LOS ANGELES — A red carpet premiere and a party with a matching red cake — not a bad way to celebrate one’s 94th birthday. But spend a few minutes with legendary actor James Hong, and it’s clear he is still very young at heart. Posing for photographers before a private screening of his latest film, “Patsy Lee and the Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms,” he struck karate poses, danced with co-stars and even stuck out his tongue.
When he’s not hamming it up for cameras, Hong has packed a lot of life and work into his many decades, and now he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves.
“Thank you,” he said humbly as the audience at the screening gave him an ovation. “Oh, you’re standing up.”
There’s the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which he finally received last year. He also appears in the film “Everything Everywhere All at Once” which is nominated for a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. If they win, he will be the oldest film actor ever to receive a SAG Award. And he definitely would like to win.
“I’ve been a SAG member for almost 70 years. Can you believe that? And I have never won any big awards. So this is the first chance,” he said before throwing in a campaign plug. “So if you are a SAG voter, please vote for me.”
“Patsy Lee and the Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms” does not yet have a release date, but what it has is a bona fide movie star in Hong, who director Zack Ward points out is once again breaking new ground. He introduced him after the film as “the first 94-year-old Asian leading man action hero in Hollywood history.”
Ward also wrote the film and says he consulted with Hong throughout the process in order to achieve a certain level of authenticity.
“James was constantly contributing ideas on different parts of Chinese mythology, and his own loves of Chinese opera… so that we can integrate that into the script,” he explained. “Not only did we talk to James about historical references and experiences in his life, we actually talked to a professor of anthropology at UCLA and USC so that we could understand the Chinese mythology better so we can represent it properly.”
The film features a largely Asian cast with some familiar faces and some newcomers as well. George Takei voiced one of the character. So did actor Gedde Watanabe, which is perhaps best known for his work in “Sixteen Candles” and on “ER.” In addition to film and TV, he has appeared many times on the stage of East West Players, the nation’s premiere Asian theatre company that James Hong co-founded in the 1965.
“So he’s just brilliant, and I adore him. He’s just a mentor,” Watanabe said. “He has represented so many wonderful things in our business and also the struggles and also the gains, and also the generation and also the respect.”
Actress Ming-Na Wen, who came to the premiere to support Hong, agreed.
“James Hong has been there for every single moment that is part of the push for Asians in cinema,” she recalled. “Whether it was with me and Mulan… he’s been there and he’s paved the way and he continues to pave the way.”
Sharing the red carpet and the screen with Hong is newcomer Michelle Mao, who plays his granddaughter in the film. She referred to the actor as a living legend and credits him with being a trailblazer on a path she hopes to follow.
“He was the one busting down the doors,” Mao said. “And I think he had to go through a lot of, you know, not so happy situations to do that for us. And because he was there, we’re now able to have all of these exciting stories being told, these exciting characters.
She feels there’s a certain solidarity right now among Asian Americans in the industry and considers herself blessed to be a part of what she sees as a rising tide of representation.
Watanabe recognizes the moment as well and hopes it proves to have staying power.
“I hope it just doesn’t die down, that we remain, you know, resilient and vibrant and important,” he said.
Most 94-year-olds are long retired, but not James Hong. The actor, known for his work on films like “Big Trouble in Little China” and “Blade Runner,” is still working, getting ready for “Kung Fu Panda 4.” Watanabe marveled at his energy, saying, “When I’m 90-something, I hope I have that same kind of je ne sais quoi.”
“He has the energy of a teenager,” Wen laughed. “Bless him. I want to take whatever he’s taking.”
As for why he keeps going, Hong shifts into his trademark humor.
“I shall retire in my grave,” he said matter-of-factly before leaning villainously toward the camera, his fingers tapping as he plotted. “As long as I can look into the eyes… yes, I see it coming… more movies for me… yes!”
It’s a birthday wish friends and fans would love to see come true.