Ethnic casting in Chinese cinema

From the mid-70’s to the mid-90’s, a lot of the Hong Kong film thespians had looks which were not typically Chinese like those from Mainland China. Part of this is down to the complexion and non-slant eyes, but the other part is down to the acting. Unlike Japanese or Korean films but like the majority of Taiwanese cinema, many H.K. thespians had facially expressive qualities which have resonated with non-Chinese people regardless of whether there are bad subtitles or no subtitles. John Woo’s Bullet in the Head and Wong Jing’s City Hunter are the best examples of H.K. films which anyone could understand without any dubbing or subtitling.

It also helps that there are tonal qualities that come with the Cantonese language and it’s various dialects. It’s why the best Chinese singers tend to be Cantonese since the language is so melodic. So many emotions are conveyed through the many dialects whereas Mandarin has a rigged quality where emotion can only be truly understood through melodrama, hence the majority of Taiwanese films. It still baffles me that Mandarin was supposed to be the most sophisticated Chinese language. It’s so hoarse and not really radio-friendly. It’s more off-putting to the average non-Chinese speaker than the Cantonese language.

I’ve always been amazed by the number of Chinese thespians who weren’t the most conventional in looks. Many of them, such as Charlie Chin and Tony Leung Kar-Fai, had the illusion of being half-Indian. Simon Yam, Waise Lee, Alan Tam and Andy Lau have a slightly Indonesian aura about them. What exemplifies this is that an Indonesian actor like Billy Chong proved that he could play a Chinese man in more than one occasion. Interestingly, the director of Men Behind the Sun cast Korean children because he felt that they looked more similar to ancient Chinese children than those of the present. A Vietnamese actress like Christy Chung can play a Chinese woman.

Even Malaysian actresses like Michelle Yeoh (the lady on the cover*) and Phyllis Quek can play Chinese women. Contrarily, a Chinese actress can play a Malaysian woman in Born to be King i.e. Shu Qi from The Transporter. A Chinese actor can play a Malaysian man e.g. Chapman To in Undercover Blues and Philip Kwok in The Big Heat, the latter of which Tsui Hark had co-directed without receiving a credit because he realized that it would alienate future directors who he could make money off. The biggest hits of his career were ones where he was only a producer – grossing 34 million H.K. dollars twice with A Better Tomorrow (34.6 in 1986) and Swordsman II (34.4 in 1992). The racial line is blurred furthermore with a Chinese-Malaysian actress like Angie Cheung Wai-Yee (who was hotly-pegged).

Similarly, there are H.K. thespians who are Eurasian e.g. Brandon Lee, Shannon Lee, Keith Kwan, Joyce Godenzi, Anthony Wong, Don Wong, Michael Wong and Maggie Q. Joyce is especially interesting for playing a Cambodian in Eastern Condors while Yuen Biao (an unusual Chinese man) played a Vietnamese fighter. Other notable Chinese thespians to pose as Vietnamese are Chow Yun-Fat in The Story of Woo Viet, Roy Cheung in Wild Search, Ray Lui in Flash Point and Terence Yin in Colour of the Truth. Because the golden-aged H.K. movies had actors with darker complexions and unusual physiognomy, it made the movies more accessible to Western audiences as well as Eastern ones such as the Thai and Indian markets. Since H.K. has a sizeable Indian population, the latter market could always indulge in wishful thinking.

H.K. movies are underrated by outsiders. It’s amazing how something like skin colour and language can be a barrier. Hugo Weaving once said that there is a humanity in foreign films that you don’t get in Hollywood features, and I think that’s exemplified in the golden age of H.K. cinema where the tonal shifts reflect the unpredictability of life. I often think that many of life’s difficult questions can be answered in the free-for-all world of H.K. cinema. I believe that the Chinese have the best philosophy and the best slang, if not the best lyrics.

* Helmut Newton was the photographer. The context was an article titled Hasta la Vista, Arnold. It was for the U.S. edition of Vogue’s May 1997 issue. Other models were Elizabeth Hurley, Minnie Driver and Sigourney Weaver.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s