Asian Adversaries – Five Female Baddies in Film We Love to Hate
Rooting for the hero is straightforward and a natural tendency, but sometimes we find ourselves compelled to appreciate antagonists despite their villainy. What makes a good antagonist? Is it a tragic backstory accounting for their bitterness, or plain and simple cold-heartedness? This can be a considerably lengthy debate, but nevertheless, powerful villains are those that are able to get you to listen, and to recognise their motives. Here are five female characters whose antagonism keeps you on your toes and leaves you wanting to see more of their exploits, in no particular order.
O-Ren Ishii (Kill Bill, 2003)
O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) from Kill Bill is definitely a character we cannot help but feel hostile toward. Witnessing her family’s execution at a young age washed away every last trace of innocence and empathy she had. Powered by rage and vengeance, O-Ren eventually becomes the leader of the Tokyo Underworld.
We love her ruthlessness, and motivation to finish whatever she set herself up to do. She gets the job done no matter how brutal, and is loyal to her own. With cold-heartedness as one of her strongest weapons, O-Ren Ishii proves herself as an iconic and formidable adversary to the Bride.
Eleanor Young (Crazy Rich Asians, 2018)
Crazy Rich Asian’s Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeo) makes this list because she represents someone we may be all too familiar with in our own family, be it mum, grandmother or a distant aunt we only meet occasionally but somehow manages to get on our nerves every time. She is domineering towards her children, controlling and micromanaging as much as she can. This is because her priorities are clear – her family above all else.
Eleanor is cold for the sake of her family and its legacy. Having had her own share of complications to prove her worth, she exacts the same judgement to others as she has received. Nevertheless, she is still elitist and critical of everyone who is not her “own kind of people”. That she is always so poised and elegant while she intimidates people around her makes it easier to dislike her.
Yubaba (Spirited Away, 2001)
Spirited Away hosts a throng of eerie characters, with Yubaba (voiced by Mari Natsuki) as one of the more memorable ones. Yubaba is the sly, greedy owner of the bathhouse the spirits frequent. She turns people into pigs, steals their identity by owning their names and browbeats her workers. Her appearance is so haggish and unnerving, that that in itself would have earned her a place in this list.
She epitomises the image of a sly, evil witch. But she is also acquisitive and selfish, living in luxury while the rest of her workers scramble around in their packed living quarters. Despite her exceptional work ethic to maintain her bathhouse as a “high-class place”, Yubaba seems disproportionately unkind to her employees and Chihiro. On top of all that, her annoying and shrill laughter ultimately secures her a position on this list.
Neelambari (Padayappa, 1999)
The progressiveness of Neelambari (Ramya Krishnan) is in part the reason for her villainization. But this is exactly why she has become an iconic and beloved antagonist. Neelambari does not fit the ideal of femininity in Indian cinema, but is instead an assertive and feisty woman, not afraid of speaking her mind. She is frank in her desire for Padayappa, going against the grain of what a “respectable woman” should be.
Neelambari threatened the system of patriarchy, making her the perfect antagonist across Padayappa, a traditionally masculine protagonist. She is charismatic and unforgiving, and we love her for it. Today, her confidence and self-assuredness establishes her as one of the most loved, yet hated characters.
Sadako (Ring, 1998)
Sadako (Rie Ino) is perhaps one of the most recognizable horror villains in film, so it just makes sense she makes this list. Director Hideo Nakata’s adaptation in Ring portrays her as a vengeful ghost, after being trapped in a well for 30 years. Sadako is kept alive by her hatred for those who wronged her, causing a string of deaths after her spirit is released.
Her long black hair and white hair has become an icon, making Sadako an embodiment of horror and revulsion. Sadako’s image is not easy to stomach, and certainly unforgettable. Anyone who has seen Ring would have had at least one restless night, with the image of Sadako crawling out of the television haunting them.