More Leading Roles for Asian Actresses Shows Hollywood's (Slow) Progress
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:
- Asian Pacific Islanders wrangle 3.8 percent of TV and theatrical roles — low considering APIs make up 5.1 percent of the U.S. populace and 13.9 percent of California, Hollywood's home base.
- Leading roles for women — Asian or otherwise — have sunk to a five-year low. In 2012, only 28 percent of speaking roles in the top 500 movies went to females. (This year's not much better, female cop buddy movies aside: Only 32 percent of 2013 movies so far star women.)
- Actresses still experience lots of sexism, as a rabble-rousing Comic-Con panel confirmed.
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.