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

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

The studies point to the possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

Country-pop singer, Lizzie Sider sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to perform songs from her new album, “Butterfly,” and to talk about her anti-bullying tour.

Blogs

African Music Treasures