Monday, January 20, 2014

Lisa Lu: An Authentically Asian Actress

While I was growing up, I used to be intrigued by Nancy Kwan and France Nuyen because, being an American of Chinese descent, I thought that it was cool that two Asian actresses during the 1960s, a decade I was intrigued by, found success working in Hollywood.  I enjoyed some of their movies and felt pleased that their success reflected how people of Asian background could indeed make headway in show business in the Western world.  However, as I've gotten older, I have become less and less intrigued by Kwan and Nuyen and more and more irritated and annoyed with them.  I think they found success in Hollywood because they represented what Hollywood felt Western cultures would consider acceptable and accessible about Asians, as I now realize that their screen images and off-screen personalities weren't necessarily representative of most Asians that I have known throughout my life.  It was not endearing to read interviews only to learn that Nuyen, whose mother was French and whose father was Vietnamese, really sees herself more as a French woman (which she herself told me in-person when I once met her), because she was born and raised in France and seems uninterested in her Asian heritage (even though she's made a living as an actress based on it).  Meanwhile Kwan, whose mother was English and whose father was Chinese and spent much of her childhood in English boarding schools, self-consciously sells herself as a representative of Chinese or Asian culture (remember her "Pearl Cream" TV ads?), even though most people I knew who paid more attention to Chinese-language films, than Hollywood films, really aren't that familiar with Kwan because she never made that much of an impact in the Chinese-language film industry.  In my humble opinion, both Nuyen and Kwan are more accurately described as Hollywood starlets who helped perpetuate Asian stereotypes than actresses who are truly representative of Asian culture or cinema.

The irony is that the one actress who found success in Hollywood, but who also has built a significant career for herself in Asian cinema and has been involved in other notable cultural activities, is someone I grew up personally knowing.  I think of her more as a family friend than as the accomplished actress that she is, and that's Lisa Lu, or "Lu Yan"/盧燕, as my father, and other Chinese language speakers, called her.  My late father was a Chinese Opera Musician, who passed away from lung cancer in November 2012, and he was friends with Lisa Lu and collaborated with her frequently on various Chinese Opera productions based in Los Angeles.  I often saw her while I was growing up as a child and remember visiting her home several times when I was very young.  (She was always very decent to my family, and I'll always appreciate how she attended my father's funeral at the last minute, even though she had just returned to the States right after traveling abroad, and helped me to understand that the reason why my father could sometimes be a tough man to deal with is because he had to fight and work hard to give his family better opportunities and to ensure that the respect remained the same from people he dealt with professionally.)  I vaguely knew that she had worked in films and television, but I thought of her more as my father's friend and colleague than as a movie actress.  I didn't realize as a child how extensive her career truly is.  It's only been later in life, as a grown up adult, that I've been able to discover Lisa Lu's significant accomplishments in films and TV that I realized how underrated her career is, and how her work as an actress was really more representative of Chinese and Asian culture than the roles of Nuyen or Kwan, who mainly played in English-language productions playing attractive, decorative roles meant to pander to Western impressions of what they expect Asian women to be like.  Don't misunderstand me: I realize that there are many Asian actresses successfully working in China, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, but few of them have managed to maintain careers on both sides of the Pacific the way Lisa Lu has.  I think this has to do with the fact that, no matter her Hollywood pedigree, filmmakers and directors in Asia still think of her as a viable actress who understands and accurately represents their culture and perspective. 

I think this is due to the fact that Lisa Lu had a more traditional Asian upbringing than either Nuyen or Kwan, whose upbringings were, as described earlier, comparatively more Westernized.  Lu was born and raised in China, studied Chinese opera when she was young because her mother (who was also a great mentor to my father and his career) was a renowned Chinese Opera performer, and emigrated to the United States in the 1950s when she was in her 20s.  She studied banking at the University of Hawaii and, as I understand it, even worked for a period of time as a Mandarin Chinese language instructor for U.S. military personnel, as she began formulating a strategy to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress.  She worked frequently in Hollywood guest-starring on various television programs, as well as playing the leads in a few feature films, most notably the World War II drama "The Mountain Road" (1960) opposite James Stewart.  She and Stewart had great chemistry together in that film, and it should have led to more leading roles in feature films during the 1960s.  Throughout this whole period, Lu got married and raised a family and I recall how my father liked and respected her husband very much.  But she found opportunities to make headway in the industry few and far between, as most of the leading Asian female roles in the 1960s in Hollywood, or English language, productions were being confiscated by the aforementioned France Nuyen and Nancy Kwan.  As such, starting in the late 1960s, Lu started branching out and appearing in Chinese language productions shot in either Hong Kong or Taiwan in order to demonstrate what she was truly capable of as an actress.  In so doing, even though she still faced challenges to continue working due to the dearth of good parts for Asian actresses, she broadened her career by creating opportunities for herself on both sides of the Pacific--in both Asia and Hollywood--that have helped her to continue working in more recent decades as Nuyen and Kwan sat back and appeared at autograph conventions and began drawing their pensions.

The first of these Chinese language films was "The Arch"/"董夫人" (1970) directed by Cecile Tang Shu Shuen.  Lisa Lu played Madame Tung, a wealthy widow and schoolteacher in 17th Century China during the Qing Dynasty who is about to have an Arch at the entrance of her village erected by the emperor in honor of her good deeds and her continued loyalty to her late husband.  Her life is turned upside down when she is asked to house a young military officer at her home who is assigned to her village to protect the crops from bandits, and finds herself more and more attracted to him, just as her daughter is attracted to him as well.  Madame Tung is challenged as she wrestles with her own romantic longings and desires for the young officer while she attempts to live up to her public image as plans continue to proceed to erect the Arch in the village in her honor.  Madame Tung is forced to abide by tradition to forego her own personal happiness in order to save face for herself and her family.

A languid, lyrical, low-key art film, "The Arch" allows Lisa Lu an opportunity to play a role requiring nuance and complexity that she was never able to in Hollywood.  Madame Tung is a good and decent woman deserving of romance and happiness in her life, but whose opportunities for it are constrained by societal expectations imposed upon her.  She longs to be with the handsome young military officer, particularly since he reciprocates her feelings, but decides to save face and avoid scandal by arranging instead to marry her daughter off to the officer when she expresses romantic interest in him as well.  Lu plays Madame Tung in a restrained, dignified manner that belies the passion she actively restrains from expressing.  She silently conveys Madame Tung's feelings with expressive eyes that show her longing and loneliness more effectively than high-pitched emotions and pages and pages of dialogue.  At the end of the film, as the village surrounds Madame Tung and celebrates the erection of the Arch, by lighting firecrackers in honor of the occasion, you sense the personal sacrifice and emotional loss that Madame Tung feels at what should have been her moment of greatest triumph.  She has given up the man she loves and, as she is surrounded by people honoring her, is more alone than ever.  Lu's moving performance won her her first Golden Horse Award in Taiwan for Best Actress. 

Lisa Lu's next great Chinese language film role was in the epic Shaw Brothers production "The 14 Amazons"/"十四女英豪" (1972).  She played Great Grandmother She Tai Chuan, the matriarch of the fabled Yang family, who must lead their female members into battle against an invasion by Northern Hsia Mongols after all the male members of the family have been killed while in action.  With limited resources, without benefit of reinforcements from the government, and with political corruption hindering her efforts, She Tai Chuan, her female family members, and loyal male volunteers, eventually mount an effective strategy and utilize whatever means and tactics are necessary to defend their country and drive out the Hsias.  A large-scale, big-budget, wide-screen color spectacular, "The 14 Amazons," provides fine entertainment and allows Lisa Lu to play the sort of assertive, heroic role that actresses of Asian descent such as herself were rarely given in Hollywood up to that time.  Because of the advanced, elderly age of her character, She Tai Chuan is not as active in the large-scale battle scenes as her younger family members.  Nevertheless, there's no question that Lu's character is the one in-charge, making strategic decisions and crossing verbal swords at numerous occasions with the opposition.

If Lu's eyes were notable in "The Arch," what's notable about her performance in this film is how calm and controlled she has modulated her normally gentle speaking voice into being.  As a trained and accomplished Chinese Opera singer, Lu deepens her speaking voice in "The 14 Amazons" to give She Tai Chuan gravitas, authority, and leadership qualities so that she can effectively command her troops.  I particularly like the scenes where Lu's character has to confront the traitorous government Minister who betrayed her, her family and her country by agreeing to allow the Hsia invaders in.  As her character verbally chastises the cowardly Minister, and reminds him of the contribution and sacrifice her family has made to their country, Lu is as heroic and cutting as her younger compatriots are throughout the film's many excitingly staged action scenes.  Also great is the scene where her character threatens to publicly cane and humiliate the very same minister for, not only betraying their country to the Hsias, but also for refusing to order government reinforcements to help the Yangs defeat the Hsias.  Lu projects the right air of rage and righteous anger throughout these sequences, and deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress award at Taiwan's Golden Horse Award that year.

Lisa Lu continued her Chinese language cinema winning streak when she played the title role in "The Empress Dowager"/傾國傾城 (1975), another Shaw Brothers produced Hong Kong widescreen and color historical epic.  The film dramatized the political intrigue surrounding the Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi, who presided over the Qing Dynasty throughout most of the 19th, and into 20th Century, China.  The main thrust of the film concerned the internal power struggles the Empress Dowager has with her nephew, Emperor Kuang Hsu, for control of the country.  In contrast to her previous Chinese language films, Lu plays a much less sympathetic character in this film than she normally does.  Lu plays the Empress Dowager as ruthless, cold and calculating, with a decisively cruel streak that is positively chilling.  As with "The 14 Amazons," Lu modulates her usually warm and humane speaking voice but this time she develops it into a haltingly cold and precise, sharp and clipped, delivery that underscores the extent to which her character is completely in charge of those around her and rules the country with an iron fist.  As such the other characters in the film are both frightened and respectful of her.

What I like about Lisa Lu's interpretation of this character is the rigid precision with which she embodies the Empress Dowager.  She rarely walks in the film, but when she does it's in a proud and erect manner, and when seated she presides over her followers with a steely confidence and self-assuredness that allows viewers to quickly grasp that this is not a woman to be messed with.  I particularly like the breathtaking sequence early on in the film where the Empress Dowager is being carefully, and methodically, groomed and dressed for the day by all of her followers.  Throughout that sequence, it becomes apparent that nothing the Empress Dowager does, even getting dressed, is done casually and without forethought and consideration.  Lu's eyes, which normally project kindness and vulnerability, have hardened into an intense, cold gaze that look as if it can pierce into the heart and soul of those standing before her.  Lu brings an acerbic wit to the character to further emphasize how she's not someone who suffers fools gladly, but she seems to know just how far to take the character without allowing her to turn into something campy or broad.  Lisa Lu's obvious respect for the Empress Dowager helps to ensure that she never turns into a joke in the course of the story.  She again won another Golden Horse Award in Taiwan for her performance in "The Empress Dowager" as Best Actress. 

The saga of the Empress Dowager continued the next year when Lisa Lu reprised her role in the Shaw Brothers' equally impressive sequel, "The Last Tempest"/"瀛台泣血" (1976).  In "The Last Tempest," the struggle for power between the Empress Dowager and the young Emperor Kuang Hsu escalates to new heights as he attempts to implement progressive reforms throughout the country and thwart her power and influence.  In so doing, Emperor Kuang Hsu's efforts are unsuccessful and lead to severe consequences for himself and those closest to him that he cares about.  Lu is still as impressive as ever in this sequel, even though her screen time is comparatively more limited than it appeared to be in the earlier film.  Nevertheless, she makes us understand and even, at times, admire and like the character even as she demonstrates little patience or understanding of those around her, particularly the naive and idealistic Emperor Kuang Hsu.  My favorite scene in the movie occurs early on when, during an exhibition of the newly painted official portrait of the Empress Dowager, several naive western visitors from the United Kingdom thoughtlessly sit in the Empress's throne just as she enters the imperial courtyard with her entourage.  Lisa Lu effectively projects the quietly seething rage and sense of indignancy at the thoughtless disrespect for her title and authority being shown by her visitors.

Lu plays the scene with the Empress Dowager smiling warmly as she arrives on the scene, and then projects a frightening slow burn as her smile eventually turns into a frown demonstrating her rage when she realizes that the arrogant and entitled Englishwomen have condescended to her title and authority with their actions.  I love the fact that Lu's Empress Dowager smirks with disdain and indignation at the act, and then shows mercy to the stupid young women by not ordering them to be punished and executed, as she enters and has a whole courtyard of English people bowing before her--the older Asian woman--out of respect instead of it being the other way around as it would be in so many Hollywood movies.  The sequence ends with all of the western visitors from the United Kingdom surrounding her as she sits proudly atop her throne for the honor of having their picture taken with her.  That last moment perfectly sums up why it's so satisfying to see Lisa Lu in these Chinese language movies after years of toiling in thankless parts in Hollywood movies and TV shows.  For once, she's the whole show and she isn't playing second fiddle to anyone (the way Nancy Kwan and France Nuyen often played the "submissive Asian female" falling for William Holden or John Kerr or Laurence Harvey or Pat Boone or Rod Taylor in their movies).

But I don't want to give the impression that Lisa Lu's career is just limited to acting in period costume dramas made 40 years ago.  She continues to be a viable character actress in both Hollywood and Asian films.  A few years ago, she had a good featured role in the big budget Hollywood disaster epic "2012" (2009), playing an elderly Tibetan woman who is trying to survive a worldwide geological and meteorological natural disaster, and helps save the lives of John Cusack and his family.  She brought an earthy gravitas and presence to the movie so that her character didn't descend into typical silly stereotypes.  She also appeared in Sofia Coppola's film "Somewhere" (2010), co-starred in a lavish Chinese language production of "Dangerous Liaisons" (2012), and recently enjoyed a recurring role on the daytime soap "General Hospital."  In the recent "Apart Together"/"团圆" (2010), Lu played a contemporary elderly Chinese woman whose husband left her behind while she was pregnant in China in 1949 and fled to Taiwan when the Communists took over.  Her life is torn asunder when her first husband, who she still deeply loves, returns one day and wants to take her back with him to Taiwan.  Lu effectively conveys how age makes no difference where love is concerned and how one can still feel as deeply and hopefully and passionately for their first love as they did when they were young.  There's a touching vulnerability and humanity in Lu's performance that resonates throughout the movie.  She's a woman who has been deeply hurt, and who continues to hurt as her family pulls her in different directions and make it difficult for her to decide what would be best for her own happiness.  Lu is very believable wrestling with feelings of familial obligation and personal hope and desire.  What resonates the most with me about her performance is the look of sadness and resignation in her eyes throughout the movie.  She knows happiness is within reach, but is both afraid and constrained to be able to reach out and grab it.  It's an incredibly good part that any actress--no matter what age, ethnicity or nationality--would have been fortunate to have landed.

Throughout Lisa Lu's career, she has continued appearing frequently in Chinese Opera productions, often ones that my father provided musical accompaniment to, and theater roles.  If there might be gaps in her IMDB page, it should not suggest that she was inactive during those periods in between movie or TV roles.  She was always working on something, whether it was producing a documentary or appearing in a Chinese language television miniseries or soap opera that isn't listed on IMDB.  For example, in 2012, she appeared as Lady Bracknell in a Chinese language stage production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the National Theater in Taiwan.  These days, she continues to have tributes paid to her on Chinese and Taiwanese television as a legendary actress who helped pave the way for other Asian actress to find success and visibility in the Western world.  Even though there's no doubt that Lisa Lu is a proud and civic minded American, what makes her unique is how she stays in touch with her Chinese and Asian cultural heritage.  It is the reason why, I think, she continues to work as an actress while her former competitors languish in obscurity.  Now that casting directors are comparatively more precise and a little bit more conscientious about hiring actors who embody the culture in a much more genuine and legitimate manner, the work of Nancy Kwan and France Nuyen look more and more artificial and laughable through the years.  In contrast, Lisa Lu's performances have always seemed heartfelt, vibrant and realistic in terms of portraying real Asian women, with genuine and authentic feelings and emotions, instead of perpetuating stereotypes as was the norm in Nuyen's or Kwan's performances.  I've never seen a performance by Nuyen or Kwan that reflected the kinds of Asian women I grew up knowing, and have known, all my life.  I completely acknowledge that Lisa Lu has, at times, played roles in Hollywood productions that could be considered stereotypical, but I always sensed that she tried to bring some depth, nuance, or intelligence to those performances to allow them to rise above stereotypes that Kwan or Nuyen often failed to do.  For example, I recall an interview with Lu where she described her efforts to make suggestions to director Daniel Mann during the making of "The Mountain Road" on how he could bring subtle nuances to the Asian roles to make them more believable, only to have them fall on deaf ears.  To me, it demonstrates how conscientious she was about trying to get it right.  (I know it sounds like I am being overly critical of France Nuyen and Nancy Kwan, but I have become more and more impatient and fed up of hearing about how influential they supposedly were as Asian actresses in Hollywood, when I don't think they really were.)  In my humble opinion, having grown up in the Asian culture, Nuyen and Kwan played what Westerners believe Asians to be, while Lisa Lu continues to play them as they truly are. 


  1. Thanks for the informative article on a cinematic subject about which I knew nothing. I do not know any of the three actresses, but I think you are correct that the difference in their mental/genealogical frameworks is that the first two grew up "Westernized" by home and education and culture of the places they lived. Lu clearly benefited from a life in which she had much greater immersion into Chinese culture and life. Nuyen and Kwan appear to have acted as they were directed, no less so than did Lu. I suspect it was difficult to get parts in Hollywood for them, as there was not a great demand for Asian actresses at the time. Like any good artisan who has a family support and a profession to pursue, they took what they could get, even if they had to humble themselves to get it. I suppose the real "bad guy" in this story is a Hollywood that put forth a lie about what an Asian was supposed to be like. In this respect, Hollywood is often the bad guy in this respect, stereotyping and generalizing and caricaturing for the sake of making a movie work for the ultimate goal of profits.

  2. I agree with what anonymous said. Thanks for bringing so much background to a part of Asian cinema I was just about wholly ignorant about.

  3. Thank you for a very informative article on Lisa Lu. I agree that she is a very gifted actress and looks fabulous and elegant at 92 years old! Great role model for younger actresses and for Asian women in general. Laurine

  4. Came upon your page while researching Lisa Lu and was very pleased to find it! I love this lady and am eager to see more of her than the Joy Luck Club (even though it's a top favorite of mine). I want to mention I just watched her and Jimmy Stewart in The Mountain Road, and was amazed to see her! I love the dichotomy of the characters: the Chinese widow of a general, educated in the US,feeling the pain of her people and trying so hard to get the hard-headed American soldier to understand something of the drama going on around them, trying to hold him back from being to hasty to judge. Really, if you haven't seen it, you should check it out on YouTube. I'm a China lover from way back (lived in Beijing too, for 3 years, teaching), and am always seeking out good movies with Chinese themes, actors, stories. If you would like to chat about Chinese movies and actors you can find me under Cheryl Solis on Facebook or on my FB page Angel Illuminations Studio.

  5. Came upon your page while researching Lisa Lu and was very pleased to find it! I love this lady and am eager to see more of her than the Joy Luck Club (even though it's a top favorite of mine). I want to mention I just watched her and Jimmy Stewart in The Mountain Road, and was amazed to see her! I love the dichotomy of the characters: the Chinese widow of a general, educated in the US,feeling the pain of her people and trying so hard to get the hard-headed American soldier to understand something of the drama going on around them, trying to hold him back from being to hasty to judge. Really, if you haven't seen it, you should check it out on YouTube. I'm a China lover from way back (lived in Beijing too, for 3 years, teaching), and am always seeking out good movies with Chinese themes, actors, stories. If you would like to chat about Chinese movies and actors you can find me under Cheryl Solis on Facebook or on my FB page Angel Illuminations Studio.


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