We continue our week-long celebration of “Crazy Rich Asians” by turning our attention to Asian and Asian-American actresses who gave exceptional performances, but we overlooked by the Academy.
Earlier you probably saw Chris James’ list of ten great performances from any Asian actors. There will be a bit of overlap here. But where his list included both male and female work, this list is dedicated solely to the ladies.
This was not as simple a list to compile as it may seem. First, much like Chris acknowledged, I have a lot of blind spots when it comes to Asian cinema. There are so many great films I merely haven’t seen, and therefore, many performances I simply don’t know.
I crafted a few caveats for this list, too. For one, none of the performances mentioned were nominated for Oscars. Which means excluding a couple of really great women, such as Rinko Kikuchi, who was the only one that made “Babel” worth watching in 2005. This list includes women who are actually of Asian descent, not who are playing such. No apologies to Katherine Hepburn, Emma Stone, or Scarlett Johansson.
Also, because we are celebrating “Crazy Rich Asians” and most of the characters in that film are from China, Singapore, and Malaysia, I tried to focus my attention on actresses from or with ancestry from the Far East. Yes, there are many great actresses from Southeast Asia. Enough to fill out another separate group. And we will do that in the near future.
But without further ado, here are ten great performances from Asian actresses that were overlooked by the Academy:
10. Sandra Oh, “Sideways” (2004)
Alexander Payne’s wandering road trip movie was an indie hit in 2004 and scored several Oscar nominations, including acting nods for Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen. Many have expressed frustration over the fact that the film’s lead, Paul Giamatti, was ignored. But also wrongfully left out was Sandra Oh. She plays Stephanie, a woman who has a whirlwind fling with Church’s Jack, completely unaware that his weekend excursion is essentially a Bachelor party. Oh is funny and quirky, and gives one of the best ass-kickings any philandering man has ever deserved.
9. Lucy Liu, “Kill Bill: Vol 1”
Lucy Liu is currently delighting audiences on Netflix with the romantic comedy “Set It Up,” but she has been a consistent presence in film and television for years. One of her most noteworthy roles came in Quentin Tarantino’s violent and bloody “Kill Bill: Volume 1.” As O-Ren Ishii, a member of Bill’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, we assume she deserves her ultimate fate. But along the way, we see a fierce woman who not only shuns the patriarchy, she’s willing to literally cut off their heads if they mess with her. She’s terrifying and great. Every woman in the world should memorize the speech she delivers with fire to a table full of businessmen.
8. Anna May Wong, “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924)
This Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler movie predates the Oscars by a couple of years, so it can never be decisively stated that she wouldn’t have been nominated. Wong plays the Mongol slave of a princess in this story adapted from “One Thousand and One Nights.” Her role is made up of stereotypes that would never work today. But this is the role that made Wong a star, and that legitimized her as an actress and an icon. And even though it was not a well-written role, Wong is great in it. Ironically, this is the role that made her famous but also contributed to her decision to eschew Hollywood and its offensive offerings for a time and move to Europe.
7. Brigitte Lin, “Chungking Express” (1994)
Brigitte Lin was a beloved actress in her native China, before retiring in 1994. She starred in many films over her 20+ year career. Many of those titles are well known internationally, but “Chungking Express” was one that enjoyed somewhat of a cultish life in the US. It’s a bit of an anthology film, with two separate stories about heartbroken Hong Kong police officers. In Lin’s story, she plays a mysterious woman known only as “the woman in the blonde wig,” who becomes the focus of one officer’s attention. Little does he know; she is deeply embroiled in a drug trafficking ring. Lin does great work in this film that comes near the end of a career with more than 100 credits to her name.
6. Ming-Na Wen, “Mulan” (1998)
There is so much good in one of Disney’s best animated films. One of the great things about it is the vocal performance from Mulan herself, Ming-Na Wen. She brings life to the heroine, presenting a woman who wants to save her father, and ultimately ends up saving her country. She’s passionate, vivacious, and breathes fire into Mulan. We can only hope there is room for Wen in the upcoming live-action adaptation of this great story.
5. Joan Chen, “The Last Emperor” (1987)
The film that won Best Picture and eight other awards in 1987 was lauded for the technical skill of its mostly Italian crew behind the scenes. Bernardo Bertolucci’s sweeping adaptation of the autobiography of Pu Yi, the eponymous last Emperor of China, is a masterful film that brings to life an important historical transition many didn’t really know about. But as the costumer designer and editor and musicians collected their prizes all night, stars Joan Chen, John Lone, and Peter O’Toole wasn’t even nominated. Chen is perfectly poised in her role as the wife of a powerless emperor, one who is forced into the happy station of sharing her husband with his mistress. She beautifully portrays the difficult circumstances she faced throughout her life as Empress to Pu Yi’s Emperor.
4. Eihi Shiina, “Audition” (1999)
Japanese horror films have a particular flair for nightmarish structure and truly terrifying situations. Eihi Shiina is so good in this role as Asami, a woman who “wins” an audition of sorts, being chosen to become the new bride of a lonely widower. What he doesn’t know is that his new love harbors deadly secrets and a penchant for torturing men who probably all deserve it. Shiina’s work here makes Glenn Close’s Alex from “Fatal Attraction” look like a woman who’s just having a bad day.
3. Ziyi Zhang, “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005)
Another film that saw accolades for several of the production’s craftspeople, but not for its lead actors is Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” This puts an exclamation point on the talent of Ziyi Zhang. Her skill wasn’t in dispute with previous credits like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but this film gives her the opportunity to show that she has been underserved by Hollywood. It’s fun to see her turn up in things like “Godzilla” and “The Cloverfield Paradox,” but she should be leading these casts and more. That was never more apparent than in her criminally overlooked prowess in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
2. Kieu Chinh, “The Joy Luck Club” (1993)
We could really fill this list exclusively with the cast of “The Joy Luck Club,” but if there is one that stands out from the pack, it is Kieu Chinh as Suyuan. She is a mother who still lives with a devastating choice she made many years before while fleeing her homeland. Her relationship with her daughter June (Ming-Na Wen) is difficult, mostly due to the secret burden Suyuan has carried for so many years. Chinh is brilliant here. In a cast of great women, she has the most memorable and emotionally gut-wrenching story. She conveys it all so beautifully, making Amy Tan’s unforgettable character leap from page to screen.
1. Michelle Yeoh, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2002)
Michelle Yeoh is superhuman. She can do anything and everything. If you just look at her filmography, you’ll see it’s true. In this, the highest-grossing foreign film ever to find a US audience, she is the very definition of grace. Effortlessly moving from dramatic moments to some of the most gorgeously choreographed martial arts sequences ever filmed, Yeoh demonstrates many of the skills that make her one of the best actresses we’ve ever seen. “Crouching Tiger” won four Oscars and had six additional nominations. It was a dreadful mistake on their part to overlook the actors in this feat of fantasy and action. At least BAFTA (and ACCA) saw fit to nominate Yeoh for this gift of a performance.