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03 June 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films

Ten years in the making, Arthur Dong's Hollywood Chinese: In American Feature Films is an entertaining documentary full of surprises.

First, it's a bit shocking to see Nancy Kwan. Why you might ask? Isn't she Chinese? Well, as another actors comments, she is at least part Chinese. For a time, Kwan was everyone's favorite Asian woman--even if she was clearly Eurasian.

Dong doesn't shy away from that question, nor questions about her infamous portrayal of the Hong Kong prostitute, Susie Wong, (although she wasn't in the original Broadway cast--you might be surprised to see who was), nor her infomercials.

At least Kwan looked like she could be Asian. The usual practice was yellow face — Luise Rainer did that to much acclaim. Rainer played O-Lan in the 1937 movie, The Good Earth, dashing Anna May Wong's hopes. Dong touches on this and a report of Wong's screen test, but not on the Hays Code of anti-miscegenation which some resources consider a major determining factor once Paul Muni was cast. Rainer won an Academy Award for that role and defends her casting. Some of the Chinese actors compliment her portrayal and still there is that unsettling question about yellow face.

Yellow face was a difficult process, according to Christopher Lee. In the 1960s, Lee brought Fu Manchu to the silver screen. Dong cuts to some memorable and mostly amusing moments of yellow face — from Katherine Hepburn to John Wayne.

Hepburn starred in the 1944 Dragon Seed, also based on a Pearl Buck novel as was The Good Earth. Turhan Bey notes that Hollywood at the time was full of ridiculous situations. Born in Vienna, Bey's father was Turkish and his mother Czech. He was supposed to be related to Hepburn, yet that Tan family had a wide variety of accents. No wonder people thought Asians were inscrutable.

Dong does include a real Chinese American Tan, Amy Tan. Tan recalls how after her 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club became popular and people wanted to adapt it into a movie, how cautious she was until Wayne Wang became attached to the project. Hong Kong-born Wang wrote (with Isaac Cronin) and directed the 1982 Chan Is Missing, a work selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1995 for its realistic portrayal of Chinese Americans. After the 1993 The Joy Luck Club, which followed Smoke, Wang did more mainstream movies like Maid In Manhattan and Because of Winn-Dixie.


At the time, the 1961 Flower Drum Song was also considered progressive with Kwan starring beside a Japanese national (Miyoshi Umeki) and a Japanese American (James Shigeta)--something ironic after spending World War II emphasizing the differences between Chinese and Japanese--an issue that Japanese Americans have also noted in the past. The Chinese could even be played by an African American--Juanita Hall. There was something laughable about ABCs (American-born Chinese) dancing to a song celebrating chop suey--an American dish.

Playwright David Henry Hwang whose M. Butterfly won a Tony, and original Broadway cast member B.D. Wong also appear, but the cantankerous Frank Chin (who criticized Hwang and Tan among others in his essay, "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake" in 1991 anthology The Big Aiiieeeee!)does not. This certainly keeps the documentary more focused, but it's a notable omission when the documentary does include a historian and Dong is based in Los Angeles like Chin and Hwang. Chin, who was the subject of a 2005 documentary What's Wrong with Frank Chin, has his own blog and his latest entry (26 May 2008) mentions Tan, Shigeta, Wang and Hepburn.

Chin was interviewed by Jeff Adachi for the 2006 documentary Slanted Screen about the imagery of Asian and Asian American men.


The Asian American community has also been critical of Joan Chen for her portrayal of what was essentially an updated version of Susie Wong in the 1986 Tai-Pan. The Shanghai-born Chen continued to play exotic women, but found that with age, the quality of the movies decreased and unlike Kwan, moved on to directing. She was also in the much acclaimed The Last Emperor in 1987, but this movie was also criticized as being more a figment of the director's imagination by Lisa Lu, who was in this movie and Tai-Pan

There's also a Sundance moment, when someone criticizes Justin Lin's 2002 Better Luck Tomorrow which an audience member criticized for being made at all--even though it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize award at Sundance. The audience member seemed to feel it was irresponsible to give such a negative and amoral portrayal of Asian Americans. Was this a case of someone wanting to preserve the good minority stereotype despite the very brutal 1992 incident that inspired this movie?

There are some surprising historical clips--not the archival portrayals of old China nor the ones of an imagined China--but old movies made for American-born Chinese produced and starring ABCs. The question remains today about why aren't ABCs doing as well as Asian-born actors and directors such as Ang Lee (who also appears), Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, Zhang Ziji, and Jackie Chan?

Unsettling questions about being American, desexualization of Asian American men (Long Duk Dong who was played by a Japanese American in the movie Sixteen Candles is cited), the exoticism of the women, the martial arts stereotype are raised as they were a decade ago.

Dong hopes that if this movie was ever part of a school curriculum it would find its way into the history department. Even-handed, avoiding some of the divisive arguments within the ABC community, this thoughtful movie does provide an informative look at American-born Chinese history which is undoubtedly an important part of Asian American history and the history of all Americans in this country.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I’ve just finished reading an amazing biography through Chinese history by Yuan-Tsung Chen called Return to Middle Kingdom, which spans three generations of her family living in (and outside of) China where they lived through three separate revolutions. If you liked Wild Swans you will definitely enjoy this one. It’s an epic story of adventure, romance and war that spans over 150 years of one families fight for change in their homeland. It’s one of those sagas that will no doubt be brought to the big screen at some stage and frankly I can’t wait – although I’m glad I read the book first. If you’re at all interested in the inner workings of Chinese politics and the history of those who sought to overturn a corrupt and ruthless oppressor then this book is an indispensable read.