in World War II
Italy. The Nikkei stay firmly in the background, and only a
fleeting mention is made of the internment. But the film is
a dignified and refreshing change from the "yellow peril"
stereotypes so widespread at the time. Next time, Hollywood,
let the 442nd soldiers tell their own stories--and show us the
camps! (MGM/UA Home Video)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) Directed by Alain
Resnais. Cast: Emmanuele Riva, Eiji Okada. Aside from being
a ground-breaking work of cinematic art, this celebrated French
film features one of the first times the Western screen has
shown a white woman in bed with an Asian man. The movie begins
with a startling blend of documentary footage and fictional
voice-over, and it ends with a stunning personal revelation
that finds a common thread in suffering the world over. Credited
with initiating the international "New Wave" cinema
of the 1960s, this is still one of the most respected and riveting
films of all time. Scripted by Marguerite Duras, whose similarly
themed novel "The Lover" was turned into a piece of
soft-core trash in 1992. (Public Media Home Vision)
Flower Drum Song (1961) Directed by Henry Koster.
Cast: Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Jack Soo. Looking for a realistic,
incisive view of 1960s Chinatown? Forget it! This Rodgers &
Hammerstein musical is all fluff. But it's also Hollywood's
only (almost) all-Asian movie. (Juanita Hall, who plays Madame
Liang, is African American. She originated the role on Broadway
and replaced Anna May Wong, who was originally set to play the
role in the movie but died before filming began.) Ignore the
sitcom plot, the corny jokes, and the silly musical numbers
(including the embarrassing "I Enjoy Being a Girl")
and relish the sight of some veteran Asian American talent taking
the spotlight. Jack Soo (in a role played in yellowface on Broadway)
is not to be missed. (MCA Home Video)
Bruce Lee and the Green Hornet (1966-67) Various
directors. Cast: Van Williams, Bruce Lee. This cassette contains
three episodes from the campy, cartoonish 1960s TV series "The
Green Hornet," featuring martial-arts legend Bruce Lee
(1940-1973) as the masked hero's Asian sidekick, Kato. The tape
also includes Bruce's screen test, which led to his casting
in the show. Although his kung fu stole all of the action scenes
from the title character (Williams), Bruce was still forced
to play Kato as either a white-jacketed "houseboy"
or a masked chauffeur--in other words, as a subordinate. Watching
"The Green Hornet" today, it's fascinating to see
Bruce's lithe, lightning-like martial-arts moves. But at the
same time, it's infuriating to see such a potential star cooped
up in a subservient role. Still, this video is a good opportunity
to see some of Bruce's work before his rise to kung fu stardom
in Hong Kong. And judging by the title of the tape, it looks
like Bruce gets the last laugh. (Facets Video)
Red Sun (1971) Directed by Terence Young. Cast:
Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune, Ursula Andress. For those who
prefer their Asian heroes of the Old West to be played by actual
Asians, there's always this enjoyable alternative to "Kung
Fu" (see below). This Italian-French-Spanish co-production
features Japanese legend Toshiro Mifune ("The Seven Samurai,"
"Yojimbo") in one of his few heroic roles set on American
soil (albeit shot in Spain). This Euro-Western teams samurai
Mifune with cowboy Bronson as they race to recover a precious
sword stolen from visiting Japanese dignitaries. Thankfully,
Mifune comes off as Bronson's equal, not his sidekick. James
Bond-veteran Young keeps the action so brisk that you'll never
notice how trite the story is. (Infinitely superior to that
other Asian-themed Euro-Western, 1973's "The Stranger and
the Gunfighter," starring Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh--an
appalling waste of talent.) (Video Gems)
Kung Fu (1972) Directed by Jerry Thorpe. Cast:
David Carradine, Barry Sullivan, Keye Luke. Not everybody is
going to agree with including this title in the list. After
all, Carradine was cast in the lead role of Kwai-Chang Caine,
the role that Bruce Lee had developed as his own Hollywood starring
vehicle. Bruce was robbed of the role. However, as a 1970s TV
pilot, this story of Asian struggle in the Old West is quite
well-done. Besides, the film does give its supporting Asian
cast--Keye Luke, Philip Ahn, Robert Ito, James Hong--their moments
in the sun. More importantly, the enormous success of
the "Kung Fu" TV show (1972-75) did as much as any
of Bruce's movies to popularize Asian culture and martial arts
in '70s America (including making "kung fu" a household
word). Each week, the TV series brought a positive awareness
of Asian American history into homes throughout the country--albeit
in a highly stylized and compromised manner. Ironically, "Kung
Fu" also helped to bring about "Enter the Dragon":
both were produced by Warner Brothers. The updated 1990s series
"Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" was a wretched knock-off,
not worthy of its predecessor. (Warner Home Video)
Enter the Dragon (1973) Directed by Robert
Clouse. Cast: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly. The plot is
pure pulp. The drama is contrived. The outcome is illogical.
Who cares?! This cult classic has martial artist and Asian American
superstar Bruce Lee gracefully beating the bejeezus out of the
bad guys! After years of obscurity in the U.S., Bruce triumphantly
punched and kicked his way into the Hollywood spotlight (via
Hong Kong). But in a bitter twist of fate, Bruce died only a
month before the movie was released to great success. We can
only speculate how different Hollywood's image of Asians would
be if Bruce had lived and persevered. Now available in a 25th
anniversary commemorative edition, which includes the documentary
short "Bruce Lee: In His Own Words." (Warner Home
The Yakuza (1975) Directed by Sydney Pollack.
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Ken Takakura, Brian Keith. Although this
is mainly Mitchum's movie, Takakura's empathic portrayal of
a Japanese hit man--who turns against his employers to avenge
his family--is so full of intensity and integrity that it transcends
the "sidekick" label. This is an above-average action
film. Director Pollack ("The Way We Were," "Tootsie")
treats his martial-arts material with unusual seriousness and
believability. This respectful presentation of a prominent Asian
male character is rare for a Hollywood crowd-pleaser of the
'70s. (Warner Home Video)
Isamu Noguchi: Portrait of an Artist (1980)
Directed by Bruce W. Bassett. An informative documentary on
the important Japanese American artist who created a distinctive
style of abstract sculpture and introduced Japanese objects
and materials into American art. This tape is part of a documentary
series of world artists. (Home Vision)
Chan Is Missing (1981) Directed by Wayne Wang.
Cast: Wood Moy, Marc Hayashi. Why should I watch
this? It's just a couple of Asian guys yammering for 80 minutes.
No stars. No breathtaking scenery. It's even in black &
white, for Pete's sake! But using the rudiments of filmmaking
technology, ace director Wayne Wang bursts the myth of San Francisco's
Chinatown as a mysterious, unknowable "foreign" territory.
This is a story of American characters dealing
with dilemmas specific to the Asian community. Its insider's
look at Asian American culture remains a breakthrough for Asian
American fictional cinema. Yes, it's a mystery, but don't expect
Charlie Chan. He's missing, too. (New Yorker Home Video)
Gandhi (1982) Directed by Richard Attenborough.
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Ian Charleson, Roshan Seth. While a bit
too self-consciously noble, this highly honored epic remains
an inspiring parable on the power of peace over violence. Besides,
British star Ben Kingsley (formerly Krishna Bhanji) is, to date,
the only ethnic Asian with a Best Actor Oscar. And there's something
slightly subversive about the sight of such a grand, opulent
spectacle being harnessed to tell the story of a modest, ascetic
man in a sack cloth. (Columbia/TriStar Home Video)
Utu (1983) Directed by Geoff Murphy. Cast:
Anzac Wallace, Bruno Lawrence, Wi Kuki Kaa. In 1870, Te Wheke
(Wallace), a Maori corporal in the colonial New Zealand Army,
snaps after the army's massacre of his village and vows "utu"
(vengeance) against the British colonists. This story of Te
Wheke's guerilla war (taking more than a few cues from the Hollywood
Western) is superbly crafted and stands as perhaps the most
highly praised New Zealand film of all time. But even though
Te Wheke is the film's central figure, the story seems more
concerned with the colonials' hunt for him. This blunts our
understanding of both Te Wheke as a character and the workings
of colonialism. (Fox Video)
The Karate Kid (1984) Directed by John G. Alvidsen.
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, Elisabeth
Shue. Pat Morita's character, Sensei Miyagi, is basically a
variation of the stereotypical Asian "wise man." However,
his moving monologue about the Japanese American internment
earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Morita as Best Supporting
Actor in this very popular movie from the director of "Rocky"
(1976). Morita returned to the role of Miyagi in three sequels.
The role also enabled Morita to play the title character in
the 1987-88 ABC police series "Ohara." (Columbia/TriStar
The Killing Fields (1984) Directed by Roland
Joffé. Cast: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich.
This highly acclaimed film tells the true story of reporters
Sydney Schanberg (Waterston) and Dith Pran (Ngor), set against
the bombing of Cambodia and Pol Pot's death camps. For his portrayal
of a man who narrowly escapes Cambodia's harrowing holocaust,
Ngor won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. However, some will
argue that Ngor's role is the film's true lead character. (Warner
Dim Sum (1985) Directed by Wayne Wang. Cast:
Laureen Chew, Kim Chew, Victor Wong. Departing from the rough-hewn
quality of "Chan Is Missing" (see above), Wang delicately
observes the misunderstandings and unspoken affection between
an immigrant Chinese mother and her American daughter (played
by a real-life mother and daughter). The script is richly nuanced,
and the performances are radiant. A wonderful film. (Pacific
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) Directed by
Steven Frears. Cast: Gordon Warnecke, Daniel Day Lewis, Saeed
Jaffrey. Skillfully scripted by Hanif Kureishi, this small British
film was one of the year's most unexpected hits. A young South
Asian Englishman (Warnecke) tries to please his business-minded
Pakistani family while secretly carrying on a homosexual relationship
with a working-class Londoner (Day Lewis). The film deftly blends
gritty "kitchen sink" realism with an aura of magic.
The low-key performances are all completely on-target. (Warner
A Great Wall (1985) Directed by Peter Wang.
Cast: Peter Wang, Sharon Iwai, Kelvin Han Yee. A diverting comedy
about a successful Chinese immigrant who returns to the old
country with his new Asian American family in tow. This small
film has a very light touch, and it uses the inevitable clash
of cultures as a way to illuminate the characters, not as the
butt of cheap laughs. Reportedly the first U.S. production shot
in post-revolutionary China, its view of U.S.-Chinese friendship
now seems a bit too optimistic in the wake
of Tiananmen Square. (Pacific Arts Video)
Slaying the Dragon (1987) Directed by Deborah
Gee. This PBS documentary blends vintage film clips with interviews
of well-known faces (Kim Miyori, Amy Hill, James Shigeta, etc.)
to chronicle Hollywood's blinkered understanding of Asians and
Asian Americans. If you need proof to back up your gnawing doubts
about the entertainment industry, here it is! (Available from
the National Asian American Telecommunications Association,
346 Ninth Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA, 94103, 415/552-9550)
Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) Directed by
Stephen Frears. Cast: Sashi Kapoor, Frances Barber, Claire Bloom.
A dazzling Molotov cocktail of a movie. Frears and screenwriter
Kureishi ("My Beautiful Laundrette," see above) team
up again to celebrate the fluidity and eroticism of multicultural
London. A thoughtful but joyous meditation on the fall of empire
and the confusion of identity, this British film is just as
relevant to the United States as it is to the United Kingdom.
(Lorimar Home Video)
The Last Emperor (1987) Directed by Bernardo
Bertolucci. Cast: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole. It's
not good history, but this luxurious multiple-Oscar-winner provides
a panoramic canvas for some under-rated Asian American acting
talent. The fascinating Italian director Bertolucci ("Last
Tango in Paris") brings his meticulous style to the story
of China's (ready for this?) last emperor, Pu Yi. The sumptuous
cinematography by the famous Italian lensman Vittorio Stararo
is absolutely yummy. Lone's laser-like performance in the title
role holds the sprawling epic together. But despite the fact
that this movie won every single one of its Oscar nominations
(a rare feat for a Best Picture-winner), it--tellingly--didn't
receive a single nod for any member of its Asian cast. The film
stands a proof positive that there's a broad audience for realistic
Asian stories and Asian actors in lead roles. How come Hollywood
dropped the ball? (Check out Bertolucci's 1994 Asian-themed
follow-up, "The Little Buddha," only if you want to
hear Keanu Reeves doing a bad Indian accent.) (Nelson Home Entertainment)
Aloha Summer (1988) Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace.
Cast: Chris Makepeace, Yuji Okumoto, Tia Carrere. Although it
latches on to some over-familiar themes (the Pacific as a tourist
paradise, the "white knight"), this intimate ensemble
piece treats Japanese American life in Hawaii with enough depth
and respect to make it worthwhile. Tia Carrere claims this as
her first film, but her performance in "Zombie Nightmare"
appeared two years earlier. (Lorimar Home Video)
Witchtrap (1988) Directed by Kevin S. Tenney.
Cast: James W. Quinn, Kathleen Bailey, Linnea Quigley. A cheesy,
unexceptional horror flick. However, the charismatic Amerasian
actor James W. Quinn is cast in the color-blind lead. Rumor
has it that director Tenney cast Quinn as the male lead in his
earlier "Witchboard" (1986), but the casting was vetoed
by someone higher-up because an Asian was deemed undesirable
for the role. Now, Quinn gets the opportunity to show what he
can do. One only wishes he had better material. (Magnum Entertainment)
A Family Gathering (1988) Directed by Lise
Yasui and Ann Tegnell. Co-director Yasui explores the Japanese
American internment through the personal experiences of her
own extended family. She not only broadens her own personal
knowledge about an unknown chapter of her family's history,
but she also uncovers a painful family secret. By casting its
light on the small-scale story of a single family, this deeply
moving documentary illuminates a much larger history. (Available
from the National Asian American Telecommunications Association,
346 Ninth Street, 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA, 94103, 415/552-9550)
Best of the Best (1989) Directed by Bob Radler.
Cast: Eric Roberts, Phillip Rhee, James Earl Jones. A proficient
action movie built around a martial-arts tournament. Although
Roberts is touted as the film's star, Rhee turns out to be the
main character and saves the day once Roberts in incapacitated.
Rhee was also one of the producers and followed this entry with
two sequels. If you want to be an Asian American movie star,
it looks like you gotta do it yourself. (SVS Inc.)
Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989) Directed by Wayne
Wang. Cast: Cora Miao, Russell Wong, Victor Wong. While not
as thoughtful or as well-crafted as Louis Chu's 1961 novel (upon
which it's based), this adaptation still provides another humanizing
look at Chinatown and features Media Achievement Award-winner
Russell Wong ("Vanishing Son") in his first starring
role. (Columbia/TriStar Home Video)
The Wash (1989) Directed by Michael Toshiyuki
Uno. Cast: Mako, Nobu McCarthy, Sab Shimono. Based on Phillip
Kan Gotanda's play, this small, intimate movie celebrates the
perseverance of love in the face of old age and cultural inhibition.
Released theatrically before being aired as part of PBS's "American
Playhouse" series, the film features some sterling lead
performances from its Japanese American cast (despite Mako's
really bad dye job). (Academy Entertainment)
Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture (1989) Directed
by Robert Mugge (in collaboration with Vicky Holt Takamine).
A fascinating look into the world of traditional Hawaiian music
and dance, this documentary combines energetic concert footage
and insightful interviews with contemporary practitioners of
this resurgent art form. In these images, we come to see not
only an exuberant expression of the human spirit, but also the
affirmation of an indigenous culture that came dangerously close
to being completely suppressed. Along the way, the films helps
to dispel many misconceptions. In the end, we learn that there's
a lot more to the hula than grass skirts and ukuleles. (Rhapsody
Hawaiian Rainbow (1989) Directed by Robert
Mugge. An enjoyable concert documentary on Hawaiian "roots"
music by the director of "Kumu Hula" (see above).
If you like Hawaiian music, the two films would make a great
double feature. (SVS Inc.)
The Color of Honor (1989) Directed by Loni
Ding. An informative and emotional documentary about the Japanese
American servicemen of World War II. Balancing vintage newsreel
footage and contemporary interviews with surviving veterans,
this film begins with the internment, explores the lesser-known
aspects of Japanese American participation in the war effort,
and touches upon the post-war aftermath. Arguing that the Japanese
American contribution to the victory was intentionally censored
from the chronicles of war, this documentary succeeds in reclaiming
that contribution for future generations. (Vox Productions)
Twin Peaks (1990-91) Various directors. Cast:
Kyle McLaughlin, Michael Ontkean, Joan Chen. After his big-screen
triumphs as an off-kilter movie director, David Lynch ("Eraserhead,"
"The Elephant Man") produced this bizarre, unsettling
TV series, sort of a small-town soap opera on LSD. The show's
eerie aura and mind-blowing plot twists won a well-deserved
cult following--but failed to find a popular audience. Joan
Chen takes the intriguing role of businesswoman Josie Packard,
a character not originally written as Asian. Chen's performance
is textured and nuanced, abetting the show's weird, mysterious
atmosphere. However, her character--predictably--turns out to
be an ex-hooker. Given how the show upsets expectations, it's
hard to tell whether Chen's character indulges or explodes the
"dragon lady" stereotype. Maybe both? Available in
two versions: the two-hour pilot with additional scenes not
broadcast on television (Warner Home Video) and a six-volume
Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes (1990) Directed
by Peter Werner. Cast: Max von Sydow, Judd Nelson, Noriyuki
"Pat" Morita. Despite the fact that von Sydow and
Nelson get top billing, this American TV movie is actually an
ensemble film that makes good use of its largely Asian American
cast: Morita, Tamlyn Tomita, Mako, Kim Miyori, etc. It tells
a fictionalized story of Hiroshima on the day that the first
atom bomb was dropped. We see the story primarily through the
eyes of the Japanese characters, and we are asked to empathize
with them. The awkward presence of von Sydow and Nelson notwithstanding,
this above-average TV film affirms that an American audience
can see itself in the faces of Asian people. (Trimark Video)
The Killing Beach (a.k.a. Turtle Beach, 1991)
Directed by Stephen Wallace. Cast: Greta Scacchi, Joan Chen,
Art Malik. This Australian production has "down under"
journalist Scacchi investigating the Malaysian genocide of Vietnamese
refugees. Chen's role as Scacchi's Vietnamese guide is meatier
than most parts for Asian women, but she turns out to be (surprise!)
an ex-hooker. More ground-breaking is Art Malik's role as Scacchi's
sexy, confident South Asian love interest. But since this overseas
movie never received theatrical distribution in the States,
Malik will probably remain best-known for his villainous performance
as the main Islamic terrorist in "True Lies" (1994),
starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Columbia/TriStar Home Video)
Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991) Directed by
Nancy Kelly. Cast: Rosalind Chao, Dennis Dun, Chris Cooper.
Based on Ruthanne Lum McCunn's well-known biographical novel,
this film traces the struggles of a Mongolian woman (Chao) who
is sold into slavery in 19th-century China, but who finds independence
in the American West. While director Kelly (who co-produced
this film with her husband, Kenji Yamamoto) treats her material
with sincerity and respect, her approach lacks passion and urgency.
Reclaiming a lost history isn't enough--it has to mean
something to us here and now. (Hemdale Home Video)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Directed by Nicholas Meyer. Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy,
George Takei. Captain Sulu takes command of his
own starship--the "Excelsior"--and flies to save Captain
Kirk's butt in this pulse-pounding Cold War allegory (the Starship
Federation and the Klingons try to get along). As Sulu, Takei
sits regally in his captain's seat, barking orders to crew members,
and gives a coolly sarcastic retort to a junior officer played
by Christian Slater (who makes an unbilled cameo appearance
just to take orders). Finally, Sulu shows us what he can do
when he's not under Kirk's thumb, and his heartfelt goodbye
to his former commander at the end deserved Oscar consideration
(did you read Takei's autobiography, "To the Stars"?
He hates Shatner!). One of the most dynamic
performances by an Asian American male in an "action film."
[guy aoki] (Paramount Home Video)
History and Memory (1991) Directed by Rea Tajiri.
Disturbed by her parents' silence about their internment during
World War II, video artist Tajiri digs through old documentary
footage and visits the ruins of her mother's camp to answer
her nagging questions. However, the real subjects of this half-hour
video are the uncertainty of perception and the vagaries of
history. Tajiri skillfully mixes thoughtful personal insight
with pointed criticism of the media as she grows to understand
her parents' "loss of memory." A moving and haunting
work. (Ghost Pictures)
Masala (1991) Directed by Srinivas Krishna.
Cast: Srinivas Krishna, Saeed Jaffrey, Zohra Segal. Krishna
directs himself as an Indian Canadian ex-junkie named Krishna
trying to find his moorings in modern-day Toronto after the
death of his parents. Meanwhile, the Indian deity
Krishna (do you see a pattern here?) visits the young man's
grandmother over her TV set. Like "My Beautiful Laundrette"
(see above), this color-drenched Canadian movie (released in
the U.S. in 1993) is another intriguing mix of gritty South
Asian reality and fantastical South Asian magic. Not to be confused
with Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala" (see below).
(Fox/Lorber Home Video)
Mississippi Masala (1992) Directed by Mira
Nair. Cast: Denzel Washington, Sarita Choudhury, Roshan Seth.
Yes, it's yet another interracial romance with an Asian American
woman. But wait! This time, the leading man is African American.
The thought-provoking flip side to all those annoying "white
knight" movies. Not to be confused with Srinivas Krishna's
"Masala" (see above). (Columbia/TriStar Home Video)
Rapid Fire (1992) Directed by Dwight H. Little.
Cast: Brandon Lee, Powers Boothe, Dustin Nguyen. One of the
few Hollywood films with an acculturated Asian American
hero who is also in touch with his ancestral roots, this above-average,
action-packed movie boasts some fine acting and rescues Brandon
Lee (Bruce's son) from his insulting sidekick role in the loathsome
"Showdown in Little Tokyo" (1991). This film also
led to Brandon's casting as the non-Asian title character in
"The Crow" (1994) and--sadly--to his untimely death.
Who's Going to Pay for These Donuts, Anyway? (1992)
Directed by Janice Tanaka. Sansei artist Tanaka confronts a
momentous chapter in her personal history: the discovery of
her long-missing father, an evacuee during World War II, in
a halfway house for the mentally ill. Tanaka's hour-long video
interrogates perceptions of her father's mental health, an interrogation
that stretches into the history of the Japanese American internment.
But rather than making any hard and fast assertions, Tanaka
questions the very subject of perception and looks inward to
fathom the internment's impact upon herself and the rest of
her family. Unusual and absorbing video images permeate this
thought-provoking work. (Available from the National Asian American
Telecommunications Association, 346 Ninth Street, 2nd Floor,
San Francisco, CA, 94103, 415/552-9550)
Strangers (1992) Directed by Daniel Vigne,
Wayne Wang, and Joan Tewkesbury. Cast: Linda Fiorentino, Joan
Chen, Timothy Hutton. This HBO-produced omnibus film consists
of three separate stories, one of them directed by Wang and
starring Chen as an Asian American woman who becomes erotically
obsessed with an unseen man in Paris. Refreshingly, the race
of Chen's character is incidental to the story. Wang's segment
does a fine job of capturing Chen's sense of disorientation
(so to speak), but it's hard to tell what the point of the story
is supposed to be--beyond the sexual titillation of the audience.
Although the erotic material clearly required Chen to cut loose
and bare all, she self-consciously keeps her body strategically
covered. This draws our attention to the artifice of Chen's
performance, and it makes us wonder why such an inhibited actress
was hired for such an uninhibited role in the first place. (Prism/Turner
Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) Directed
by Rob Cohen. Cast: Jason Scott Lee, Lauren Holly, Nancy Kwan.
More of a highly stylized kung fu flick than a realistic bio-pic,
this is one of those rare Hollywood movies to examine the immigrant
experience from the perspective of a strong, resourceful Asian
man. A box-office hit, this film also affirmed Bruce Lee's importance
to American popular culture. Cohen made a point to include several
scenes depicting the discrimination that Bruce (played by Jason
Scott Lee) endured in the U.S. Particularly notable is the scene
where he sits stone-faced through a screening of "Breakfast
at Tiffany's" while his fellow movie-goers laugh hysterically
at Mickey Rooney's insulting, stereotypical performance as an
Asian. Another shows Bruce's pain and frustration when the lead
role in "Kung Fu" is taken away from him and given
to David Carradine. The movie is also uncommon for its positive
portrayal of an interracial romance between an Asian man and
a white woman. But then again, that's how it really happened!
The film earned MANAA's first Media Achievement Awards for director
Cohen and star Lee. (MCA Home Video)
Surf Ninjas (1993) Directed by Neal Isreal.
Cast: Ernie Reyes Jr., Rob Schneider, Leslie Nielsen. Don't
laugh! (Not until you watch the movie, anyway.) This is actually
a very enjoyable action-adventure yarn for younger viewers (the
rating is PG). The sight of Filipino American teen heart-throb
Ernie Reyes Jr. defeating the bad guys and winning the admiration
of the love interest (a young Kelly Hu) can provide a much-needed
role model for Asian American boys. Intriguingly, Ernie's "white"
sidekick is played by Rob Schneider, who is actually half-Filipino!
(New Line Home Video)
The Wedding Banquet (1993) Directed by Ang
Lee. Cast: Winston Chao, May Chin, Mitchell Lichtenstein. At
the urging of his white lover, a gay Taiwanese immigrant marries
an undocumented Chinese woman to keep her in the U.S. Then,
the Taiwanese man's parents--who don't know he's gay--pay a
visit. This sitcommish plot could have easily degenerated into
a feeble farce. Instead, it poignantly contemplates the meaning
of love, family, and commitment--all in the context of Asian
America. This U.S.-Taiwan co-production is one of the most richly
human comedies of the decade. (Fox Video)
The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) Directed by Roger
Michell. Cast: Naveen Andrews, Roshan Seth, Susan Fleetwood.
"My Beautiful Laundrette's" Hanif Kureishi (with director
Michell) adapts his own novel into this compelling four-hour
BBC mini-series. The show is at once a moving drama of a South
Asian family in 1970s England and a hilarious
send-up of how the West "exoticizes" Asian people.
When the young lead character, Karim (superbly played by Andrews),
becomes an actor, he finds himself face to face with the demands
of stereotyping--even from the "progressive" theatre.
And when Karim is cast as the lead in a film, "The Buddha
of Suburbia" even mocks itself for appearing to be the
"definitive" look at South Asian life in Britain.
A rich and rewarding work (but definitely not for kids). (BBC/Fox
M. Butterfly (1993) Directed by David Cronenberg.
Cast: Jeremy Irons, John Lone, Ian Richardson. David Henry Hwang's
1988 Broadway play about European misrecognition of Asia was
justly rewarded with several Tony Awards. A French diplomat
falls in love with a Chinese opera star, whom he believes to
be the "lotus blossom" of his dreams--only to learn
that "she" is a man. However, when the time came to
turn the play into a film, the material was handed over to a
director with no appreciation for the playwright's critique
of East-West relations. Horror-movie maestro Cronenberg ("The
Fly," "Naked Lunch") miscast the part of Chinese
transvestite Song Liling with the masculine John Lone, who (unlike
B.D. Wong, who won a Tony for the role on stage) could never
convince an audience that he was a woman. Then, the director
took out Song's defiant speech to the French court ("And
being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man")
and made him a passive whimp. This film does a severe injustice
to the play. Rather than renting the movie, try to catch a stage
production. Or else rent "Golden Gate" (see below).
(Warner Home Video)
The Joy Luck Club (1993) Directed by Wayne Wang. Cast:
Lots of Asian Americans! It's that Wang fellow again. This time,
he has a Hollywood-size budget and two continents to work with.
Just as the Amy Tan novel (upon which it's based) slowly won
over the literary world, this deeply moving story of eight Asian
American women was the surprise sleeper hit of the year. This
film--arguably the first Asian American Hollywood movie of the
sound era--was produced by Media Achievement Award-winner Janet
Yang. (Hollywood Pictures Home Video)
Bhaji on the Beach (1993) Directed by Gurinder
Chadha. Cast: Kim Vithana, Jimmi Harkishin, Sarita Khajuria.
A group of South Asian women in England--of various ages, nationalities,
and emotional attachments--take off together for a day at the
beach (Blackpool, to be exact). This small British film exquisitely
balances comedy and drama to create a thoughtful meditation
on what it means to be an Asian woman in a man's world. (Columbia/TriStar
Heaven and Earth (1993) Directed by Oliver
Stone. Cast: Hiep Thi Le, Tommy Lee Jones, Joan Chen. Not exactly
known for his light touch, Stone beats his audience over the
head with this bombastic true story of war and exile. What makes
the movie worth watching is the chance of seeing the Vietnam
War through the eyes of a Vietnamese woman. Instead of viewing
the jungle--as usual--from the helicopters, we're looking up
at the war machines. This simple change in perspective tells
us more than a whole slew of Rambo movies ever could. Joan Chen's
self-effacing performance is a stand-out. (Warner Home Video)
Golden Gate (1994) Directed by John Madden.
Cast: Matt Dillon, Joan Chen, Bruno Kirby, This PBS film is
scripted by Media Achievement Award-winner David Henry Hwang
and is truer to his critique of colonialism than the compromised
motion picture version of his stage play "M. Butterfly"
(see above). Set in the 1950s and '60s, a white F.B.I. agent
(Dillon) feels remorseful about his persecution of an innocent
Chinese American man (Tzi Ma), and he assuages his guilt by
contriving a romantic relationship with the man's daughter (Chen).
But the agent's past comes back to haunt him. This film's criticism
is incisive: assuaging white, male colonial guilt with erotic
fascination for Asian women solves nothing. The European creators
of "Miss Saigon" could probably learn something here.
(Touchstone Home Video)
Hostile Intentions (1994) Directed by Catherine
Cyran. Cast: Tia Carrere, Lisa Dean Ryan, Tricia Leigh Fisher.
The portrayal of Mexicans in this straight-to-video, south-of-the-border
thriller is kind of problematic. However, Filipina American
heart-throb Tia Carrere is cast in a color-blind lead role.
Now, how often does that happen? (Warner Vision
Rapa Nui (1994) Directed by Kevin Reynolds.
Cast: Jason Scott Lee, Esai Morales, Sandrine Holt. Set on Easter
Island before its "discovery" by Europeans, this film
is a parable of ecological devastation. Director Reynolds ("Robin
Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Waterworld") etches
his environmentalism with a heavy hand (at one point, we see
Jason Scott Lee hugging a tree--literally!). Still, this take
on the eternal love triangle is well-told and impressively photographed.
And it's a nice change of pace to see a story of the Pacific
Islands with--get this!--Pacific Islanders as the main characters,
played by an Asian/Latino cast (Easter Island is now governed
by Chile). A refreshing reminder that the history of the South
Pacific didn't begin with the explorer Captain Cook and the
painter Gauguin. (Warner Home Video)
Double Happiness (1994) Directed by Mina Shum.
Cast: Sandra Oh, Stephen M.D. Chang, Alannah Ong. Bursting with
all the energy and hunger of a first-time director, Mina Shum
whimsically tracks the travails and triumphs of a young Chinese
Canadian actress as she breaks away from her traditional immigrant
family. Sandra Oh ("Arli$$") won the Canadian equivalent
of the Best Actress Oscar for her radiant performance in the
lead role. Some have criticized this film's portrayal of its
Asian men (they're either squares, gay, or middle-aged) and
the lead character's relationship with a white guy. But this
is no "white knight" fantasy (the final image shows
the Oh character setting off on her own--not in her white lover's
arms). And for all their faults, the Asian characters are ultimately
human. Splendidly so. (New Line Home Video)
Once Were Warriors (1994) Directed by Lee Tamahori.
Cast: Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell. A
gritty, unflinching look at a blue-collar Maori family in modern-day
New Zealand. The story stands as a scathing indictment of the
second-class citizenship accorded to New Zealand's indigenous
people--and the unwitting ways they help foster it. However,
the film also holds out the traditional Maori culture as one
possible means to overcome the traps of self-loathing. The performances
by the Maori cast are all top-notch. And Maori director Tamahori
would go on to direct "Mulholland Falls" (1995) and
"The Edge" (1997) for Hollywood. (New Line Home Video)
Picture Bride (1994) Directed by Kayo Hatta.
Cast: Youki Kudoh, Akira Takayama, Tamlyn Tomita. A realistic
and respectful glimpse back into Asian American history, this
labor of love follows a Japanese woman who immigrates to Hawaii
in order to marry a man she's never seen before. There are fine
performances all around from the Asian cast. For no extra charge,
Japanese legend Toshiro Mifune makes a cameo appearance as a
travelling showman. And despite all their flaws and antagonism,
the Asian men come off as well-meaning, intelligible human beings.
Writer-director Hatta earned her Media Achievement Award for
this film. (Miramax Home Entertainment)
The Jungle Book (1994) Directed by Stephen
Sommers. Cast: Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes, John Cleese. Fresh
from his lead performances in "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story"
and "Rapa Nui" (see above), Jason Scott Lee is back
as another macho Asian hero--Mowgli (see the 1942 version of
"The Jungle Book," above). And this time, the villain
isn't an Asian mastermind, but the kind of square-jawed British
soldier who's usually the hero in the typical Raj film. In the
wake of all those annoying "Gunga Din" stereotypes
of South Asians, this colorful, invigorating, tongue-in-cheek
adventure comes as a breath of fresh air. (Walt Disney Home
Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision (1994) Directed
by Freida Lee Mock. An informative look at the Chinese American
artist who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, this film
was the surprise winner of the Best Documentary Oscar of 1994.
It begins by chronicling the controversy surrounding Lin's Vietnam
Memorial (including the role her race played in the dispute),
but it also moves on to show us her other works: sculptures
and designs which aren't as well-known, but which are just as
fascinating. Although the film itself is rather pedestrian,
Lin's art is anything but! Her designs are demanding, inventive,
yet always accessible. And they endow the documentary with a
sense of artistry and mystery that it might not otherwise have.
(Available from American Film Foundation, P.O. Box 2000, Santa
Monica, CA 90406, 1-800-472-1500.)
Rumble in the Bronx (1995) Directed by Stanley
Tong. Cast: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Françoise Yip. Okay,
we're bending the rules a bit here. This is actually a Hong
Kong production, originally shot in Cantonese and then dubbed
into English for its American release (in 1996). However, this
very entertaining chop-socky comedy scored Jackie Chan's first
box-office success in the U.S.A. Jackie's first two attempts
to break into the American market, "The Big Brawl"
(1981) and "The Protector" (1986), didn't live up
to expectations. But as the old saying goes, the third time's
the charm. The movie is also a positive look at the Asian immigrant
experience. Its success encouraged New Line Cinema to release
more of Jackie's films, culminating in his first full-fledged
Hollywood star vehicle, "Rush Hour" (1998). (New Line
Mortal Kombat (1995) Directed by Paul Anderson.
Cast: Linden Ashby, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Robin Shou. A fairly
enjoyable action movie--if you don't take it too seriously.
But then again, how seriously should anybody
take a film based on a video game? As the story gets going,
it looks like yet another entry in the "white martial artist
beats up the Asians" sweepstakes: with good-guy Johnny
Cage (Ashby) pitted against the evil Shang Tsung (Tagawa). But
seeming to borrow a page from "Best of the Best" (see
above), Robin Shou's limber Liu Kang seizes the spotlight, and
he becomes the hero who dukes it out with the
arch-villain in the rousing climax. This could mark a new trend:
the Asian as stealth hero. Followed by a sequel, "Mortal
Kombat: Annihilation" (see below). (New Line Home Video)
Wild Side (1995) Directed by Franklin Brauner
(Donald Cammell). Cast: Christopher Walken, Joan Chen, Anne
Heche. Chen plays a gangster's wife who develops an unexpected
lesbian relationship with (we're not making this up!) a bank
executive who leads a double life as a call girl (Heche). Mercifully,
no big deal is made about Chen's character being Asian. However,
this straight-to-video production will probably go down in Hollywood
history for having Anne Heche play a lesbian two years before
she came out in real life. Chen, Heche, and Walken pour themselves
into their roles, but--despite its flirtation with humanity's
dark underbelly--the material never rises above crime-movie
clichés. Chen also associate-produced, and her self-conscious
nude scene comes off as a desperate attempt to catch a casting
director's eye. Eight years after "The Last Emperor,"
one would have hoped to see her in something better. (Evergreen
The Pillow Book (1995) Directed by Peter Greenaway.
Cast: Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida. Is this the story
of an Asian woman taking power over her own life--or just another
irritating "white knight" re-tread? You be the judge!
One thing's for certain: this is one of the most visually imaginative
films to come along in a long time. Known for his startling
imagery, British director Greenaway ("The Draughtsman's
Contract," "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her
Lover") fills the screen with an explosive mix of color
and design in his update of the Japanese classic "The Pillow
Book of Sei Shonagon." But while the images are strong
throughout, this story of a Japanese/Hong Kong woman (Wu) taking
revenge on the murder of her British lover (McGregor) tends
to lose its way. (Columbia/TriStar Home Video)
Irma Vep (1996) Directed by Olivier Assayas.
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard.
A washed-up French director (Léaud) has a shot at redeeming
himself by re-making a classic French film, and he takes the
unusual step of casting a Hong Kong actress (Cheung) as the
female lead, Irma Vep. This intense, claustrophobic French chamber
film (with some English dialogue) isn't for everyone. However,
one scene exemplifies the institutional resistance to non-traditional
casting: When the director's replacement assumes control of
the film, his first decision is to fire Cheung because she's
Asian, not French. "Irma Vep isn't Fu Manchu," he
says. Obviously, he can't see beyond the actress' race. One
can only hope that Hollywood will see its own racial myopia
in this scene. (Fox/Lorber Home Video)
Foxfire (1996) Directed by Annette Haywood-Carter.
Cast: Hedy Burress, Angelina Jolie, Jenny Shimizu. An absorbing,
well-crafted film about five high-school girls who rebel against
the chauvinistic injustices of their small town. And one of
them just happens to be Asian--model-turned-actress Jenny Shimizu
as Goldie Goldman (apparently an adoptee). Shimizu switchblades
the stereotype of the passive, bookish Asian American student.
She may be a model, but she's no "model minority."
And Shimizu's off-screen identity as an out-of-the-closet lesbian
underlines the ambiguous sexuality between the five females.
(Columbia/TriStar Home Video)
Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach (1996) Various directors.
This first-rate documentary mini-series on master cellist Yo-Yo
Ma provides a rare and visually rich look at a talented Asian
American musician at work--both on stage and behind the scenes.
The elaborate creative works--dance, drama, film--centered around
the music of J.S. Bach should have even the most adverse foe
of classical music thinking of the venerable old composer in
a new way. If you still think that Asians can only be waiters
and rude grocers, you should definitely check this out! (Sony
The English Patient (1996) Directed by Anthony
Minghella. Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Naveen Andrews.
Every avid movie-goer probably knows about this multiple-Oscar-winning
hit. But often overlooked is its tender subplot about the romance
between a white French woman (Binoche) and a South Asian man
(Andrews). (Miramax Home Entertainment)
Volcano (1997) Directed by Mick Jackson. Cast:
Tommy Lee Jones, Anne Heche, Jacqueline Kim. In a rare Hollywood
portrayal of Asian American audacity and heroism, Kim plays
the supporting role of a doctor who--against the insistence
of her selfish husband--risks her life to help the victims of
a volcanic eruption in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. In
addition to levelling L.A., this "Volcano" also devastates
a few Asian stereotypes. [guy aoki] (Fox Video)
Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) Directed
by John R. Leonetti. Cast: Robin Shou, Talisa Soto, Irina Pantaeva.
The only thing really notable about this sequel to "Mortal
Kombat" (see above) is that--due to the attrition of the
original's big-name cast members--Robin Shou gets top billing.
Oh, yes, and his romance with Kitana (Soto) is beefed up from
the original. This movie also adds another Asian face by casting
the Siberian model Pantaeva as the "femme fatale"
who switches sides and joins the heroes. But the story keeps
changing the goal post--keeps altering the stakes of the battle--so
often that we're not really sure who or what to root for. Not
as good as the original. (New Line Home Video)
Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1997) Directed
by Mira Nair. Cast: Naveen Andrews, Sarita Choudhury, Indira
Varma. An erotic and visually lavish story of 16th-century India,
this international production provides a rare opportunity for
some under-utilized South Asian talent to shine. Andrews makes
a welcome return to the screen after his roles in "The
Buddha of Suburbia" and "The English Patient"
(see above). (Trimark Video)
One Night Stand (1997) Directed by Mike Figgis.
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Nastassja Kinski, Ming-Na Wen. This highly
contrived tale of adultery is ploddingly plotted and ultimately
unrewarding. With Robert Downey Jr. in the supporting role of
a gay catalyst, this story of sexual attraction between two
married couples appears to be veering towards some kind of pan-sexual
union--but ultimately cops out. Director Figgis ("Leaving
Las Vegas") gets screenplay credit, too, but only because
Joe Eszterhas ("Basic Instinct") took his name off
the project. Still, this otherwise disappointing film features
one remarkable quality: no big deal is made about the interracial
marriage between the Snipes and Wen characters. It's just taken
as a given. Wen shocks in her uninhibited sex scenes--exploding
her nice "Joy Luck Club" image. Word on the street
is that African American star Snipes didn't want his character
to be seen leaving a black wife for Nastassja
Kinski, so he was given an Asian American wife instead. (Maybe
we should call using Asians to bridge divisions between blacks
and whites the "Lance Ito solution.") Although the
film was a commercial and critical flop in this country, it
found some admirers in Europe, and Snipes won the Best Actor
award at the Venice Film Festival. Go figure. (New Line Home
Fresh Kill (1997) Directed by Shu Lea Cheang.
Cast: Sarita Choudhury, Erin McMurtry, Abraham Lim. Video artist
Cheang turns feature-film director with this surreal story of
an interracial lesbian couple (Choudhury and McMurtry) trying
to raise a daughter against a bizarre backdrop of corporate
monopolization, ecological calamity, and cover-up. The photography
(by Jane Castle) and set design stun the eye. The stream-of-consciousness
screenplay was written by Filipina American poet Jessica Hagedorn,
who has a small role. But the monologue-heavy individual scenes
overpower the coherence of the over-all story. The film ultimately
fails to engage. Still, one can appreciate the movie's portrayal
of multiculturalism in New York as a no-big-deal fact of life.
Kundun (1997) Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Cast: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tencho Gyalpo.
Scorsese, one of the most respected directors working today
("Taxi Driver," "GoodFellas"), sought to
make a film about Tibet and--commendably--chose to make a Tibetan,
the Dalai Lama, the main character. The film is visually lush
and imbued with a sense of spiritual mystery. Regrettably, Scorsese
and screenwriter Melissa Mathison never find a way to make the
story compelling. A holy man removed from the realities of his
realm, the Dalai Lama is a rather uncomplicated character, and
the film never finds an effective way to make his battle of
wills with Communist China palpable. Scorsese affirmed the old
Hollywood saying that it's tough to make a good movie about
a nice guy, and the film proved to be a problem for its studio
both financially and politically. But the real tragedy of "Kundun"
is the fact that it was released the same year as the more financially
successful "Seven Years in Tibet," which dealt with
similar material and treated the land as an exotic backdrop
for Hollywood icon Brad Pitt. This will probably make it harder
for projects with Asian main characters to get past the Hollywood
executives. (Touchstone Home Video)
The Replacement Killers (1998) Directed by
Antoine Fuqua. Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker.
For hard-core action fans only. This relentlessly violent shoot-'em-up
marks Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun-Fat's first attempt to make
it as a leading man in Hollywood. The action scenes are impressively
choreographed and shot (by the camera, that is), but a little
more character and story would have been appreciated. Although
Chow and leading-lady Sorvino ("Mighty Aphrodite")
are ideally matched as love interests, the story--in typical
Hollywood fashion--doesn't permit an Asian man to become romantically
involved with a white woman. (Columbia/TriStar Home Video)
Chinese Box (1998) Directed by Wayne Wang.
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung. This time, Wang
tries to stand the old Suzie Wong paradigm on its head with
this tale of a British journalist (Irons) now dependent on the
Hong Kong woman he once dominated. But whether Wang succeeds
is open to debate. In case we miss the point, the story is set
on the eve of Hong Kong's hand-over to China. As the female
lead, Gong Li, China's first lady of the screen, makes her bid
for Hollywood stardom. However, this meandering film's real
stand-outs are Maggie Cheung's in-your-face performance as a
scarred squatter who refuses to let Irons control her and the
mind-bending second-unit photography by Hong Kong-based cinematographer
Chris Doyle ("Fallen Angels," "Temptress Moon").
There you have it. Also consult such resources as Visual
Communications (213/680-4462), the National
Asian American Telecommunications Association (415/552-9550),
and the Japanese American National Museum (213/625-0414)
for specialty videos not usually found in mainstream video stores.
Anything we missed? Please let us know. Feel free to use our
Feedback Form to leave suggestions
or comments. And don't forget to rewind.
Robert M. Payne/Media Action Network for Asian Americans