Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Asian Directors in Hollywood

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Few Asian directors are as ubiquitous in Hollywood now as Ang Lee, whose most recent work is “Life of Pi.” IMDB put him in its list of Top Ten Best Asian Filmmakers of All Time.

Lee’s cinematography is lyrical, with an inner cadence that gently propels the viewer forward. This has been evident since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2006. Lee is not afraid to take on various challenges posed by genres. He can do superhero (“Hulk”) or more “oriental” fare (“Pushing Hands,” “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “The Wedding Banquet,”) but can also do Americana cinema, like “Ice Storm,” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

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Still, the fan base of Akira Kurosawa – the genius behind “Rashomon,” “Ikuru” and “Seven Samurai” — can’t be denied. After all, he’d been around longer.

Hollywood embraced Kurosawa as a Japanese filmmaker and screenwriter who stayed true to himself without succumbing to Hollywood’s typical standard of excellence. He also opened Hollywood’s doors not just to other Japanese filmmakers, but to other Asian and South East Asian filmmakers as well.

Kurosawa is also known for having spoken out against militarism and nuclear weapons in favour of peace and the preservation of the environment.

So how did Kurosawa challenge conventions or typical Hollywood fare?

Many filmmakers go for ambiguity. Kurosawa goes for ambivalence. His mind works a different way. As far as he’s concerned, it’s the journey, not the destination.

His scenes are not shot “traditionally.” Most of his violent scenes happen during the day, not at night. What happens in his films is unexpected, unpredictable. A typical character in a Kurosawa film deviates from expectancy.

Kurosawa’s preconception of good is bad; his preconception of bad, is good. In the end, his films leave the viewer with an ambivalent, morally tangled perspective on what (really) is good or bad.

Apart from Lee and Kurosawa, IMDB lists these other filmmakers as among the Top Ten Best Asian Filmmakers of All Time:

  1. Takeshi Kitano (Japan): “Zatoichi,” “Fireworks,” “Brother,” “Kikujiro”
  1. Chan-wook Park (Korea): “Old Boy,” “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”
  1. Bong Joon-Ho (Korea): “Mother,” “Memories of Murder” and “Snowpiercer”
  1. Yimou Zhang (China): “House of Flying Daggers,” “Raise the Red Lantern” and  “Hero”
  1. Takashi Miike (Japan):  “Zatoichi Live,” “Django Unchained” and “13 Assasins”
  1. Jee-woo Kim (Korea):  “A Tale of Two Sisters,” “The Good, The Bad and the Weird” and “A Bittersweet Life”
  1. Wong Kar Wai (Hong Kong): “In the Mood for Love,” “The Grandmaster,” and “My Blueberry Nights”
  2. John Woo (China): “Face/Off” “Mission Impossible II”

Other Asian filmmakers worthy of mention include:  “Park Chan-Wook (‘Stoker,’ ‘Thirst,’ ‘Old Boy’);  Cary Fukanaga (‘True Detective,’ and ‘Sin Nombre’); James Wan (‘Saw,’ ‘Insidious’); and Tarsem Singh (‘The Fall,’ ‘The Cell’).”

Then there’s Taiwanese Justin Lin (“Fast & Furious 6”) whose film broke Hollywood’s typical stereotype of Asians as passive or ‘nerdy’ with the smooth-talking, drag-racing Han.

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Journalist Dana Ter, in her article “6 Young Asian-American Filmmakers Who are Shattering America’s Asian Film Bias,” lists the budding pioneers:

James Feng, China/ U.S. Feng has broken down “the ‘model minority’ myth” and brought “layered complexity to the traditional Chinese practice of martial arts.”

Tze Chun, Hong Kong/ Singapore/ U.S. In “Children of Invention,” Chun writes about “a subculture of Americans who must resort to illicit means in order to achieve the American dream.”

Andrew Ahn, Korea/ U.S. In “Dol,” Ahn shows “how the everyday ordeals and decisions that an Asian-American faces can be the same as anyone else’s.”

Steven J. Kung, China/ U.S.  in “A Leading Man,” Kung “confronts racism in the entertainment industry head on. Guoqiao wrestles with a problem that almost every Asian-American actor has faced: how to advance your career without having to perpetuate a racist stereotype on screen.”

Timothy Tau, Taiwan. Tau “has always found his cinematic muse in the 1940s film noir.”  In his latest film “Keye Luke,” he ruptures “perceptions of Asian men as socially awkward, evil or effeminate.”

Raymond Chu, U.S. Chu’s interests “are not solely Asian-American” and that his attitudes “reflect a growing tendency among many young Asian-American filmmakers to start writing and directing films that are not necessarily about Asian-Americans.”

These millenials have won awards in film festivals in the U.S., have moved “beyond the immigrant narrative” convinced that “there is no one specific ‘Asian-American experience’,” and have “challenge Hollywood’s one-dimensional portrayal of Asians,” says Ter. That bodes well for the future of films on Asia and Asians in Hollywood, and assures us that, yes; we do have champions in Hollywood who are constantly breaking the bamboo ceiling.

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