Golden Gate Silver Light: Hong Kong Review

Golden Gate - H 2013
Interesting and important subject matter trumps the creaky filmmaking of this enlightening doc

Documentary filmmaker S. Louise Wei sheds some much-needed light on a hidden piece of Hollywood, Hong Kong, women’s and Asian-American film history.

Helen Mirren took Sam Mendes to task during the Empire Awards last week for not citing any female creative team members during his acceptance speech. But it might be that he simply couldn’t find any, if professor and documentarian S. Louise Wei’s intensely personal Golden Gate Silver Light is accurate. The first-person chronicle of Wei’s search for information on the pioneering Chinese-American woman director Esther Eng is rudimentary and often pedestrian in execution, but the subject matter, which crosses borders and connects industries, is eye-opening and compelling enough to overlook any flaws.

Wei’s feature doc is clearly a labor of love -- she also edited, produced, wrote, shot and narrated -- and the workload often shows. The voice-over (difficult under dramatic circumstances) is academic and frequently stilted, the subtitles are riddled with inconsistencies and spelling errors, and Wei is given to hyperbole (there are many “masters” and “legends” referred to in the film). The HDV photography is functional and efficient and nothing more, and the film is heavy on stock footage and archival photos (though that is likely beyond Wei’s control). Despite the technical and cinematic shortcomings, festivals should provide Golden Gate Silver Light a healthy life on the strength of its subject, and the film could find a place on specialty cable and even in academic circles.

Wei begins her search for details on Eng’s life in the city of her birth, San Francisco, and follows her footsteps to Hollywood, then Hong Kong and finally back to the United States where she died in New York in 1970. Along the way Wei tracks down the bystander who found Eng’s personal journals and photos in a dumpster (which he donated to the Hong Kong Film Archive) and as many surviving family and co-workers -- many former Cantonese opera stars fleeing the war in the 1930s -- as she could to paint a rough sketch of the unconventional woman. The conversations with Eng’s now-elderly peers complement the material supplied by periodicals and Hollywood biographers and film critics (including The Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy). The fact that Wei found two with a semblance of knowledge of Eng speaks to just how unjustly she’s been disregarded. 

One of Golden Gate’s strengths is its seamless ability to weave history, Sino-U.S. relations and social standards together to allow for inference and context. When the Chinese Exclusion Act kept Eng from pursuing her chosen career, she left for Hong Kong, where the same individualist streak made her a local celebrity, which stemmed as much from the success of the five films she made there to the exotic lesbianism no one seemed to care about. When she returned to the United States, she was a successful filmmaker -- who cast Bruce Lee as an infant girl in one of her last films, Golden Gate Girl (1941).

At a time when too many films drag on too long, Golden Gate Silver Light could have used a bit more time to flesh out some of its peripheral themes that nonetheless related to Eng’s work. Eng’s experience with such industry giants as James Wong Howe and Paul Ivano gets short shrift. A brief examination of the portrayal of Chinese, and Asian, women onscreen -- filtered largely through the plight of 1920s and ’30s star Anna May Wong -- in Hollywood’s early days is dropped before it can be explored further. Wei also takes the time to incorporate the presence, or lack thereof, of other women on the filmmaking landscape even before Eng’s first film, 1936's Heartaches, and the years just after World War II, and in doing so makes a subtle yet simultaneously loud statement on the dearth of women in the industry, which continues to this day.

Eng’s life and work is as stirring as it is mysterious, but without the films themselves to draw from, the picture is incomplete. It doesn’t make it any less engaging, and it makes you hope Wei keeps digging.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival

Sales Blue Queen Cultural Communications

Production company Blue Queen Cultural Communications

Producer Law Kar, S. Louise Wei

Director S. Louise Wei

Screenwriter S. Louise Wei

Director of Photography S. Louise Wei

Music Robert Ellis-Geiger, Tran Manh Tuan

Editor S. Louise Wei

No rating, 105 minutes