Asian invasion of Hollywood

To mark the tenth anniversary of Memoirs of a Geisha, here’s a look at Asian stars and their first Hollywood roles

Gong Li in Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
Gong Li in Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
27 Nov 2015

Gong Li in Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

This Rob Marshall–directed picture was Gong Li’s English film debut; co-star Zhang Ziyi’s first Hollywood movie was Rush Hour 2 with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, in which she played the gang henchwoman and skilled fighter Hu Li, but her lines were in Mandarin.

Set in pre–World War II Japan, the movie put its actresses through a six-week “geisha bootcamp” to learn the art of entertaining through music and dance. Ziyi said she fell many times during the snow dance scene in which she glided across a runway stage in shoes that resembled cement blocks.

Both actresses talked about being unable to leave the set after their respective portions had been filmed. Ziyi once sad, “At that moment I felt at a loss … how about tomorrow, where am I going?” Gong Li described feeling as lost as her character, Hatsumoto, who was thrown out of the geisha boarding house after an altercation with Ziyi’s character, the younger geisha Sayuri.

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Jay Chou in Green Hornet (2011)
Jay Chou in Green Hornet (2011)
27 Nov 2015

Jay Chou in Green Hornet (2011)

Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou had big shoes to fill when he took on the role of Kato in the 2011 movie remake of Green Hornet — the late martial arts icon Bruce Lee had played the eponymous crime-fighting hero’s valet and sidekick in the television series in the 1960s, and the movie role had initially gone to Hong Kong funnyman Stephen Chow before he dropped out of the project.

Jay once said of his portrayal of Kato: “No matter who plays Kato he’d be nervous, because Bruce Lee is a legend, so I don’t want people to compare, because God and normal people can’t be compared. So I wanted to do a new style, more real to my life — I play piano, so my Kato plays piano.”

Jay is set to embark on his second foray into Hollywood with a supporting role in Now You See Me: The Second Act, the sequel to the 2013 thriller and slated for release mid-2016. The singer will star alongside A-listers including Daniel Radcliffe, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.

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Rain in Speed Racer (2008)
Rain in Speed Racer (2008)
27 Nov 2015

Rain in Speed Racer (2008)

Having the Wachowskis, the brother-and-sister duo behind the Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta and Cloud Atlas, as directors and writers on Speed Racer was a major coup for South Korean R&B star Rain. The movie was based on a Japanese anime series of the same name, but the original didn’t feature Rain’s character, racer Taejo Togokahn, who was created by the Wachowski siblings for the movie.

Justifying his casting as more than a marketing move, Rain once said, “I don’t believe (the Wachowskis) would’ve chosen me if they didn’t think I could deliver a strong performance. They looked at me closely when I auditioned for the role, and during filming I did my best to live up to their expectations.”

“No matter what kind of a movie and role I get, if I like the film I’ll do my best even if it’s only for a single scene. I chose to be part of Speed Racer, even though it’s a supporting role, because I would rather be a small player in the major leagues than a star player in the minors.”

Sadly, the slick animation effects and big names in the crew and cast didn’t save the picture from becoming an unexpected box-office flop — it made a loss of about US$30 million (next to its US$120 million budget) and earned a score of 39 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Rain took another shot at a Wachowski-produced film the next year, Ninja Assassin, which fared better in sales but worse in reviews, getting called “a gorefest, a borefest and a snorefest” by one unabashed critic. But another had kinder words for Rain: “But the fight scenes are mostly great. And Rain, so dashing in Speed Racer, is something to behold. His precisely rippled and defined body is awe-inspiring.”

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Lee Byung Hun in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)
Lee Byung Hun in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)
27 Nov 2015

Lee Byung Hun in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

One of South Korea’s leading men took on a stereotypical Asian role — a ninja descended from a long line of elite fighters — with a stereotypically Asian-sounding (read: exotic) moniker: Storm Shadow, which can be forgiven because it’s a transliteration of his character’s actual surname, Arashikage.

Having trained in taekwondo, the techniques helped Byung Hun with his fight sequences in G.I. Joe. The actor said he did most of his own stunts for the movie. “I had to do kicks and sword fights,” he once said. “But if it was dangerous stunts or if I had to fall down from the top of the building I couldn’t do it, my stunt (double) did it.”

Despite initial hesitation to take up the role of Storm Shadow because he knew nothing about the G.I. Joe franchise, it was a wise first move — he went on to reprise the role in the next installment, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, in 2013 and also nabbed a part in the action comedy RED 2 the same year, followed by a role as a shapeshifter in 2015’s Terminator Genisys.

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Fann Wong in Shanghai Knights (2003)
Fann Wong in Shanghai Knights (2003)
27 Nov 2015

Fann Wong in Shanghai Knights (2003)

SG represent! Not only did Fann Wong become the first Singaporean actress to land a major Hollywood role when she was cast in Shanghai Knights, she got to play Jackie Chan’s sister in the movie and kick major butt in elaborate fight scenes. Her performance was well-received and she was even compared favourably with American actress Lucy Liu.

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Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
27 Nov 2015

Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Malaysian beauty pageant winner Michelle Yeoh was relatively unknown to Western audiences when she was cast as Bond girl and Chinese spy Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies.

Rather than adopt the Bond girl persona of being merely eye-candy, she fought hard to come through as strong in her own right and so impressed her co-star Pierce Brosnan that he dubbed her “the female James Bond.”

Though not strictly a Hollywood movie, the classic franchise did catapult her from comparative obscurity and cement her status as a fearsome fighter who defied Asian stereotypes.

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Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai (2003)
Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai (2003)
27 Nov 2015

Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai (2003)

Ken Watanabe had been portraying samurais in Japanese movie and television productions since the mid-1980s before he was cast as Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto, the last of a line of skilled swordsmen in the 19th century, alongside Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai — and with his first role in an English-language picture he earned nominations for Best Supporting Actor in the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards.

And we know what happened next for Ken: Memoirs of a Geisha, Batman Begins, Letters from Iwo Jima, Inception, Godzilla — an enviable CV.
 

Special mention: Donnie Yen
Special mention: Donnie Yen
27 Nov 2015

Special mention: Donnie Yen

It might be hard to imagine that one of Asian cinema’s biggest names has yet to catch a major break in Hollywood. Donnie has had a string of minor roles in English-language pictures — Highlander: Endgame in 2000, Blade II in 2002 and Shanghai Knights in 2003 — and was once in talks for a part in The Expendables 2 before turning it down.

With his role in the upcoming sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he might finally get that chance. Donnie almost didn’t take up the part because he said the role was too similar to the heroic swordsmen he’s played over the decades. But the chance to work again with acclaimed martial arts choreographer and director Yuen Woo Ping and the challenge to film a movie entirely in English beckoned.

We’re set to see more of Donnie when Episode VIII of the Star Wars franchise descends upon us mortals. The actor will reportedly play a Chinese Jedi — Chinese! Jedi! — who meets Han Solo and fights by his side, according to Apple Daily. The movie is expected to land mid-2017.

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Photos: TPG, Warner Bros. 

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