More Leading Roles for Asian Actresses Shows Hollywood's (Slow) Progress

·Senior Editor, Special Projects

Ladies, it may be your turn.

Overseas Asian performers who get top-tier Hollywood treatment has mostly been male — Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, Ken Watanabe. This summer, Korean actor Byung-hun Lee broke the Hong Kong/Japan chokehold with combative turns in "G.I. Joe" and "Red 2" (where he did a fleeting but eye-catching nude scene).

Now actresses are joining Hollywood's work-abroad program. Japanese model Tao Okamoto is the love interest in "Wolverine," which also features Rila Fukushima as a cherry-haired bodyguard-assassin. Rinko Kikuchi — the first actress from Japan to receive an Oscar nomination in 49 years — lobbied "Pacific Rim" director Guillermo del Toro to play Kaiju-battling pilot Mako Mori. French-Cambodian Elodie Yung, who comes by way of France, applied her black-belt training as Jinx in "GI Joe: Retaliation."

Four in four months may not sound like a monumental trend. Then again, you're talking about an industry where:

All this cross-cultural casting is Hollywood hustling for that billion-dollar market called Asia. China leapfrogged Japan in 2012 as the world's second-largest film audience and should overtake the U.S. by 2020. Plus, the homegrown popularity of China's domestic movies portends "negative growth" for U.S. films there.

Production companies in China, Japan, and South Korea have been busy celebrity-swapping in their pan-Asian productions. Those partnerships pose another challenge to Hollywood, but they also widen the casting net. Tinseltown execs can issue generic casting calls for an "Asian actress" and land quality performers. Besides this year's crop, they scored Summer Qing (China) for "Looper," Doona Bae (Korea) for "Cloud Atlas," and Yu Nan (China) for "The Expendables 2."

Exit the sex kitten, enter the dragon lady
"Hunger Games" success aside, the American summer blockbuster is mostly male territory, so this 2013 batch might warrant even more respect. Del Toro told the Toronto Star that he deliberately sought out tough for "Pacific Rim."

"One of the other things I decided was that I wanted a female lead who has the equal force as the male leads. She's not going to be a sex kitten, she's not going to come out in cutoff shorts and a tank top, and it's going to be a real earnestly drawn character."

And, giving relief to action fans tired of hokey Harlequin romance injections, pilot Mori doesn't hook up with co-workers, either.

Kikuchi gets another chance before international audiences, starring opposite Keanu Reeves in "47 Ronin," debuting Christmas 2013. And she'll reclaim the ultimate Asian female stereotype as sorceress Mizuki, who literally turns into a dragon.

Er, progress?

Somewhat, if one takes the global view. Roles deemed stereotypes in America aren't thought so very much in Asia, where actors and actresses have done martial arts since the silent era, and female shape-shifters are the stuff of classic Chinese literature.

A female lead and an Asian presence in Hollywood productions are just way overdue. "Looper" changed the setting to Shanghai and the ethnicity of the lead character's wife to seal a China production partnership, but the tweak reflected the political reality of China as a 21st-century power.

Not that some casting decisions aren't strained: Arthouse actress Yu had a better screen presence than most of her "Expendables 2" co-stars, but her youth made her the odd woman out among action-hero senior citizens. (She was 2 when Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" came out in 1978.)

That's better than the tokenism of Fan Bingbing in "Iron Man 3." Only Chinese audiences saw the extended scenes of a crack Chinese surgical team saving Tony Stark — and they mercilessly ridiculed the ham-fisted scenes. Fortunately, Bingbing gets a better shot as mutant Blink in "X-Men: Days of Future Past," due out 2014.

A fighting chance for Asian-Americans?
Might Hollywood's courtship of overseas talent help the native pool here? Unknown. Producers want to tap into proven Asian commodities — the Catch-22 for underemployed Asian American actors. In March, Masi Oka ("Hawaii Five-O" and "Heroes") talked about the difficulty that Asian-Americans still have getting a job in their own backyard.

"It’s changed in Hollywood, but only so much. You can’t get Asians cast in leads yet. Maybe as a second lead, but the lead is still going to be Caucasian or African American. But Hollywood is fickle: It follows trends. If a show or a film did well with an Asian lead, then it would take off."

Asian American actress Maggie Q of "Nikita," who had a leading role in the 2008 big-budget China film "Three Kingdoms," pointed out at Comic-Con that she's in "the action box and the ethnic box; it's a very small box they put you in. It's a lot of effort to climb out. At least it's something to climb out of."

More opportunities are opening up, albeit in that same box. The Weinstein Company and Celestial Pictures (owner of an immense library of 1970s Hong Kong actioners) will remake such classics as "Come Drink With Me" (1966), featuring a swordswoman as the compelling lead. Also in the works is a "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sequel starring the inestimable Michelle Yeoh, one of the rare female crossover stars in U.S. films: "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997), "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005), and "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" (2008).

Ironically, Yeoh and her fellow actresses stoked up controversy (Chinese playing Japanese) in the adaptation of Arthur Golden's already controversial bestseller. This time, Okamoto and Bae match their characters' nationalities, but there are no guarantees. The "Cloud Atlas" role of the Korean clone had been offered to Natalie Portman before the Wachowski brothers muted accusations of whitewashing by hiring Bae.

Here's one twist: Set to co-star with Yeoh in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Destiny" is Donnie Yen, the fifth-highest-paid actor in Asia. Born in China, he emigrated at age 11 to Boston, where his mother — a martial arts grandmaster — founded the Chinese Wushu Research Institute. He ended up finding cinematic fame by heading East, a route followed by other North American Asian actors. The rising tide that lifts all boats seems to do best for those bound for China.