The widely-lauded romantic comedy "Crazy Rich Asians" is creating buzz for being both great and also the first major studio film since 1993's "Joy Luck Club" to feature a mostly Asian-American cast. The history of Asian-Americans in movies has spanned more than a century, before the inception of color film. Here is a chronological look at films starring Asian-Americans from the past -- and the future.
“The Cheat” (1915) Asian men are rarely painted as sex symbols even in contemporary media, but Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa became a veritable heartthrob, especially after starring in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent thriller, “The Cheat.” Though monumental, his role was that of a predatory antagonist, a typecast that stuck with him during the anti-Japanese sentiments of World War II.
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“The Toll of The Sea” (1922) Anna May Wong, who was born in Los Angeles to a Chinese-American family, became essentially the first Chinese-American movie star. At the age of 17, she had a leading role as the character of Lotus Flower in one of the first color films made, “The Toll of The Sea,” which was inspired by the play “Madame Butterfly.”
“Daughter of Shanghai” (1937) Anna May Wong starred alongside Korean-American actor Philip Ahn, who played a government agent trying to bust an alien smuggling ring in San Francisco. Ahn later became the first Asian-American to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“Sayonara” (1957) Japanese-American actress Miyoshi Umeki starred in “Sayonara” as one-half of a scorned interracial marriage in the midst of the Korean War. Umeki won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role, becoming the first and only Asian-American actress to do so.
"Flower Drum Song" (1961) This turducken of a film is a movie adaptation of the musical that was based on the 1957 novel written by Chinese-American author C.Y. Lee. The film was set in San Francisco's Chinatown and the cast was flanked by Japanese-American actor James Shigeta and Chinese-American actress Nancy Kwan.
“Enter the Dragon” (1973) Bruce Lee’s most notable film was released six days after his death in 1973. In addition to critical acclaim, the martial arts movie was inducted into the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally significant." Though Lee died young, at the age of 32, he became a symbol of cool strength and surmounting the impossible.
“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) George Takei played Hikaru Sulu aboard the USS Enterprise in the first installment of the “Star Trek” film franchise. The role was reprised by John Cho in the more recent slate of “Star Trek” films.
“The Karate Kid” (1984) Even while the titular “Kid” changed throughout the franchise, Mr. Miyagi was the constant. California-born Pat Morita got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the humble and patient karate master.
“The Joy Luck Club” (1993) The 1993 film based on Amy Tan’s novel is often named these days as an antecedent to “Crazy Rich Asians” -- a big studio film with Asian-American leads. It also featured breakout roles for actresses Ming-Na Wen and Lauren Tom.
“Mulan” (1998) Mulan was the eighth Disney princess, the second Asian Disney princess, and the first to, well, not technically be a princess. Ming-Na Wen voiced the titular character in the Disney animated film that took place in Han China, while BD Wong voiced General Li Shang. Mulan's sung lines were supplied by Filipina actress, Lea Salonga, who previously lent her voice to the "Aladdin" soundtrack.
“Charlie’s Angels” (2000) Lucy Liu has had a robust film and television career, from “Ally McBeal” to “Kill Bill” to “Elementary.” One of her first big movie roles was as Alex Munday, an overachieving spy with a diverse skill set, in the 2000 “Charlie’s Angels” film.
“Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004) A modern day stoner comedy starring two Asian-American leads (John Cho and Kal Penn) may seem absurd -- but that’s exactly what this film is. Subverting stereotypes and utilizing humor that didn’t solely rely on race, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” told the epic journey of two guys just trying to satisfy their munchies.
“The Big Sick” (2017) Kumail Nanjiani both co-wrote and starred in this Oscar-nominated film. Though technically a romantic comedy, Nanjiani exercised more solemn themes in the movie, which explored his Pakistani upbringing and his real-life relationship with his wife Emily V. Gordon.
“Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) This opulent film marks a watershed moment in Asian-American film history -- a marriage of an older and revered generation of actors such as Michelle Yeoh, as well as an ushering in of new talent which includes Constance Wu and Awkwafina. And like “The Joy Luck Club,” which came before it, both the film’s director and the novel it’s based on are Asian-American as well.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018) Very rarely do we see a well-rounded love story involving an Asian-American character on screen, and even less so that depict teenagers. In Netflix's new film, "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before," star Lana Condor (from "X-Men: Apocalypse”) plays Lara, an endearing adolescent who finds her world upended when the letters she’s written to her crushes are mysteriously released.
"Mulan" (2020) This Disney animated film is getting the live-action treatment with a cast led by Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei as the titular character, as well as prominent non Asian-American performers Donnie Yen and Jet Li. The film will also feature Asian-American actors Jason Scott Lee and Rosalind Chao, the latter of whom starred in "The Joy Luck Club."