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Female Entertainers. Always our most popular story of the year. This year's female performances ranged from quietly powerful to winningly sincere to unexpectedly controversial.
Sook Yin Lee
In the world of acting, there are method actors, who strive for honesty, and then there's Sook Yin Lee, who strives for realism. For her role as the pre-orgasmic sex-therapist, Sofia Lin, in John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, Lee not only drew from her own experiences as a gawky teen; she went where few actors dare to go, performing un-simulated sex and masturbation for millions of viewers. And while it was the sex that initially raised eyebrows and controversy, it is Lee's warmth and hilariously charming neurosis that make this breakthrough performance so memorable. There's something endearing about the way Lee worriedly furrows her brow as she frantically tries to figure out how to orgasm. In addition to her CBC radio show and an upcoming indie album Lovebolt, Lee just authored her first feature film, Year of the Carnivore, which features yet another girl who just wants to be loved, but embarrasses herself in the process. -Ana La O'
As far as 40+ wonderwomen go, Gong Li's gumption and Maggie Cheung's moxie might lead the way. But there's just no following in Joan Chen's foosteps; she's the kind of 45-year-old stunner that just has to rumba while everyone else is ballroom dancing. From reluctant starlet (The Last Emperor) to experimental auteur (Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl) to middle-aged melodramatist (her delightfully punishing role in this year's surprisingly even-handed Americanese), Chen continues to skip along to her own beat. And she doesn't have to look frumpy or haggard while doing it either; setting the screen aglow in Americanese despite having to share a screen with Kelly Hu. Don't think we're the only ones who noticed -- no less of an admirer than Ang Lee cast her as the female lead in next year's surefire Oscar bait, Lust, Caution, where she'll be droppin that smolder all over the likes of Tony Leung and Wang Leehom. Good luck, fellas. -Chi Tung
Japanese ingénue Rinko Kikuchi debuted to American audiences in her stunning turn as Chieko in Alejandro González Iñárritu's third feature film, Babel. Playing a hearing-impaired Japanese high school student, Kikuchi moved audiences with her evocation of both Chieko's fierceness and her vulnerability. Simultaneously embracing and subverting the "Japanese schoolgirl" stereotype, Kikuchi's sexually-charged performance comes with an equal dose of heart-rending pathos. Kikuchi came to Babel following a seven year film career in her native Japan, but her performance represented a breakthrough in Hollywood. We look forward to seeing more Western crossover performances from Kikuchi in the years to come. -Aynne Kokas
Gong had quite a banner year in Hollywood. Zhang Yimou's erstwhile muse tried her hand in her first big budget Hollywood film set primarily in the U.S. playing Cuban-Chinese seductress, Isabella, opposite Colin Farrell. In a huge change of pace, and a return to her origins, Gong reunited with director Zhang Yimou to play the female lead of his most recent epic, Curse of the Golden Flower. Gong inhabits the character of Empress Phoenix with overpowering gravitas. Paired with screen sparring partner Chow Yun-fat, Gong is part of one of the most volatile and scintillating screen partnerships in this reviewer's recent memory. Gong will be continuing to crossover to Western screens in 2007 with the role of Lady Murasaki in Peter Webber's Hannibal Rising. -Aynne Kokas
Since moving to New York in the early 90s, singer/songwriter Miho Hatori has built up a striking musical CV, most notably through her collaboration with Yuka Honda as Cibo Matto. Of course, Cibo Matto fans need not be glum about the band's breakup with the U.S. release of Miho Hatori's debut album Ecdysis on the Rykodisc label. The amicable separation in order to pursue their respective musical interests bears early fruit on Ecdysis. "Ecdysis" designates the shedding of old layers of skin to allow growth, as of insects and snakes, and is more than metaphorically apt to describe Hatori's letting loose her love of bossa nova- and samba-inflected harmonies that fit oddly enough with the lyrical worlds of walking cities, communicating with insects, barracudas and samsara. And it may not stop with just music for the now solo but still highly collaborative Hatori, to which her animated music video for "Barracuda" attests, made in collaboration with Japanese visual artist Masaru Ishiura. Let's hope so. -Rowena Aquino
Unlike so many actresses prancing around in film and TV, Bae Doona has more than a pretty face. She's shown off her acting chops in some of Korea's best and most lucrative movies, and concerned herself with taking the most interesting, not most glamorous roles. Still, despite excellent work in the intimate dramas Barking Dogs Never Bite and Take Care of My Cat, and the cutting edge Sympathy for Mr. Vengance, she's never managed to garner the acclaim she's deserved. Finally, in 2006 she's had her first huge commercial success with The Host. It's been a long time coming, but it couldn't have come to a better, more professional actress. -Jennifer Flinn
That whole best newcomer label is somewhat of a sham -- remember when Jay Chou received it for his less-than-starmaking turn in Initial D? -- but sometimes, there's no other way to describe the indescribable: that an actress with a single prior gig under her belt would be capable of delivering such a nuanced, powerful, vulnerable performance in a film that needed not a smidgen less. Oh, and there's one other minor little detail: she's all of 12 years old. The actress in question is Phoebe Kut and the film, Julia Kwan's ardent yet unflinching portrait of Asian American adolescence, Eve and the Fire Horse. At once questioning and blissfully naive, Kut's title character astounds you with her depths of perception, while reminding us that the early years somehow manage to be both the most difficult and rewarding. -Chi Tung
Among Korean film actresses, there's Moon So-ri, and then there's everyone else. Even with her small role in this year's Family Ties, Moon stole the show as the nice, traditional sister to an irresponsible brother. Moon's gift is that she brings to the tamer films an intoxicating sexuality, and she brings to the sexual films an unexpected tenderness. Between Family Ties and Bewitching Attraction, it's been another flawless year for the Venice and Grand Bell-winning thespian who despite having only been in eight films since 2000, has already cemented her reputation as Korea's finest film actress. Reviews often point to the fact that Moon lacks "traditional beauty," but I'd disagree. Her fans are responding to something in her performances we no longer see among the notoriously nip-tucked actress pool: precisely that traditional beauty which comes organically out of impassioned acting and a taste for sharp scripts. -Brian Hu
Scorcese has DeNiro and DiCaprio, PTA has Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Wes Anderson has Bill Murray, and Tsai Ming-liang, in addition to his maybe-platonic-maybe-not crush Lee Kang-sheng, has Lu Yi-Ching. It's not hard to see why: she's the ultimate conflicted mother figure, simultaneously shielding and scolding, nurturing and nagging, cruel to be kind. In 2006, however, Lu took a break from Tsai's withering glare and teamed up with Taiwanese-auteur-on-the-rise, Cheng Wen-Tang, for the touching, tempestuous Blue Cha Cha. As An-an, a surrogate mother to the emotionally fragile Ah-yu, Lu embodies the right kind of motherly instincts, even when they're slightly misplaced and haphazardly practiced. And then there's that cha cha she dances: affectionately, and without irony or affect -- just like the film itself. -Chi Tung
Seema Biswas started her career in theater, but managed to become an international sensation with her debut in 1994's Bandit Queen by giving a searing performance as the outlaw turned politician Phoolan Devi. Then, adding to an already solid body of work she won accolades this last year (and a Genie Award for Best Actress) for her work in Deepa Mehta's Water. Despite the luminous beauty of her costars, Biswas was the true heart of the film in a brave performance as a devout widow questioning her beliefs. -Jennifer Flinn
Date Posted: 1/12/2007