THIS week, two actresses famous in Asia will be slugging it out for a slice of
In one corner is Hawaii-born Maggie Q, 28, who plays a ruthless
techno-terrorist opposite Bruce Willis in Die Hard 4.0, the fourth instalment
of the action franchise.
In the other is Taiwan-born Shu Qi, 31, as a femme fatale in My Wife Is A
Gangster 3, a sequel to the 2001 Korean smash hit.
Between the two, Q (short for Quigley) is understandably receiving more
attention: She is the latest Asian actress to breach Hollywood's walls.
Die Hard 4.0 is her second Hollywood outing following last year's debut in Tom
Cruise's Mission: Impossible III in which she was one of the Cruiser's merry
She may play a villain in Die Hard 4.0, but at least she has more screen time
and more dialogue this time around.
Q, who used to be based in Hong Kong, is the latest in a line of Asian
actresses to cross over to Hollywood, though technically she is Pan-Asian.
Over the last two decades, at least five other Asian actresses have tried their
luck in the world's showbiz capital, most notably China-born Joan Chen, 46, and
Malaysia-born Michelle Yeoh, 44.
Chen was in movies like Tai-Pan (1986) and The Last Emperor (1987) while Yeoh
was a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). A more recent face was
China-born Zhang Ziyi, 28, who starred in Rush Hour 2 (2001) and Memoirs Of A
At 40, Gong Li, one of China's top thesps, is a late bloomer, having made her
United States debut in Memoirs. She has made two more Hollywood movies, Miami
Vice (2006) and Hannibal Rising (2007).
Another late Asian arrival is Iran-born Shohreh Aghdashloo, 55, in House Of
Sand And Fog (2003) where she plays an Iranian immigrant's wife caught in a
The actresses have met varying results, ranging from critical acclaim (an Oscar
nomination for Aghdashloo) to ridicule (Chen was a two-time Razzie nominee for
the Steven Seagal thriller On Deadly Ground and her Hollywood debut Tai-Pan).
These actresses are now considered the Old Guard, whereas the likes of Q and
India's Aishwarya Rai, 33, represent the new generation of Asians out to woo
Tinseltown. But will they be able to conquer the US? Do they want - or need -
to in the first place?
THE American movie industry is tough to penetrate, especially if you are an
According to the US-based Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the percentage of roles
given to Asians rose from 2.5 per cent in 2003 to 2.9 per cent in 2004.
This is still a drop in the ocean considering that the 2000 US census reported
that 4.2 per cent of 281 million Americans have full or partial Asian heritage.
Caucasian actors take up 74.5 per cent of the total number of movie and TV
And out of the 2.9 per cent, Asian actors who want a stab at Hollywood fame
have to compete with the likes of American-born Lucy Liu and Kelly Hu, both 39.
For Q to land herself a juicy role in a summer blockbuster is considered a
coup, say industry players.
It helps, they say, that she is Eurasian. "I think Hollywood marketers are
smart enough to realise that there will always be an audience that does not
want to see Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra all the time," says Singaporean
writer Gerrie Lim. His 2005 book, Idol To Icon: The Creation Of Celebrity
Brand, has a chapter called Epics And Engimas: The Lure Of Asian Exotica.
Even then, it is never easy for an Asian to break into Hollywood, says Bey
Logan, vice-president of Asian Acquisitions for The Weinstein Company, the
studio founded by brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein.
Logan, who has worked with Q on several Hong Kong movies, tells Life! from Hong
Kong: "Hollywood will have to make the call first."
Singapore photographer Russel Wong, who has worked with celebs like Joan Chen,
says that scripts that involve Asians still tend to be for action-oriented
movies rather than dramatic scripts.
Still, in an interview with British newspaper The Guardian in April, Gong Li
noted that Hollywood has "started to write screenplays that include interesting
roles for Chinese and other Asian women".
She added: "This was not the case 20 years ago... Asian women were needed only
to decorate a film or to spice it up with gongfu. That held no interest for me.
"But now there are good opportunities for Chinese actresses in Hollywood. I can
be in a film as an artiste, not as a decoration."
When they are coping with not being stereotyped, Asian actors have to struggle
with the English language, which can also limit the range of scripts available
Wong believes that if Asians are to have sustainable careers in the US, they
must master the language. This would account for English-impaired Shu Qi's sole
Hollywood gig to date, 2002's The Transporter, in which she plays a
damsel-in-distress to Jason Statham's mysterious courier agent.
Zhang, meanwhile, is not taking any chances. She is taking English-language
classes so she can take on more Hollywood projects. In her next film - The
Horsemen, a serial killer thriller - she plays, believe it or not, an American
Welcome to Asiawood
WHILE Hollywood might have been the dream of Asian actresses in Joan Chen's
era, times have changed since 1997 when the film industry in Hong Kong - East
Asia's biggest then - was on the verge of collapse.
The China cinema market, in particular, is fast growing. Last year, the Chinese
spent about US$336 million (S$512 million) in cinema tickets, a figure which
portends well for actors and actresses hoping to make a fortune in their own
Actresses in India, too, need not really seek out Hollywood. Bollywood produces
800 films a year with 3.6 billion tickets sold.
This is also fast becoming the age of the pan-Asian movie production, a trend
which sees Asian producers pooling financial and human resources for big-budget
movies, such Chen Kaige-s The Promise and Tsui Hark's Seven Swords (both 2005).
Stanley Tong, the Hong Kong director of The Myth (2005), which starred Jackie
Chan, Korean actress Kim Hee Seon and Indian actress Mallika Sherawat, noted in
an AFP report: "Whether it's a film made in Korea, Hong Kong or China, all
films have to compete against the big money that is Hollywood films. If actors,
producers and directors come together, it will serve to advance non-Hollywood
Better yet, even Hollywood is looking East.
In April, The Weinstein Company set up a US$275 million Asian Film Fund where
it will bankroll some 30 movies, including Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights.
Last month, it inked a deal with the company Qi, a joint venture formed by US
producer Tony Krantz and Hong Kong-s Andrew Lau to produce a trio of Hong Kong
action films. Qi's mission: to break in a new generation of action stars to
replace the current batch like Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
Still, while things are looking up in Asian cinema, nothing beats having an
acclaimed Hollywood hit to an Asian actress or actor's name. It allows them
bragging rights which would translate to even more buzz at home.
There's also good old-fashioned glamour that comes with that brush with
Hollywood fame, Lim says.
"It is the intangible trophy which only Hollywood can convey," he says.
"What working actor wouldn't crave it, despite all the possible pitfalls of
fame? There is a kind of va-va-voom frisson, and it's quite irresistible."
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