News / Arts & Entertainment

'Life of Pi's Ang Lee Conquers Anti-Asian Bias

Director Ang Lee poses as he arrives for the British Academy of Film and Arts awards ceremony at the Royal Opera House in London, Feb. 10, 2013.Director Ang Lee poses as he arrives for the British Academy of Film and Arts awards ceremony at the Royal Opera House in London, Feb. 10, 2013.
x
Director Ang Lee poses as he arrives for the British Academy of Film and Arts awards ceremony at the Royal Opera House in London, Feb. 10, 2013.
Director Ang Lee poses as he arrives for the British Academy of Film and Arts awards ceremony at the Royal Opera House in London, Feb. 10, 2013.
Sarah Williams
Like many Asian-Americans in Hollywood's film industry, Taiwanese-born American film director Ang Lee struggled for acceptance early in his career.

This year, the Oscar-winning Lee is again a  nominee for an Academy Award for Best Director for his film Life of Pi.

The movie is the highest grossing among the nine nominated for Best Picture, generating more than $570 million in ticket sales, many from audiences outside the United States.

But Lee's rise to fame didn't come overnight.  Veteran Chinese-born actress Lisa Lu recalls Lee's struggle for recognition when he was a film student at New York University in the early 1980’s.

Chinese actress Lisa Lu arrives at the premiere for Chinese actress Lisa Lu arrives at the premiere for "Dangerous Liaisons" during the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday Sept. 10, 2012 in Toronto. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
x
Chinese actress Lisa Lu arrives at the premiere for
Chinese actress Lisa Lu arrives at the premiere for "Dangerous Liaisons" during the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday Sept. 10, 2012 in Toronto. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
“He asked me to see his thesis film, and when I looked at the film, I knew he was very talented,” Lu said. “So from there on, we became very good friends, and I tried to introduce him to everybody, but the timing was too early.  At that time nobody wanted anything Chinese.”

Lee went on to international success directing films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain, for which he won an Academy Award as Best Director in 2005.
 
Lu played a cameo role in Lee's 2007 thriller Lust Caution, a part he developed for her. 

“I’m very proud of him, because he struggled for 10 years before anybody recognized him, and he’s really a talent and really devoted to filmmaking,” Lu said.

Lu’s own career has evolved over several decades.  Born in Beijing in 1927,  she moved to California in 1956.  Lu became the first Chinese-born star to work in Hollywood in major motion pictures and television, including the television shows Have Gun-Will Travel and Yancy Derringer.  She also starred in the war film The Mountain Road opposite James Stewart. 

“In 1959, Columbia (Pictures) was looking for a leading lady, Chinese, educated,” Lu recalls. “This was not like the roles before that were for coolies [unskilled laborers].  This was for an educated lady from Radcliffe [part of Harvard University].”

The film was shot in Arizona. “In those days we could not go to China and the background of the story was war-time Chengdu,” Lu said. “In Chengdu, the scenery is very similar to Phoenix, and we went to the nearby mountains to film it.”

Roles for Chinese actresses in the 1950’s were limited, according to Lu.

“At that time, there was no communication, so the writers didn’t know what China was like,” she said. “So they wrote about laborers or washerwomen or a dragon lady who has a restaurant.”

And why are Asian actresses often stereotyped as dragon ladies? “I think for television it’s interesting, because you see a very gorgeous woman who has a scheming mind and it’s an interesting character for the drama, that’s why I think a lot of people write about it,” Lu said. “It’s exotic, and I’ve played quite a few of those.”

Hollywood’s most prominent Chinese American actress was Anna May Wong, who starred in films in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  Her pictures include Shanghai Express and Daughter of the Dragon.

Anna May Wong as Turandot, 1937Anna May Wong as Turandot, 1937
x
Anna May Wong as Turandot, 1937
Anna May Wong as Turandot, 1937
Writer Lisa See’s Chinese American family was acquainted with Wong, but the actress and the future author never met.  Wong is a character in two of See’s books, Shanghai Girls and On Gold Mountain.

See said her grandparents lent Chinese furniture and other artifacts from their antique shop to the film studios, and her grandfather was one of Wong’s closest friends. “My dad, when he was a teenager, used to go over to her apartment, and they would drink and play poker, and I now have in my closet some of her clothes,” she said.

See spoke of Wong’s roots in the city. “She was born here in Los Angeles, she grew up here, her father was a laundryman, she started working when she was about 13 years old,” said See. “I think you can look back at those films and see now she had really pretty extraordinary talent.”

But the U.S. film industry’s Motion Picture Production Code, which forbade the depiction of romance between races, limited Wong’s acting career. “She wasn’t ever allowed to kiss the hero, it just was never going to happen,” said See.  “And eventually she went to Europe, where she was able to have a larger career.”

See believes the hardest blow for Wong occurred when she was barred from playing the lead role of O-lan in the 1937 film version of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth. It tells the story of a Chinese farming family struggling with famine, poverty and betrayal.  The film was cast with non-Asian actors in the leading roles, a decision that See said “broke [Wong’s] heart.”

Wong was cast in the 1961 film Flower Drum Song, about a Chinese American family in San Francisco, but she died at the age of 56 before making the movie.  Her films and image continue to influence Asian American actors and filmmakers.

For her part, Lu went on to star in character roles, notably as the dying Empress Dowager Cixi in The Last Emperor in 1987.  She lobbied director Bernardo Bertolucci for the part, but he told her he needed an older actress. “I told him you don’t need an old lady, you need a good actress,” she said. “I’m ready to make a test film for you and I said if you think I can do it then your problem is solved.”  She got the role.

Lu regularly returns to China to shoot films and to attend premieres, such as the opening of Dangerous Liaisons in Beijing last September.  This Chinese-language version of the classic 18th-century French tale is set in Shanghai of 1931, when the city was known as the “Paris of the East.”

Lu looks forward to greater cooperation between the film industries of China and the United States in the future.
“Everybody wants to come to Hollywood, but I think nowadays with the Internet and the communications that no matter where you are, if you are talented, you will be found,” she said. “So I think that China would need actors from Hollywood and Hollywood would need actors from China.”

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”