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.
25 | Balls of Fury (2007)
Christopher Walken as Feng
True, Walken’s oddball performance as the evil ping-pong master wisely avoids the usual “yellow face” trademarks, including the grotesque makeup and “Oriental” accent, but come on people, it’s 2007! Would anyone in their right mind cast Walken as, say, an African American character and not expect to get their asses reamed? This performance kicks off this list as a reminder that even in our enlightened modern age, we still have a long way to go.
24 | Broken Blossoms (1919)
Richard Barthelmess as Cheng Huan
After his epic The Birth of a Nation was criticized for racist portrayals of African Americans, D.W. Griffith tried to repair his image by making more liberal-minded works like Intolerance and this film. Lillian Gish stars as Lucy, a young girl abused by her father who finds salvation in the company of Barthelmess’ Chinese immigrant. Cheng is presented as a largely sympathetic character, but the template for Hollywood’s take on Asian men had been set — unrealistically noble, feminine and utterly asexual.
23 | The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan
In one of his earliest roles, Mel Gibson plays an Australian journalist covering the 1965 Indonesian civil war. His photographer sidekick and moral conscience is a male Chinese dwarf played by Hunt (who is none of those things in real life). It’s hard to be completely outraged at this role because it’s such a bizarre and original creation. It’d be difficult to imagine an Asian actor (or anyone else for that matter) more right for this than Hunt, and I’ll admit she is brilliant, sublimely avoiding stereotypesand winning an Oscar in the process.
22 | Love is a Many Splendored-Thing (1955)
Jennifer Jones as Dr. Han Suyin
This film may be the most acclaimed in the genre of “Caucasian man finds love in the Far East” projects that were the rage in post-World War II Hollywood. William Holden, who also starred in the similar The World of Suzie Wong, plays an American war correspondent in Hong Kong during the final days of the Chinese civil war who falls in love with Jones’ Eurasian doctor. Of course the predictable cultural differences work to keep the lovers apart. Maybe this story was “exotic” and new in 1955, but by now it’s “been there, done that.”
21 | Madame Butterfly (1915)
Mary Pickford as Cho-Cho-San
Known as “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford was one of cinema’s first superstars, winning audiences over with her girl-next-door quality. So when she decided to don “yellow face” to play the role of the Japanese woman destroyed by her love affair with the Caucasian Pinkerton in the first feature-length version of this oft-told tale, American audiences made this box-office hit. And just as Broken Blossoms created the model for Hollywood’s portrayal of Asian men, this film did the same for their female counterparts, painting them as exotic, passive and willing to sacrifice for their (white) men.