HOLLYWOOD'S ASIAN STRATEGY
In the end, as far as a filmmakers in other Asian nations are concerned, the outcome of China's and Hollywood's endless chest-beating will make little difference. Either way, the future of their markets and the success of their films abroad is out of their hands -- be it at the mercy of Beijing or Hollywood. And until such time as Asian investors decide to use their pocketbooks for leverage, the forecasts do, indeed, appear glum.
Only Taiwan, thanks primarily to the success of Ang Lee, continues to attract American art house distributors. But the problem with Taiwan, they say, is that it lacks a strong aesthetic identity like either Hong Kong or China--industries to which it still retains close ties. Just how lasting the effect of Ang Lee's celebrity will be clearer when films by Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien are released next year.
"Americans, by nature, are a bit provincial," says Yang. "They're not accustomed to reading subtitles. And it will take a while for the American audience to change. It's very tough to break into the American market. It's the reverse problem of American films breaking into the Asian market. It's a frightening prospect for countries that are smaller, where the industries aren't as well-funded, where the filmmakers are unknown to the rest of the world. And I don't know if that will change overnight."
Sadly, the one group that seems to be finding itself increasingly on the periphery of the Hollywood/Asian equation are those who should have the most to gain: Asian Americans. "If they were born here, they are Americans," argues Gray. "As an audience, there is generally no distinction between Asian Americans and white Americans. They are generally highly-educated, highly-motivated people who have the same tastes as white America."
Klein, however, takes a dimmer view of the situation. "Jason Scott Lee does not appear to be turning into much more of a star," he says of the acclaimed leading man of films like Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and The Jungle Book. "Here is a guy that I think everyone agrees is drop-dead beautiful. He is incredibly handsome and he's a good actor. I certainly don't see him getting cast in parts that have no ethnic component where he's just a 'guy.'"
Indeed, lost amid the hysteria over imported Hong Kong talent are some otherwise troubling statistics. While their numbers have increased noticeably in recent years, Asian American production executives appear to have little power to influence the direction of overall studio product. Only a handful of major studio films have ever featured Asians in prominent roles with the two most recent efforts--Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and The Joy Luck Club--both due largely to the labors of Janet Yang. But Yang, as she prepares to launch her own production company with former Columbia Pictures president Lisa Henson, remains hopeful.
"I think it's all been good," she says of the overall impact of Asian-themed films on Hollywood. "At least the barrier of seeing Asian faces on the screen has been broken. And I think that will eventually benefit Asian-Americans. I met Joan Chen when she was just an 18-year-old girl. When she said she wanted to be an actress in America, I thought, 'Oh, the poor thing. She really thinks she's going to become an actress.' Now my message to those young actresses would be, 'Great! There's room for you!'"
More than ever, in fact, that room is expanding in the independent arena, even if the major studios have not yet caught on. For as negligent of Asian talent and themes as the majors have been, independents are filling the void, bringing forth an almost unprecedented wave of new Asian American and Asian Canadian acting and filmmaking talent during the past two years. On the strength of his television work in Vanishing Son, actor Russell Wong has signed a three-picture deal with Miramax. Hawaiian-born Kayo Hatta's debut film Picture Bride received praise in Cannes before winning the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. First-time writer/director Mina Shum's Double Happiness won raves in both the U.S. and her native Canada where it won two 1994 Genie Awards, including Best Actress for star Sandra Oh.
But more importantly, from the filmmaker's standpoint, the independent arena proffers no unspoken prohibitions against tackling non-Asian-themed material as seen in Desmond Nakano's White Man's Burden and Wayne Wang's acclaimed Smoke and Blue in the Face.
Yet, for all its self-proclaimed liberalism, there remains a subtle reluctance on the part of many in Hollywood to go all the way with Asians and Asian material. The Asian record at the Academy Awards is notably embarrassing. Japan, one of the five most nominated countries in the Foreign Language Film category, also owns the worst win-loss ratio--nine nominations and no wins. Prior to 1990, in fact, no Asian nation outside of Japan had received a nomination in the category, a statistic soon remedied by the five nominations in five years for Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Ang Lee. But to date, neither Zhang, Chen nor Lee has won an Oscar, Lee being the most flagrant recipient of Oscar's disrespect this past year when his much-praised adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility received a total of seven nominations including Best Picture but no nomination for Lee.
An equally notorious snubbing occurred in 1988 when Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor won all of its nine nominations making it one of the four most honored films in Oscar history. There was just one oversight: the emperor himself, star John Lone, wasn't even nominated. A letter to the editor of Premiere Magazine that year summed up the oversight thusly: "Michael Douglas got John Lone's Oscar." But the most grievous affront occurred only two years ago when, for the first time, the Foreign Language Film category featured more than one Asian nominee. A total of three Asian films, in fact, dominated the category: Chen's Farewell My Concubine, Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet and Tran Anh Hung's The Scent of Green Papaya. Odds notwithstanding, it was Spain's Belle Epoque that eventually walked away with the statue.
"It is the best of times for the entertainment business in Asia." says Tom Gray. "And it should sustain substantial growth for at least the next ten years."
The bottom line significance is patent. The question is, whether Hollywood can adjust to the demands of a continent of affluent and self-aware Asians. [End]