Asia’s 25 greatest actors of all time

Asia’s 25 greatest actors of all time

As the Oscars approach, CNNGo celebrates the top Asian legends of the silver screen

In the history of the Academy Awards (airing on March 7th), only two Asians have ever taken home a Best Actor or Actress statue (we don't count Ben Kingsley as true Asian). Yet Asia has produced incredibly talented thespians that have changed the course of their nation’s cinematic history. In anticipation of Oscar night, CNNGo created our incredibly biased, gratuitously geared towards the amazingly attractive, list of 25 artists we think rule Asia's silver screens. We're not experts, by any means, so we welcome and encourage your feedback. Roll the credits…

Zhou XunChina: Zhou Xun

The seductive Zhou Xun is arguably the most adept of China’s “Four Young Dan actresses.” She’s certainly the most dedicated: Xun confessed to CNN that she showed up on the set of “The Message” intoxicated, in order to get into the mind of her hard-drinking character. Her accolades include multiple Best Actress awards for “The Equation of Love and Death” and “Perhaps Love.”

Best Role: In “Suzhou River,” a 2000 film noir directed by Lou Ye, Xun enthralled audiences as the femme fatale star of a mermaid show.




Gong LiChina: Gong Li

Art house darling Gong Li is both muse and star in Zhang Yimou’s most celebrated films. She made a memorable debut in 1987’s “Red Sorghum,” following up with “Raise the Red Lantern” and “The Story of Qiu Ju.” These roles established her, according to Asiaweek, as “one of the world’s most glamorous movie stars and an elegant throwback to Hollywood’s golden era.”

Best Role: Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” was the first Chinese film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1992. Premiere Magazine ranked Li’s headstrong courtesan the 89th greatest performance of all time.




Ruan LingyuChina: Ruan Lingyu

One cannot speak of China’s golden era of silent cinema without mentioning Ruan Lingyu. She starred in 29 films between 1926 and 1935, playing women struggling with love, work and modern city survival. When the pressures of public life led to her suicide at the age of 24, 300,000 devastated fans followed her coffin through the streets of Shanghai.

Best Role: Lingyu’s “The Goddess” (1934), in which she plays a devoted mother driven into prostitution, is considered the pinnacle of Chinese silent film.




Leslie CheungHong Kong: Leslie Cheung

Leslie Cheung was the leading man of the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, starring in a flush of hit movies that are now considered modern Hong Kong classics. He received international acclaim for his heartfelt turns in “Farewell My Concubine” and three Wong Kar-Wai films. In 2005, he was voted “Most Favorite Actor in 100 Years of Chinese Cinema.”

Best Role: Cheung’s role as an idealistic young cop in John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow” (1986) was widely considered his debut as a serious actor.




Josephine SiaoHong Kong: Josephine Siao

Josephine Siao burst into the spotlight as a teen idol, playing vengeful heroines in 1960s 'wusia' films. She successfully transitioned to adult roles, then poured her soul into education and charities. Today, Siao is one of the most-loved and prolific members of the Hong Kong film community.

Best Role: In the dramatic comedy “Summer Snow” (1995), Siao is a mother struggling to care for her Alzhiemer’s-ridden father-in-law. The movie took home four Golden Horse Awards and the Silver Berlin Bear.




Tony Leung Chiu-WaiHong Kong: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai

Tony Leung is called 'Asia’s answer to Clark Gable' and the finest Hong Kong actor of his generation. His collaborations with director Wong Kar-wai include “Chungking Express,” “Happy Together” and “In the Mood for Love.” The quiet, emotional intensity of his craft has earned him three Best Actor statues at the Golden Horse Awards.

Best Role: Leung took home Best Actor at Cannes for 2000’s “In the Mood for Love.” His performance as a betrayed spouse who falls into a complex relationship with his neighbor still haunts viewers.




Toshiro MifuneJapan: Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune’s raw charisma elevated Akira Kurosawa’s films from the 1950s and 60s into masterpieces. The director described Mifune’s talent as matchless. “He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.” 

Best Role: Mifune is best known for playing a temperamental ronin in “The Seven Samurai.” But I adore his turn as the bandit Tajomaru in “Rashomon,” bound by rope and gleefully stamping his feet as he spins his tale of the murder.




Tomisaburo WakayamaJapan: Tomisaburo Wakayama

Tomisaburo Wakayama descended from a family of Kabuki performers and is the brother of actor Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi.) He reached iconic status as Ogami Itto, the scowling, disgraced samurai who pushes his son Daigoro around in a cart as he enacts bloody vengeance. Wakayama’s “Lone Wolf and Cub” series epitomizes the flash and violence of 1970s cult cinema.

Best Role: The second film of the series, “Baby Cart at the River Styx” (1972) is my favorite. Female ninjas! Basket-headed assassins! A showdown in the sand dunes!




Takeshi KitanoJapan: Takeshi Kitano

A Renaissance man, Takeshi Kitano has written, directed, edited or starred in almost a film per year since the late 1980s. His roles in “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence,” “Fireworks” and “Hana-bi” made his name in the global art cinema circuit. The Guardian put it best: “Prolific and diverse, he is the epitome of the modern Japanese spirit -- tough, urban, media-savvy, violent, poker-faced yet oddly sentimental.” 

Best Role: Kitano was flawless as the head instructor of the teenage kill program in “Battle Royale” (2000).




Guru DuttIndia: Guru Dutt

He’s frequently compared to Orson Welles for directing and starring in films that ushered in a golden era of Hindi cinema. Because of his soulful acting, Guru Dutt’s “Pyaasa” and “Kaagaz Ke Phool” are now included among the greatest Indian films of all time.

Best Role: Dutt produced, directed and starred in Pyaasa (1957), a story of a struggling poet in post-independence India.






Amitabh BachchanIndia: Amitabh Bachchan

Amitabh Bachchan’s deep voice and broodiness immortalized him as the “angry young man” of 1970s Bollywood. Although films such as “Sholay” made him an action hero, he also successfully played comic and romantic leads.

Best Role: Bachchan’s role as Inspector Khanna in “Zanjeer” (1973) cemented his image as a dark and deep character, triggered to explode.





PranIndia: Pran

Pran is the pre-eminent villain of Hindi cinema, appearing in over 350 films (typically listed last in the opening credits as “…and Pran.”) He was equally at ease playing a powerful lord or an impoverished villager. So great is his notoriety as a villain that some Indian parents dare not name their sons Pran.

Best Role: “Upkaar Upkaar” (1967) demonstrated Pran’s versatility and earned him a Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award. He surprised audiences by playing a good Samaritan and singing the chart-topping “Rishte naate pyar wafaa sab.”




NagrisIndia: Nargis

From the 1940s to 1960s, the beautiful Nargis starred in many commercially successful as well as critically acclaimed films. Because of her versatility and natural expression, she is regarded as one of the greatest actresses in the history of Hindi cinema.

Best Role: Nargis stole the show in the Oscar-nominated “Mother India” (1957), known as the Indian “Gone with the Wind.” She plays a strong-willed woman, Radha, who survives tragedy after tragedy.





Meena KumariIndia: Meena Kumari

Meena Kumari is famous for playing grief-stricken parts that mirrored the sufferings in her private life. Dubbed “The Tragedy Queen,” Kumari starred in more than 90 films in a career that spanned from 1939 to her premature death by cirrhosis in 1972. Many of her works, such as “Baiju Bawra” and “Parineeta,” are considered classics today.

Best Role: Kumari’s troubles in “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam” (1962) were eerily similar to her own: alcoholism, destructive relationships, the yearning to be understood.




Mohammad AliPakistan: Mohammad Ali

Mohammad Ali is immortalized as “The Emperor of Emotions” and Pakistan’s greatest actor, starring in over 300 movies with prominent actors such as Shamim Ara. He played heroes and villains with equal ease, delivering passionate yet naturalistic performances.

Best Role: Ali was confined to villain roles until “Shararat” (1964), in which he played a hero. The movie was a hit and opened him up to playing diverse characters.





Zeba AliPakistan: Zeba

Zeba was married to Mohammad Ali and is one of the most celebrated Pakistani actresses. Her beauty and passion shone on the screen, and her skills as an actress grew more eloquent over time.

Best Role: Zeba’s performance in “Armaan” (1966) is cited as one of her best. It was the first Urdu film to play for 75 weeks in Pakistan’s cinemas, earning the status of Platinum Jubilee.





Malini FonsekaSri Lanka: Malini Fonseka

The Queen of Sinhalese cinema had a diverse career that spanned many decades, beginning with her moving performance in 1968’s “Punchi Baba.” Malini Fonseka was the first Sri Lankan actress to reach international heights, winning awards at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1975 and New Delhi Film Festival in 1977.

Best Role: “Nidhanaya” (1972) is known as one of the best works in Sri Lanka’s cinematic history. Fonseka memorably played a guileless lady who meets a man and stumbles into tragedy.




Ahn Sung-kiKorea: Ahn Sung-ki

Ever since his blazing debut as a child actor in the early 1960s, Ah Sung-ki’s nuanced, natural style has won respect from audiences and critics alike. Known as the National Best Actor, he starred in some of Korea’s biggest artistic and commercial triumphs of the 1980s.

Best Role: Sung-ki gained significant notice for his role as a working-class young man in Lee Jang-ho’s “Fine Windy Day” (1980). He was rewarded with a Grand New Bell award for Best New Actor.




Shim Eun-haKorea: Shim Eun-ha

Shim Eun-ha became the most talked-about actress in Korea after her splash start in a 1994 basketball-themed TV drama. In the late 1990s, she topped every poll for Korea’s most popular actress. Her mystique only grew stronger after she gave up acting in 2002 and took up painting in France.

Best Role: Eun-ha’s subtle acting made a profound impact in the romantic tragedy, “Christmas in August” (1998). The film had over 400,000 screenings in Seoul and is often used as an example in Asian film classes.




Ng Chin HanSingapore: Ng Chin Han

For over 20 years, Ng Chin Han has delighted audiences with his theatrical, film and TV performances. He is one of Singapore’s first actors to break into Hollywood, with appearances in “ 3 Needles,” “The Dark Knight” and Roland Emmerich’s “2012.” 

Best Role: Han was the suave, silver-tonged Hong Kong mogul in the most recent Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” opposite Christian Bale and Heath Ledger.





Fann WongSingapore: Fann Wong

Fann Wong is a triple threat -- actress, singer, model -- and one of the first Singaporean stars to have a role in a major Hollywood picture. Her career got an international boost when she appeared alongside Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson in “Shanghai Knights.”

Best Role: Wong’s role as a wayward teenager in “The Truth About Jane and Sam” (1999) introduced her to a wide slate of moviegoers and won her a nomination for Best New Performer at the Hong Kong Film Awards.




Petchara ChaowaratThailand: Petchara Chaowarat

The first lady of Thai cinema, Petchara Chaowarat is lovingly recognized by audiences by her sparkling “puppy dog eyes” and elaborate up-dos. She starred in around 300 films from 1961 to 1979, and won a Best Actress statue at the 1964 Thailand National Film Awards.

Best Role: One of Chaowarat’s most popular films was “Monrak luk thung” (1970), a musical romance where she played a wealthy woman in love with a rural man.




Mitr ChaibanchaThailand: Mitr Chaibancha

Mitr Chaibancha’s dazzling smile shines over Thai cinema. He churned out 266 films between 1956 and 1970. Today, fans still visit the shrine erected on the spot where he was killed during the filming of “Insee Thong.

Best Role: One of Chaibancha’s best-known movies, “Pet Tad Pet (Operation Bangkok)” (1967), was a top quality collaboration between Bangkok and Hong Kong studios.





P. RamleeMalaysia: P. Ramlee

Malaysia’s most beloved entertainer is hands down P. Ramlee. In the 1950s and 60s, he pushed the local cinema to new heights as an actor and director. His works have not lost their power: Ramlee’s films still play constantly on Malaysian TV and make viewers laugh.

Best Role: Ramlee directed and acted in “Ali Baba Bujang Lapok” (1960), a rip-roaring Malay spin on the tale of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.





Kong Som EurnCambodia: Kong Som Eurn

Kong Som Eurn is the unrivaled icon of Cambodian cinema. The handsome actor’s filmography reads like a list of Khmer greatest hits: “Orn Ery Srey Orn,” “Muy Mern Arlai (Missing You 10,000 Times),” “Pail Dael Trov Yom (The Time to Cry).” He starred in more than half of all the local films made between 1967 and 1975.

Best Role: “Orn Euy Srey Orn” (1972) is a well-loved melodrama. Eurn stands out as a sympathetic farmer who struggles to marry his beloved while a rich man plots to steal her.





So, that's the 25 we have assembled. Who did we miss? Let us know below....

La Carmina writes about Harajuku pop culture and all things spooky-cute. She is the author of three books about Japanese pop culture and food, including "Cute Yummy Time" and "Crazy Wacky Theme Restaurants: Tokyo" -- for which she did all the photos and illustrations. Both books were released in October, accompanied by a U.S. major city book tour.

For more, please visit her website.

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