Justin Lin's Finishing the Game brought the point home strongly: Too often, Asian-American actors are relegated to bit parts (the food delivery guy, gangster #3, mysterious prostitute) simply because of their race. Of course, it can be argued persuasively that all actors of color are denied opportunities because of their appearance. As independent film producer Karin Chien pointed out in a television interview, though, people will say: "What about Jackie Chan? Or what about Jet Li? ... Asian cinema is a completely different thing altogether. It's a bit difficult, as an Asian-American producer, to fight for the cause of Asian-American films when we are grouped together with Asian cinema."
This list is an attempt to identify just a few of the Asian-American actors who have not yet crossed over to broad, mainstream recognition but who caught my eye this year. (Among others, you won't find Lucy Liu, John Cho or Kal Penn here; they're all folks that have established varying degrees of stardom.) It's also intended to serve as a starting point for Cinematical readers to name other talented Asian-American performers: Who do you like, who should be better known, who is ready to break out as a star?
Fan made an impression in Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow as the class leader who lured Ben (Parry Shen) into a life of crime. Before that, he played parts like Student #2 (Party of Five), Hood #1 (Blue Haven) and Student #15 (ER). His next two parts after BLT were not much bigger: Executive #1 (Stuck on You) and News Anchor #1 (D.E.B.S.). With his performance as Bruce Lee-imitator Breeze Loo, who lives in a delusional dream world in which he's a much bigger star, Fan brought a human touch to his comedy. In person, Fan is so funny he can make you spit; at a post-screening Q&A in Dallas, he had the crowd in stitches. Fan's comic genius deserves a much bigger stage -- and more starring roles.
He's proven his credentials as a brooding, haunted bruiser (Better Luck Tomorrow, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) and also has quietly demonstrated his comedic chops (Finishing the Game, Mad TV). What he needs now is an opportunity to show more of the warm, engaging personality and killer smile he has in person -- he was a bemused bystander to Fan's antics at that same post-screening Q&A in Dallas, but deftly inserted deadpan wisecracks at unexpected moments. Finishing the Game hints at his potential as a romantic leading man, and he's one actor who might make me want to see a romantic comedy.
She was already a star in South Korea (as Kim Yoon-jin) before she was cast as Sun in Lost. I remember seeing her in Shiri, a huge hit years ago and one of the first Korean films in the new century to make a splash internationally, but then lost track of her career. She appeared in a half-dozen more South Korean productions, and recently returned to her homeland to make Seven Days, another big hit whose remake rights were quickly snapped up. She's easy on the eyes and has shown that she can handle every emotion under the sun. The time is right for her to stake her claim on the big screen.
Who could forget the wiry intensity of his guest performance on The Sopranos earlier this year, exploding from meek conspirator to atomic anger in a single episode? He played a protege of fellow psychiatric patient Junior (Dominic Chianese) who turned on the old man when he didn't live up to his gangster expectations. It wasn't until I looked up his credits that I realized that Leung also created the brilliantly funny salesman Don in Edward Norton's Keeping the Faith. He's had many small roles in big-budget productions, but he's also received good notices for his lead performance in independent film Shanghai Kiss -- which I haven't seen -- which may be a harbinger of good things to come for this versatile performer.
Go right ahead and accuse me of sexism, because the reason Maggie Q is on this list is because she's hot. Her movie career started in Hong Kong, and after I saw her in Gen-Y Cops and Naked Weapon I thought: "Dang, she's beautiful! Too bad she can't act." But she's sure caught the attention of Hollywood casting agents -- and many fan boys -- with her sleek presence in Mission: Impossible III, and roles in Live Free or Die Hard and Balls of Fury could conceivably open up doors of opportunity to her, if she has any desire to be more than a pretty young thing. What could she do in a dysfunctional family comedy-drama?
Let's hear it for Boomer! She's not quite there yet, but it's plain to see that Grace Park is intent on pushing her dramatic boundaries. As I finally started to catch up with Battlestar Galactica this year, her character grew more and more interesting, and Park rose to the challenge. There's been a marked progression in her work since the Canadian TV show Edgemont; part of that can be attributed to better writing, and the rest to her efforts. I haven't seen the recent drama West 32nd yet, but more contemporary roles sound right for someone who looks anxious to expand her range.
Sensing that the grass was greener overseas, Wu moved from San Francisco to Hong Kong to pursue an acting career. His initial efforts were greeted with a degree of derision about his dramatic limitations and skepticism about his language skills, but he has worked hard (42 credits in less than ten years, many of them lead roles) and grown steadily as an actor. He made a mark internationally with the Shakespeare adaptation The Banquet, and recently moved into the director's chair with the surprisingly effective Heavenly Kings, which he also wrote and produced. Wu is not an overwhelming force of nature as an actor; his skills lie in fusing his own likably modest personality with a character trying to make sense of his surroundings. He may not be seeking roles in Hollywood, but he could surprise a lot of people with what he can do.
Now it's your turn -- please comment and let me know the grievous oversights I've made!