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Asian Female Stereotypes in Cinema

by: Dr. Clarence Spigner | Back to Blog index...

One would think that in 21st century Hollywood, the image of the Asian female as exotic and sexually subservient would have moved way beyond such a racist and sexist stereotype.  Anna May Wong (1905-1961), the famous Asian American actress who spanned the silent and sound era, battled racism in America and escaped to Europe in search of less stereotypical and more multi-dimensional film roles.  But then the less talented Nancy Kwan as the sexy gold-digging night-club singer, Linda Low, appeared in Henry Koster’s musical, Flower Drug Song (1961).  The film, interesting for its time (African American actress Juanita Hall [1901-1968] was featured), was filled with so many Chinese American stereotypes it must have been what Harve Foster / Wilfred Jackson’s Song of the South (1946) was to African Americans.

Movies about gender issues involving Asians being made outside of Hollywood seem far more progressive.  For instance, the depiction of  Lucy Lui as O-Ren Ishii, Queen of the Tokyo Underworld in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) was beneath that of  Kelly Chen as Rebecca Fong, the ambitious police inspector in Johnnie To’s cops and gangster thriller, Dai Si Gin (2004) or Breaking News.  In Ang Lee’s Wo Hu Cang Long (2003) or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, female protagonists Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhange) were assertive and feminine.  But when Michelle Yeoh was caste as the Chinese government agent Wai Lin in Roger Spottiswoode’s Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), she had to rely on gallant James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) to save her.

Hollywood-based films present more of a duality about the Asian female as dragon-queen and as an inarticulate child-like sexual servant.  For example, Devon Aoki, depicting the homicidal mute Miho in Robert Rodriguez / Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005), amazingly embodied both stereotypes without any discernable display of acting talent.  The exact opposite was true of Rinko Kikuchi’s powerful performance as Chieko, also mute, in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel (2006).  In scenes of nudity, the character of Chieko was sensitively described as a troubled Japanese teenager desperate to communicate.  But such nudity was shamefully diminished by model turned non-actress Ariane as television newscaster Tracy Tze in Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon (1985).  Ariane allowed herself to be depicted as a willing sex object to a bigoted big-city policeman (Mickey Rourke as Stanley White).

American movies perpetuate a more unflattering image of the Asian female.  Brian Helgeland’s Payback (1999), an inferior remake of John Boorman’s crime thriller, Point Blank (1967), presented Lucy Lui, again, as Pearl, a masochistic prostitute who enjoyed hitting and being by seedy white gangsters.  Similarly, Len Wiseman’s Live Free or Die Harder (2007) featured aging Bruce Willis as the resourceful super-cop John McClane engaging in hand-to-hand combat with mass murderess Mai Linh (Maggie Q). After he has killed her, McClane says: “Mai? Oh, yeah. Little Asian chick, likes to kick people? I don't think she's gonna be talkin' to anybody for a really long time.”  In Phillip Noyce’s otherwise brilliant, The Quiet American (2002) set in 1950s Saigon, Do Thi Hai Yen portrayed the non-assertive Vietnamese beauty Phuong, the possession and the obsession of a British reporter (Michael Caine) and an American (Brendan Fraser).

In Asian cinema, there is more effort to present gender equity.  Already mentioned was Kelly Chen as the no-nonsense police inspector Rebecca Fong in Johnnie Tu’s Dai Si Gin.  Also in Johnnie Tu’s Man Jeuk (2008) or Sparrow, Kelly Lin portrayed a vulnerable but still assertive modern woman in Hong Kong. As Chung Chun Lei, she has relationships reminiscent of the French New Wave romances such as in Claude Lelouch’s Un Homme et une Femme (1966) or A Man and a Woman.  Even in noir murder mysteries such as Oxide Pang Chun’s exceptional thriller, C+jing Taam (2007) or The Detective, the Asian female as presented as victim, perpetrator, and as femme fatale. 

American-based cinema continues the stereotypic depictions of the Asian female.  Viewers should look to those countries indigenous of the Asian experience for a more progressive image of the Asian female.   

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