Imagine Jet Li in a movie where he's not kicking butt. Difficult, isn't it?
Li's portrayal of a man battling for his humanity after he's trained to be an attack dog in "Unleashed" arguably transcends the martial arts roles that have made him famous. But he is not a cinematic chameleon like co-stars Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins, who are known for the variety of roles they have played in their respective long careers.
Li's U.S. film career has been defined by his martial arts expertise. Whether as a villain in "Lethal Weapon 4" or as a heroic foreign-born crime fighter in movies such as "Kiss of the Dragon," and "Cradle 2 The Grave," Li's calling card in Hollywood has always been his spectacular fight scenes. Like Jackie Chan and others, he has followed the path paved by Bruce Lee, who transformed the image of the Asian male in U.S. cinema.
But Lee's legacy has arguably closed as many doors in Hollywood as it has kicked open.
"Before Lee's time, Asian men had been largely depicted as emasculated and childlike -- coolies, domestics, etc. -- in American popular culture," said Hye Seung Chung, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. "Lee proved that the image of the Asian man can be tough, strong and sexy. However, the Bruce Lee craze of the 1970s created a new stereotype of the Asian man: namely, the martial artist, which still permeates in Hollywood cinema."
The Blessing and Curse of the Dragon
Various doors were closed to Asians in Hollywood before Lee achieved fame.
Before Lee debuted in 1966 as the faithful sidekick Kato in the TV series "The Green Hornet" and later reached legendary superstardom in kung fu classics like "Fists of Fury" and "Enter the Dragon," Asian men were largely portrayed in Hollywood as docile servants, unskilled laborers or evil geniuses patterned after the Dr. Fu-Manchu character in early 20th-century Sax Rohmer novels. Most were disciplined, even the nerds and laborers.
Lee made Asian men lethal, graceful and cool. But Hollywood's tendency to stereotype and unwillingness to go beyond proven formulas of success turned Lee's legacy into both a blessing and a curse.
"It depends on what you mean by curse," said L.S. Kim, assistant professor of film and digital media at University of California, Santa Cruz. "Lee changed the way Asian males were portrayed in Hollywood. He represented a powerful figure, he kind of presented idealized strength and masculinity. But he couldn't help the racism that was in Hollywood, that studios began to typecast people. What you see on the screen largely depends on the people who write the script, on the producers who greenlight the film."
Saving the Day, But Never Getting the Girl
With the blockbuster success of "Enter the Dragon," in 1973, Lee turned Asian men into action heroes on the big screen. But for all the machismo gained through the Lee mystique, Asian actors still have remained largely emasculated in Hollywood.
They are rarely considered romantic leading men. Lee's characters were too busy fighting off villains to fall in love. Some romantic chemistry was suggested between Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt in "The Tuxedo" and Chan and Roselyn Sanchez in "Rush Hour 2," but moviegoers never saw them share an on-screen kiss. Similar circumstances surrounded Jet Li in his roles opposite Aaliyah and Bridget Fonda in "Romeo Must Die" and "Kiss of the Dragon," respectively.
In the end, the characters played by Lee, Li and Chan always save the day. But they never get the girl.
"After Bruce Lee, you had the image of the hyper-focused martial artist, focused on his craft, aesthetics," said Kim. "But as I was watching 'Romeo Must Die,' I was waiting to see if Jet Li was going to kiss Aaliyah. But they never kissed. … Asian actors almost never get to kiss the girl."
Romantic leading Asian actors were an anomaly as Hollywood studios typically assigned the roles of Asian characters to white actors in the early 20th century. They were more common in U.S. cinema before the Bruce Lee era, but they were not allowed to kiss any non-Asian on screen.
Various laws barring interracial marriage were still in effect in the United States and interracial mingling in films in the early 20th century was considered taboo. In silent films such as "The Wrath of the Gods," "Alien Souls" and "The Dragon Painter," Japanese immigrant actor Sessue Hayakawa played a romantic lead opposite his wife, actress Tsuru Aoki. Philip Ahn, Anna May Wong's on- and off-screen love interest, played her romantic lead in "Daughter of Shanghai" in 1937 and "King of Chinatown" in 1939.
Still, long after the death of antimiscegenation laws, romantic leading Asian actors have remained a U.S. film rarity.
"James Shigeta wins the love of Victoria Shaw and marries Carroll Baker respectively in 'The Crimson Kimono' and 'Bridge to the Sun,'" said Chung. "Of course, these are exceptions to more prevalent stereotypes of emasculated Asian male images. Most recently, we saw John Cho as a romantic lead in 'Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.' But the romance between Harold and Maria -- a Latina neighbor -- was a minor component in this comic buddy film, and we will have to wait for a sequel to see how that develops."
Plight of the Asian Actress
Asian actresses arguably may have more choices than men but they are still stereotyped.
Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American actress to become a Hollywood star in the 1920s and 1930s, but she was frustrated by the lack of diversity in her roles. Generally, Asian women have been portrayed in Hollywood as exotic, sensual Madame Butterfly-type characters who have either forbidden love affairs or are victimized by American suitors; seductive, scheming dragon ladies or assassins originally made popular by Anna May Wong's performance in "Daughter of the Dragon" -- and like their males, docile servants and model students.
Asian actresses today also face another kind of stereotype: being cast for roles where they are the sidekick, best friend or quirky friend of a main character. And they also must contend with competing with other Asian women, in addition to non-Asian actresses, for the few available roles.
"The main struggle for me is that when it comes down to it, I'm a struggling Asian-American actress, like others, who's relatively anonymous who's going up against actresses who have been in the business 20 years more than me -- like Sandra Oh, like Lucy Liu, who's been around a while now, like Ming-Na Wen -- actresses who have been around in the business much longer than me," said New York-based actress Ann Hu.
"That's just an example that there's less work available, and when there is work available, the actresses who have been in the biz longer and who have had more time to make the connections in the business, have more clout, more notoriety, actually get the gig instead of the actress who's more age-right for the part," she said.
Too 'American' for the Role
Hu, who is in her 20s, recalls that when she first began auditioning for some roles, the directors wanted her to speak in a Chinese accent. However, as the daughter of English-speaking immigrants -- and an Asian-American who grew up in the United States speaking English -- Hu didn't have an accent. She would go to a nearby Chinese restaurant and tape-record employees reading her script.
Hu ultimately imitated the accent, but she was still turned down for parts.
"This was basically an instance where who I am kind of got the better of me," she said. "They basically thought my mannerisms were too American, that I seemed too American for the part. Maybe it was that they were aware that I was acting out the accent and they wanted someone who had the accent."
Hu has had guest roles on NBC's "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Trial By Jury" and just finished a run as one of the lead roles in the play "An Infinite Ache" in Greensboro, N.C. Despite her work in television and theater, Hu says she has had a hard time finding work in film. And she says she has had difficulty getting auditions for leading roles.
"Usually I don't get to audition for a lead role," she said. "I usually get an audition for a supporting role, sidekick, the best friend. I don't know why that is because I feel Asian men and Asian women are such strong characters, especially in this country. And unless I know kung fu, or some kind of knife fighting or sword fighting, or something of that stereotypical nature, it would be hard for me to be seen as having a leading role."
But actresses like Hu may have reason to be optimistic, particularly in the roles recently played by Sandra Oh, who co-starred on HBO's "Arli$$" before gaining some fame for performances in 2004's "Sideways" and ABC's hit hospital drama "Grey's Anatomy."
"Will the Madame Butterfly stereotype disappear from Western culture in this new millennium? I doubt it," said Chung. "However, some improvements are being made. Sandra Oh plays substantial, racially nonspecific roles in 'Sideways' and ABC's 'Grey's Anatomy.' Bilingual Korean-American actress Yun-jin Kim --who appeared in the Korean blockbuster 'Shiri' -- plays a fully developed, three-dimensional character which does not conform to pre-existing stereotypes such as Madame Butterfly or dragon lady in ABC's 'Lost.' I certainly hope to see more of these changes in the future."
The Overlooked Story of the Asian-American Experience
Foreign films such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" have blended martial arts action with beautiful cinematography, special effects and more sophisticated storytelling and character development than most U.S. martial arts movies.
Asian-Americans may not expect to see their story being told in "Hero." But some complain U.S. movies -- with the exception of 1993's "The Joy Luck Club" and the 2000 independent film "What's Cooking?," which both hinted at the disconnect sometimes felt between immigrant parents and their U.S.-born and raised children -- never tell their experiences as Asian-Americans.
"Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco, but he had to practically become an expatriate when he made his movies," said Kim. "He was always playing a native Chinese person in his movies. … As an Asian-American, I cannot relate to the image of the Korean immigrant laundry shop owner. For once, I'd like to see my story told."
Some argue that U.S. studios' tendency to look abroad for talent in films further crowds an already competitive field of Asian actors and actresses and shows how much the perspective of Asian-Americans is overlooked by Hollywood.
"Hollywood tends to import their Asian actors from Japan, Hong Kong, China, which doesn't help the Asian-American voice in this country," Hu said. "And it's not like we don't want them to work. But this country is really overlooking the well of stories -- identity crisis, identity epiphany stories -- waiting to be discovered, waiting to be told from the Asian-American experience. It is something that has really been supported by the independent film industry and not by Hollywood at all."
The lack of forum for Asian-American stories may explain the lack of diverse roles for Asian actors, Hu argues, and why many lesser-known actors, such as Ken Leung and Will Yun Lee, struggle to find leading-men parts.
"They are the verge of great things but they don't fit into the niche of what Hollywood thinks a leading male Asian male is," she said. "They're more than that.They represent a complexity of an American identity that Hollywood does not recognize."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 13 million people of Asian and Pacific heritage live in the United States -- a 9 percent increase since the 2000 census. They are among the nation's fastest-growing population groups. Despite the growing Asian presence, society -- and Hollywood -- may still treat Asians as foreigners.
"American cinema is a reflection of its society," said Chung. "When I taught a course on "Asians in American Film" at the University of Michigan this past winter, many of my students of Asian descent -- all American-born -- complained of how strangers -- white Americans -- would approach them and ask where they were born and how they say 'Hello' in their native tongue. In other words, many people in the United States still don't have a concept of Asian-Americans and treat them as foreigners."