Hollywood Chinese

2008, Movie, NR, 89 mins


Arthur Dong's survey course in movie form takes a two-pronged approach to the Chinese experience in Hollywood, examining both images of Chinese people and culture and the personal experiences of Chinese and Chinese-American actors and filmmakers, from the industry's earliest days to the present.

The film is rich in vintage film clips, from the mainstream - THE GOOD EARTH (1937), THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1960), FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961) -- to the exploitative, including the dozens of features built around mystery writer Earl Derr Biggers' detective Charlie Chan, who used the wisdom of the East for good, and pulp novelist Sax Rohmer's super-villain Fu Manchu, sneering embodiment of the yellow peril. The fascinating curiosities include Esther Eng's GOLDEN GATE GIRL (1941), which marked the film debut of future martial arts star Bruce Lee as an infant -- he was born in San Francisco when his actor parents were on tour US – and clips from pioneering American features by Chinese filmmakers, including Lotus Blossom (1921), by the Shanghai-born James B. Leong, whose acting career supported his one-man studio, and the silent Curse of Quon Gwan (1916), directed by third-generation Californian Marion Wong and starring her sister-in-law, Violet Wong. Dong's interviewees include Leong and Wong's children; such high-profile actors as B.D. Wong, SUZIE WONG star Nancy Kwan – who took her share of grief for helping perpetuate the stereotype of the "China doll" prostitute -- Key Luke, James Hong (who does a terrific Peter Lorre imitation) and Joan Chen, as well as the prolific but less familiar Lisa Lu, who made it her business to point out cultural inaccuracies to her directors, from Daniel Mann (THE MOUNTAIN ROAD) to Bernardo Bertolucci (THE LAST EMPEROR); directors Ang Lee, Justin Lin and Wayne Wang, playwright David Henry Huang and novelist Amy Tan.

Dong explores many of the same issues raised by FORBIDDEN CITY U.S.A. (1989), about Chinese-American entrepreneur Charlie Low's San Francisco nightclub, which prospered by exploiting popular Orientalist fantasies: The allure of exoticism, the desexualization of Asian men, lingering stereotypes (Lin positively seethes when talking about SIXTEEN CANDLES' comic Long Duck Dong), white actors playing Asian – Christopher Lee, who made a series of Fu Manchu films, and THE GOOD EARTH's Luise Rainer contribute their perspectives -- and the pressures specific to American-born Chinese actors and filmmakers, particularly the expectation that they'll "represent" the Chinese-American community. The result is informative and thoroughly engaging. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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