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 "Dangerous Liaisons" during the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday Sept. 10, 2012 in Toronto. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)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 "Dangerous Liaisons" during the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday Sept. 10, 2012 in Toronto. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
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

For Lebanon-based Refugees, Desperation Fuels Perilous Passage

In a war that has caused an estimated three million people to flee Syria, efforts to make perilous sea journey in search of asylum expected to increase More

South African Brewer Tackles Climate Change

Mega-brewer SAB Miller sent delegates to climate summit in Peru, says it is one of many private companies taking their own steps to fight climate change More

Indonesia Reports Increase in Citizens Joining Islamic State

Officials say more than 350 of its citizens are now in Syria or Iraq to fight with Islamic State - 50 more than last month More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?i
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
December 17, 2014 11:54 AM
The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US-China Year in Review: Hong Kong to Climate Change

The United States is pushing for a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea as it works to improve commercial ties with Beijing. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports on a year of U.S. policy toward China from Hong Kong to climate change.
Video

Video Japanese Leader’s Election Win Raises Potential for Conflict with Neighbors

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies easily won a two-thirds majority in parliament Sunday, even though the country has slipped into recession under his conservative policies. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul, that the prime minister’s victory will empower him to continue economic reforms but also pursue a nationalist agenda that will likely increase tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Video

Video Nuba Mountain Families Hide in Caves to Escape Aerial Bombings

Despite ongoing peace talks between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, daily aerial attacks continue in South Kordofan province’s Nuba Mountains. Adam Bailes was there and reports for VOA that government forces are targeting civilian areas, rather than military positions, with their daily bombardments.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

"Soul Lounge" host Shawna Renee catches up with soul singer and songwriter Russell Taylor to hear what he’s been up to since winning the VH1 "You Oughta Know" title in 2013. She also convinces him to share a few songs from his album "War of Hearts."