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Asian Images in Film Introduction
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Asian Images in Film Introduction

In a continuing series of festivals that look at Hollywood portrayals of minorities, TCM contemplates the treatment of Asians in the movies. Previous festivals have looked at African-American and gay/lesbian images.

The current fest explores the variety of Asian characters depicted in American films, ranging from negative stereotypes and Caucasian actors made up to look Asian to the emergence of martial arts films that created their own Asian superstars, and the more sensitive and sophisticated vehicles of such dedicated actors as Sessue Hayakawa, Miyoshi Umeki and Pat Morita. Peter Feng, an expert on the subject matter from the University of Delaware, will serve as a consultant in partnership with host Robert Osborne to provide context and commentary to the festival.

An early example of a Caucasian actor in Hollywood "yellowface" came in Broken Blossoms (1919), in which D.W. Griffith cast Richard Barthelmess as a kindly young Chinese aristocrat who shelters an abused girl (Lillian Gish). Demonic (and, many would say, racist) portrayals of a classic Chinese villain were delivered by a heavily made-up Boris Karloff in the 1930s in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and Christopher Lee in the '60s in The Castle of Fu Manchu (1968). Although such cross-racial casting has since fallen into disrepute, German-born Luise Rainer won an Oscar® for her impersonation of a Chinese peasant in The Good Earth (1937), and Marlon Brando received favorable contemporary reviews for playing a cheeky Okinawan interpreter in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).

One stereotype that was very prominent in the '30s and '40s was that of the Chinese detective, most famously Charlie Chan. TCM will be premiering two Charlie Chan films made by Fox - Charlie Chan at the Circus (1937) in which Swedish actor Warner Oland plays the iconic detective, and Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1939) where Kansas-born Sidney Toler takes over the lead role after Oland's death.

The first Asian-American leading man to crack the Hollywood star system was James Shigeta, who was born in Hawaii of Japanese ancestry and enjoyed romantic leads in several films including Bridge to the Sun (1916). Mioshi Umeki, cast alongside fellow Japanese actress Miiko Taka as the romantic leads of Sayonara (1957), became the first Asian performer to win an Oscar®. The second was Cambodian native Haing S. Ngor, a physician who was held captive by the Khmer Rouge during the civil war in his country before being cast as photographer Dith Pran in The Killing Fields (1984).

The festival includes several TCM premieres, among them Anna May Wong-Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times and Legend (2008), a documentary about Anna May Wong, the first Chinese- American actress to achieve stardom; and Rush Hour 2 (2001), a buddy comedy and vehicle for Hong Kong–born action idol Jackie Chan.

by Roger Fristoe