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Friday, June 6, 2008

James Hong becomes even more cartoon-like (but in a good way)

James Hong may be the most famous Asian face you've never heard of. You may remember him as Wong in last year's Balls of Fury, or as Chen in the TV series "The Big Bang Theory," doing the usual stereotypical Asian role that is being examined this month on Turner Classic Movie's "Race and Hollywood: Asian Images in Hollywood." He's also had small roles in some of the great films of his generation, including Mr. Chew in Blade Runner, the butler Kahn in Chinatown, Victor Shu in The Sand Pebbles, and the Japanese general in Airplane!.

You won't see Hong in his latest role, as Ping, the father of Po (voiced by Jack Black) in Kung Fu Panda, which opens today and was reviewed by Curt Holman in this week's issue.

I love James Hong, partly because I love character actors (it's a TV Guide thing; I'll explain it someday) but also because you can see in his countless performances someone who knows exactly what he's being called on to do but often tries to pull back just enough to (hopefully) prevent his often stock Asian characters from slipping too far down into the minstrel level. (Check out his performance as the Chinese ambassador in two "West Wing" episodes in 2002 and see him work from a more serious dramatic context.) There's a certain level of dignity he brings to every performance. The funny thing is, Hong was born in Minneapolis. According to his IMDB profile, the man who got beat out by George Takei for Sulu in "Star Trek" is a founding member and chairman of Asian Pacific American Artists.

Here's what Curt had to say about Ping in Kung Fu Panda: "Hong’s character is a goose who is Po/Jack Black’s father (adopted, presumably, even though they never actually explain that) and can’t imagine that Po would aspire to anything beyond cooking noodles. It’s a gently comedic performance that’s fairly appealing."

Here's a tribute video of Hong talking a little bit about his career …

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