For those too young to know this history or those wanting to take a walk down memory lane, here are the 25 “yellow face” film performances (so no David Carradine in Kung Fu unless the long-rumored film version gets made) that have arguably had the most impact on our cultural landscape.
10 | Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)
Joel Grey as Chiun
Joel Grey, left.
Chiun is the 80-year-old Korean martial arts master assigned to train ex-cop Remo Williams as an assassin for a secret government wing. The then 53-year-old Grey was neither Asian nor had any martial arts experience.
However, the talented actor recognized the role’s over-the-top qualities and adjusted accordingly, making lines like “Women should stay home and make babies. Preferably, man-child” more funny than offensive. But the filmmakers would have lost nothing had they cast a more appropriate Asian actor (Mako or Soon-Tek Oh, for example) to tackle the part.
9 | The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)
Marlon Brando as Sakini
At the premiere of the 1958 Jerry Lewis film The Geisha Boy, Brando allegedly chastised Lewis for showing up dressed as an “Oriental,” complete with rickshaw in tow. But Brando had no qualms about appearing in this film about the American attempt to “civilize” post-World War II Okinawa. Brando may have been our greatest film actor, but even that wasn’t enough to elevate his performance as an Okinawan to anything beyond weird curiosity.
8 | Shanghai Express (1932)
Warner Oland as Henry Chang
No one appears on this list more than Oland. It’s not completely his fault — Hollywood preferred to employ his vaguely exotic features than hire real “Orientals.” But what does it say about our own people when Oland was welcomed in China as a distinguished guest, while Chinese American co-star Anna May Wong was chastised there for creating stereotypes? Oland plays a warlord who rapes Wong’s character and threatens a train full of Westerners.
7 | Dragon Seed (1944)
Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan
Even the greatest actors make mistakes (see number nine), and there may not be a greater film actress than Hepburn or a greater mistake than this film.
Based on Pearl Buck’s novel, this was made during World War II to show support for our Chinese allies. Hepburn plays a Chinese peasant girl who rallies her community against the invading Japanese. Putting on “yellow face” somehow gave Hepburn license to make her most indulgent performance.
Just watch her scene with the late Korean actor Philip Ahn, and you’ll see how inauthentic she seems next to a “real” Asian.
6 | The Conqueror (1956)
John Wayne as Genghis Khan
In classics like Red River and The Searchers, Wayne perfectly embodied the America of the Old West. So it makes about as much sense to cast him as the famous Mongolian warlord as casting him as Malcolm X. But this is one of those performances that’s so bad, it’s good. Not only is Wayne’s make-up ridiculous, but just try to keep a straight face while he delivers lines like “I stole you. I will keep you. Before the sun sets you will come willingly into my arms” in that familiar monotone.