In 2007, Asian Americans made the nation laugh, cry, and feel inspired. They also made fellow Asian Americans cringe. Here's why.
APA looks behind the spotlight to uncover some of the behind-the-scenes talents we admired in 2007.
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A list of APA's best performers of 2007, in no particular order.
While Ken Leung has been working steadily in the business for over a decade, 2007 was the year that he finally gained widespread critical recognition, due to a scene-stealing performance as a mental patient on a little show called The Sopranos. Every Asian male actor in Los Angeles auditioned for the coveted part, according to Perry Shen (Better Luck Tomorrow) in an interview for Jeff Yang's "Asian Pop" column, but it was Ken Leung who landed the role of Uncle Junior's erratic protege, prone to violent outbursts toward unsupportive father figures. And the rest is history. Lost producers Damien Lindelof and Carleton Cuse were so impressed by his performance that they wrote a new character on Lost, with Ken Leung specifically in mind. That episode arc will begin when Lost returns in Feburary of 2008. In addition to his television work, in 2007 Ken Leung also starred in the indie festival films Shanghai Kiss, a romantic cross-cultural drama, and Year of the Fish, a rotoscoped and animated film set in New York's Chinatown. --Ada Tseng
In Mira Nair's much-awaited movie The Namesake, one of the director's key innovations in the film, contrasted with the book, is her emphasis on the parents -- particularly Gogol's mother, Ashima. Tabu's formidable screen presence and experience with playing subtle, powerful roles came through vividly onscreen, so much that her performance in this film took the focus away from leading man, Kal Penn. Tabu portrays the Indian immigrant mother with poise and grace, from her endearing effort to check out her future husband by wearing his shoes, to the power with which she announces her decision to leave America after her husband's death decades later. Nair has aged her subtly and effectively over the course of the movie, allowing Tabu to bring her signature style to a moving film. --Smitha Radhakrishnan
Asked whether he (Kal Penn's character) reminds his father of his near-death train accident years prior, an incident that inspired his name (hence, "The Namesake"), Ashoke tells his son Gogol: "You remind me of everything that followed." The closing line of one of the pivotal father-son exchanges in the film could have easily been overplayed or deemed underwhelming, but entrusted with actor Irrfan Khan, its subdued, layered delivery was worthy of the dramatic, swirling instrumentals that follows in the trailer. But that is a rather minute example of what Irrfan Khan contributed to moviemaking in the year 2007. In addition to The Namesake, Khan also played Captain, the head of the Pakistani counter-terrorism unit in the Daniel Pearl story A Mighty Heart, and he gained sympathy as a distraught father in Wes Anderson's comical Darjeeling Unlimited. Khan also had a role in the well-received Bollywood film Life in a Metro, where he portrays Monty, a socially inept suitor who gradually starts to grow on Konkona Sen Sharma's character, Shruti. It was a busy, busy year for Irrfan Khan, and with several films in the works, it looks like 2008 won't bring him much downtime -- a good thing for audiences who appreciate watching his intelligent and thoughtful character work onscreen. --Ada Tseng
That Do-yeon Jeon is the first Korean actress to receive the 2007 Cannes Film Festival Best Actress award should be sufficient reason to include her in any top ten list. Hard to believe that it's been ten years since she made her film debut in The Contact (Cheob-sok, 1997). She's actually been a steady presence on TV (for five years) prior to making her cinematic mark. Over time, she's garnered several awards for taking on wide-ranging roles and developing her craft, the culmination of which so far has no doubt been in Lee Chang-Dong's Secret Sunshine. Her performance of a young woman confronted with overwhelming tragedy gives no hint of any stuffy, overworked acting method; instead, she defines great acting as -- paraphrasing her own words -- giving one's all, honestly, sincerely and persistently. And this is what critics from around the world see on the screen. --Rowena Aquino
Singer, songwriter, and producer Ne-Yo’s poppy R&B was played nonstop on the radio and probably in your head too. Bouncy ballad “Because of You” and break-up duet “Hate That I Love You” cemented Ne-Yo’s popularity. Ne-Yo claims his Blasian identity, stating, “I’m black and Chinese” in an interview with Concreteloop.com. His previous songwriting credits include Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” and Rihanna’s “Unfaithful.” This year, Ne-Yo’s solo career took off. His sophomore album Because of You was number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and went platinum. Ne-Yo was nominated for numerous Grammy’s and won Best R&B New Artist at the Soul Train awards. He also dabbled in acting, appearing in teen movies Stomp the Yard and Save the Last Dance 2, for which he also produced and wrote most of the soundtrack. You might have caught his cameo in Bollywood’s biggest movie of the year Om Shanti Om during the song “Deewangi Deewangi.” Expect Ne-Yo to sing and dance his way into 2008 as he is rumored to be working on Michael Jackson’s next album and appearing in the movie musical Mama, I Want to Sing! --Lisa Leong
Covering songs by the deified Beatles is daunting, but Chinese/Filipina singer TV Carpio rose to the challenge gracefully in Julie Taymor's musical Across the Universe. Daughter of famous Hong Kong singer Teresa Carpio, TV (which stands for Teresa Victoria) has previously made guest appearances on Law & Order and The Jury, and she was also a Top 26 finalist on Popstars, the 2001 reality show that put together a short-lived girl group. This past year she found a better use for her singing abilities, stepping out from her mother's shadow with her turn as Prudence in Across the Universe. Her earthy, drawn-out version of the classic "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" had fans of the movie musical wishing she had more than just a couple songs on the soundtrack. With her acting talents and vocal range, it shouldn't be long before she gets cast in more prominent roles in the big and small screen. --Catherine Manabat
In Johnnie To and Wai Kai-fai’s Mad Detective, Lau Ching-wan plays a loony ex-cop who’s willing to stuff himself in a suitcase and then hurl it down a flight of stairs, just to gain insight into a crime scene. You can say the same about Lau Ching-wan the actor, one of Hong Kong cinema’s few consummate professionals. And though perhaps not as mad as the detective he plays, Lau is more than willing to take roles like this which really stretch his talents, even if it means he’ll have to look abused and frazzled for the 90-minute duration. Perhaps Lau is unafraid because he knows that he can capture the sometimes repulsive paranoia of a crazed social reject while never sacrificing the character’s likeability. In Mad Detective, Lau gives an arm and a leg (and an ear) to depict one of Asian cinema’s most credible crazies of 2007. --Brian Hu
While stumbling out of the theater, wonderfully dazed, distraught, and breathless after watching Lou Ye's phenomenal Summer Palace, I was left wondering who the lead actress was and why we haven't seen more of her onscreen. With only a few previous credits to her name, including a supporting role on a Singaporean TV series called Brotherhood (You qing you yi), Hao Lei charges onto the screen in an untraditional love story, set in the midst of China's evolving social and political landscape surrounding the events of Tiananmen Square. Alternately playful, vulnerable, ferocious, and captivating, Hao Lei (as the central character Yu Hong) has us in her spell in almost every frame of the 140-minute film, which spans from 1987 to 2001, from Beijing's pro-democracy movement to the crashing of the Berlin Wall. The euphoric schoolgirl in a feverish romance from the beginning of the film is mercilessly broken down over the years, and when you're plunged into Lou Ye's meandering, cinematic world with the unpredictable Hao Lei in the driver's seat, one can't help but feel the depths of emotional turmoil alongside our restless heroine. --Ada Tseng
In her debut performance, Mamatha Bhukya astonishes her audience in the beautiful film Vanaja, in which she plays the title role. Bhukya's character is a girl child who is forced to become a woman too soon, and displays, above all, an undaunted ferocity of spirit even under the worst of circumstances. Her shining face is equally captivating in anger and play, and we come to adore her all the more as she navigates between childhood and motherhood in quick turns. Aside from her very naturalistic acting, her performance as a dancer was remarkable. And there's no faking good dancing -- either you can do it or you cannot. For this role, Bhukya became a young Kuchipudi dancer with formidable talent and skills, even to the trained eye. Bhukya's debut performance in a debut movie was one of a kind, a must-see. --Smitha Radhakrishnan
Tony Leung made a sharp impact this year with Ang Lee's Lust Caution, a film that shocked the world with its controversial sex scenes and NC17 rating. But more importantly, it moved worldwide audiences with its skillful parallelling of sexual and martial politics in pre-war China. The Clark Gable of Asia once again worked his magic. Masked in brutality and coldness, Leung's killer eyes nonetheless seduced the world with a heartbreaking vulnerability that made Mr. Yee the villain to die for.
With over 15 years on the silver screen, Leung started off as a children TV host in 1982 and matured to become one of the most influential actors in Asia, although he's still best known to Western movie-goers for his performances in Wong Kar-Wai films such as Days of being Wild, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love and its sequel 2046. In addition to his artistic collaborations with Wong, Leung is also active in the mainstream cinema, starring in many Cantonese love comedies and action thrillers. The Academy Award-winning film of 2007, The Departed, despite its own share of success, had a difficult time living up to its original -- the monumental Infernal Affairs -- in which Leung's every move and glance conveyed the inevitable tragedy of a good man trapped in an inferno of sins and losses. Leung's unique portrayals of intense emotion allow him to skillfully cross genres, and his pensive subtlety never fails to capture the hearts of his audiences. In 2007, Lust, Caution rightfully took Leung's international recognition to a new level. --Winghei Kwok
There's a staggering scene in Lust, Caution, when Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is meeting with Kuang Yumin (Wang Leehom) and Old Wu, the superior officer of the organized underground resistence group, to discuss the plan to assasinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Wong Chia Chi has acted as Mr. Yee's mistress for months, and good friend Kuang Yumin is worried about her safety, but Old Wu would like to wait. "Keep him in your trap," Old Wu says, to which Tang Wei delivers a gut-wrenching monologue that will haunt you in your sleep. After defiantly assuring Old Wu of her loyalty to the cause, she sneers at the men for daring to underestimate who they're up against. "He [Mr. Yee/Tony Leung] knows better than you how to act the part," she says. "He not only gets inside me, but he worms his way into my heart. I take him in like a slave." Oh, there's more where that came from, that probably shouldn't be printed here. By the end of her crushing rant, Old Wu nervously yells at her to shut up and storms off (men and their delicate ears), and the audience watches Wang Leehom's empathetic tears with a cold heart, lacking any sympathy for the otherwise-intelligent and charismatic pretty boy who talked her into this situation in the first place and turned out to be so useless. --Ada Tseng
When it Rains, it pours. He's been called the Korean Usher and the Korean Justin Timberlake, but after the year he's had, people will start calling Timberlake and Usher the American Rain. Rain (also known as Bi in Korean) is the 23-year old Korean R&B superstar recently reigning over the international entertainment world. With his rock hard abs, dimpled smile and poppin' dance moves, Rain easily rose to stardom in Asia, starring in the Korean dramas Full House and Sang Doo, Let's Go to School as well as selling out concerts everywhere from Hong Kong to Japan. But it was 2007 when the artist really hit his stride in the Western world. Rain was named one of People magazine's Most Beautiful People and topped the Time 100 open online poll of Most Influential People of the Year, beating out the likes of J.K. Rowling and Stephen Colbert. The biggest compliment paid to the triple threat though, would have to be Colbert's mock retaliation to being defeated by Rain on Time's list. Colbert created his own music video, pulling out boy band moves and singing in Korean. It looks like the world is dancing in the rain. --Janice Jann
There is no logical reason that two people with possibly less than 20 minutes of combined screentime should be placed in the same category with the likes of Tony Leung, Rain, and Irrfan Khan. But laughter doesn't always follow reason, and sometimes potheads and crazy people deserve to win in the end. In this summer's Apatow hit Knocked Up, Charlyne Yi played a glassy-eyed girl whose awkward chuckling, lack of appropriate-public-behavior filters, and inability to enunciate was somehow unnerving and endearing at the same time. Ken Jeong showed up later in the film, playing a maniacal doctor delivering the baby miracle for Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan's characters. His performance perhaps became more infamous with the power of YouTube; "Kuni Gone Wild," the extended deleted scene where Jeong improvises in character left no other actor in the room able to keep a straight face. Sometimes called Dr. Ken since he earned his MD while juggling his stand-up career, Ken Jeong was a writer/producer of 2005's Kims of Comedy. He will reteam with the Apatow boys club in The Pineapple Express. Also a treat on the comedy circuit, Charlyne Yi is a performance artist who is also making use of the web to showcase her memorable short videos. Short videos involving bleeding cartoon characters, fingers ice-skating, and strangers unable to talk through glass. Both actors have turned the act of making people uncomfortable into an art form. --Ada Tseng
Riding off the momentum of his solid performance as Han in 2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Sung Kang landed a series of small, but respectable roles in two of this summer’s big budget Hollywood popcorn flicks. He shared screen time with Bruce Willis as the good cop Raj in Live Free and Die Hard and played the deadly assassin Goi in the Jet Li - Jason Statham action thriller War. In both roles, Kang comes off as intelligent and tough, continuing to defy expectations in Hollywood as a masculine Asian American male. He also saw extensive screen time in Finishing the Game, an indie mockumentary film in the style of Spinal Tap, directed by long-time collaborator Justin Lin. The additional screen time allowed Kang to bust his chops as Colgate Kim, an idealistic Asian American actor looking to make his break into Hollywood by succeeding the legendary Bruce Lee. Kang expertly portrays the lovable, but troubled Colgate in his most comedic performance to date. He also reprised his role as President Gin Kew Yun Chun Yew Nee on Mad TV, playfully parodying Korean television dramas alongside funnyman Bobby Lee. --William Hong
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Date Posted: 1/4/2008