Asian Cinema Week Top 10: Best Performances by Actors of Asian Descent

In honor of “Crazy Rich Asians,” we at Awards Circuit want to spotlight the diverse talents of the Asian film community. Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina and more headline the all Asian cast of the film. As we look forward to strong performances from this cast, we want to look back at some of the other Asian acting talents on display throughout the year.

Over the 90 year history of the Oscars, only fourteen performers of Asian descent have been nominated. Of those fourteen, only three have won Oscars. Even outside of Oscar history, there’s a rich history of foreign films that have made a dent, both critically and commercially, from Asia. Join us as we count down ten of the best performances by actors and actresses of Asian descent.

Full disclosure: There is so much Asian cinema to see that I have not gotten to yet. If your favorites are not on the list, please share in the comments. There are so many rich examples to add and am looking forward to catching up on everyone’s suggestions.

  1. Jackie Chan – “Rush Hour” (1998)

This is more of a career citation for Jackie Chan than anything. The man was recently (and rightfully) presented with an Honorary Oscar in November 2016 for his pioneering efforts in bringing martial arts to American cinema. Asian cinema has innovated the action genre long before American cinema. Chan, in particular, manages to pair his martial arts skills with a genuinely fun screen presence. “Rush Hour” teams him up with a fast-talking LA detective (Chris Tucker) to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a Chinese diplomat. Not only does Chan excel at jaw-dropping stunts, but he nails a comic timing with co-star Tucker. The film became Chan’s first $100 million hit and cemented him as an A-list action star.

  1. Ziyi Zhang – “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005)

Ziyi Zhang deserves a grand A-list movie star career. She exudes both a larger than life beauty and alluring screen presence that draws viewers into her story. Zhang excels in this performance thanks to her expressive motions. Even while under a great deal of Geisha makeup, Zhang wears her character’s entire story on her face throughout. Zhang charts Chiyo’s journey as a poor young girl who seeks refuge in a geisha house to Sayuri, a premiere Geisha who contends with the compromises her position much make. The film’s assertion that fame and fortune aren’t everything isn’t new. However, Zhang compels us to follow this journey with her engaging movie-star persona.

  1. Issey Ogata – “Silence” (2016)

Without raising his voice above a heightened whisper, Issei Ogata strikes palpable terror every time he appears on-screen. “Silence” casts Ogata as Inoue Masashige, the Japanese governor who curtails the spread of Catholicism in his area. Not only does he seek to prevent conversions, but he also practices strong levels of physical and emotional torture on the Catholic missionaries in the area. He challenges the missionaries to step on their Catholic Bible, dismaying their God. The reluctance to do so leads to great turmoil. Ogata steals Martin Scorsese’s film away from marquee stars such as Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson. It’s a formidable performance that deservedly walks away as best-in-show in the under-seen film.

  1. Pat Morita – “The Karate Kid” (1984)

Pat Morita marries Mr. Miyagi’s warmth with his strictness. Miyagi pushes Daniel to succeed in martial arts but does not accept any less than his best. While Daniel seeks to beat up the bullies at his school, Miyagi teaches him compassion and peace along with martial arts. Morita knows how to explain and unearth the adverse effects of violence as well as the positive lessons of martial arts. It’s a trickier role than one would think. However, the reason the film maintains such a level of popularity is primarily due to Morita’s performance. He received a well deserved Oscar nomination for this movie. However, the real reward was the film’s lasting legacy.

  1. Haing S. Ngor – “The Killing Fields” (1984)

Haing S. Ngor was a Cambodian gynecologist and obstetrician who won an Oscar for his first role. After multiple tours in Cambodian prison camps, Ngor promised one day he would tell the story of Cambodia’s plight. He found his way to do this through “The Killing Fields” in the role of journalist Dith Pran. Ngor uses his personal experiences to infuse the character with a sense of realism. Pran exhibits a drive and hunger to expose the truth, at all costs. The film places Pran in many genuinely horrific moral quandaries as he’s forced by the Khmer Rouge to live within their regime. To date, Ngor stands as the only Asian actor to win a Supporting Actor Oscar. While it’s a well-earned win, it’s a shame the Oscars have not rewarded any further Asian actors in this category.

  1. Dev Patel – “Lion” (2016)

Indian actor Dev Patel rocketed to fame with his performance in “Slumdog Millionaire,” the Danny Boyle directed Best Picture winner. However, it’s his performance in Garth Davis’ “Lion” that remains his strongest. Patel plays Saroo, an Indian child who was adopted by a family in Tasmania. Saroo uses Google Maps to trace his birthplace as he finds his way back to the family he got lost from at a young age. Patel conveys what it’s like to be raised by a family that is of a different ethnicity and the struggle to connect with one’s roots. It’s a heartfelt performance in which Saroo’s two worlds tug at him.

  1. Sessue Hayakawa – “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1958)

Sessue Hayakawa became the first Asian actor nominated in the Supporting Actor category for his role in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” the Best Picture winner of 1958. As Colonel Saito, Hayakawa is more than the sadistic head of the Japanese POW camp in World War II. He needs to keep his prisoners in line but will be forced to commit ritualistic suicide if the bridge is not completed. Scenes between Alec Guinness’ Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson and Hayakawa’s Colonel Saito are the major highlights of this Best Picture winner. He develops a transactional trust in Nicholson as they work to build a bridge that will greatly help the Japanese war efforts. Hayakawa switches between frightening and personable sometimes within the same scene. By the end of the film, our allegiances are tested. We want our heroes (and country) to succeed. However, we’re concerned with the fate that befalls Saito.

  1. Machiko Kyō – “Rashomon” (1950)

Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Rashomon” reinvented storytelling techniques for cinema. The Japanese film examines many different perspectives on the same horrific crime. It intricately weaves five different perspectives into a tapestry where the true events are hard to suss out. All members of the ensemble give exemplary performances as they headline their own “mini-movie” of sorts. Of them all, Machiko Kyō provides the most vibrant and interesting view of the events. As the wife of a murdered samurai, she recounts her version of the events, which includes a gruesome rape. Her tale is one that remains just as relevant today. Speaking up takes a great deal of bravery, particularly in systems that devalue the perspective of women. Kyō crafts various portrayals of her character depending on the scenario, a task that requires a great deal of skill.

  1. Choi Min-Sik – “Oldboy” (2005)

“Oldboy” disturbs in a way few others can. Park Chan-Wook’s incredible direction gives the film a stylistic power one can’t deny. However, it’s Choi Min-Sik performance as Oh Dae-su, the imprisoned man looking for revenge, which gives the film its sick heart. There’s an earnestness to Oh Dae-su’s rage that brings the audience on his side. He tries to put his life together with the help of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), who both have strong chemistry as the bright spots in each other’s lives. Min-Sik doesn’t just excel at the emotional labor of the performance. His action scenes are incomparable. Even after losing weight for his imprisonment scenes, Choi Min-Sik performs all his own stunts in some truly exhausting long fight sequences. The physical and emotional journey all come to a head in one of the best, most horrifying climaxes that feel incredibly earned thanks to Choi Min-Sik’s performance.

  1. Michelle Yeoh – “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)

Few actresses of any race have as commanding a presence as Michelle Yeoh. She exudes grace, confidence and intimidating force in every role she appears in. In fact, she was an instrumental part of the success of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” the top-grossing foreign film of all time in the US. The fight between Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen Yu (Ziyi Zhang) remains one of the best in cinema. Their high wire spars resemble intricate dance movements that dazzle at every turn. It’s equal parts beautiful and suspenseful. Even more so, the fight reverberates with just as much emotional fireworks, thanks to Yeoh. However, the heart of the film belongs to the romance between Yu Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat). Yeoh proves herself a grade A romantic and action leading lady that few can compare with.

What are your favorite performances by an Asian actor or actress? Share with us in the comments below.