Korean star Jang Dong-Gun made his American film debut this past weekend in the martial arts Western The Warrior’s Way. A number of Asian Americans have pointed out that Jang gets to share an on-screen kiss with co-star Kate Bosworth—a rarity in Hollywood for an Asian male to be both a lead and a romantic lead (watch almost any American film starring Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan or Jet Li to see how chaste their relationships with their leading ladies are).
But as rare as this is, this isn’t a “first” as I’ve heard some folks proclaim. Hollywood has indeed produced other films where the Asian male lead does get the girl (sometimes even “defeating” his white rival in the process). Here are five of them in no particular order:
1) THE CRIMSON KIMONO (1959)
No other non-Asian probably did more to advance three-dimensional portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood than director Samuel Fuller and nowhere else did he do it as well than in this gritty, crime noir set against the backdrop of L.A.’s Little Tokyo. James Shigeta and Glenn Corbett are best friends and LAPD detectives investigating the death of a stripper. Beautiful Victoria Shaw is the witness who steals the hearts of both men; creating a racially tinged tension in their friendship for the first time. Since this is a Hollywood movie where an Asian American man and a white man both vie for the same white woman, it’s obvious who’ll win in the end, right? Well, luckily, this is Fuller who never did the obvious. Shaw realizes she loves Shigeta and the two even share a passionate and controversial (at the time of its release) kiss in the middle of the Little Tokyo Nisei Week parade.
2) HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY (2008)
John Cho and Kal Penn are back in this hilarious sequel to Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle as the titular stoners who are mistaken for terrorists and find themselves on the run. The plot may be kicked off when the two friends embark on a plane trip so Cho’s Harold can track down and win the love of his hot neighbor Paula Garces, but Cho isn’t the only one to have a love interest this time around. Penn must also stop the impending wedding of former flame Danneel Harris who is engaged to rich douchebag Eric Winter. Not only do both dudes win their respective girls, but they also get to romp around the magical city of Amsterdam in the process. Some guys have all the luck.
3) FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961)
The Crimson Kimono wasn’t the only Hollywood flick where James Shigeta gets the girl. In fact, he probably got more play on screen than any other Asian American leading man in movies like Bridge to the Sun and this musical based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein (The Sound of Music) Broadway stage hit where he gets to romance both Nancy Kwan and Academy Award-winning actress Miyoshi Umeki. And it’s not only Shigeta who gets in on the action, the late character actor Jack Soo also finds himself some lovin’. In the turbulent 1960s, Asian American activists found fault with Flower Drum Song for its stereotyped view of American Chinatown life. While there may be some truth to that, this is also a fun and even progressive film that showed Asian Americans could sing, dance and have as good a time as anyone else. And any Hollywood movie where the only white people who appear are either extras or a token thief with two lines of dialogue is more slyly subversive than it might appear on the surface.
4) DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY (1993)
This biopic of the late, great martial arts superstar features then newcomers Jason Scott Lee and Lauren Holly as Lee (no relation) and wife Linda and doesn’t back away from exploring the different facets of their relationship including both the racism they experienced and a healthy sexual life. Like Shigeta, Jason Scott Lee would have a brief run as a Hollywood romantic lead in films like Map of the Human Heart, but it’s here where he really showed audiences that an Asian male could headline a Hollywood project and be sexy, strong and charismatic. Too bad that’s a lesson that hasn’t been taken to heart in the intervening years since this movie’s release.
5) DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937)
Chinese American Anna May Wong stars as the daughter of a Chinatown merchant who is killed by illegal immigrant smugglers. Korean American Philip Ahn is the FBI agent who teams up with her to successfully bring down the international smuggling ring. What’s pretty amazing is that this is a studio film from the 1930s that features two Asian American actors as the heroic leads (Ahn is an American FBI agent) and the white characters as the villains. Reflecting the social mores of the time, the relationship between Ahn and Wong is pretty chaste by today’s standards (off screen, the two were longtime family friends), but when Ahn asks Wong to marry him at the end of the movie and she accepts, it carries a real impact. At a screening of the film at UCLA a few years back, the audience erupted into thunderous applause at that moment, which shows how powerful it still is but, sadly, how far we haven’t come since then either.
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