EmptyToronto International Film Festival
TORONTO -- A history of an underexposed thread of film history that is plainly skewed toward the positive, "Hollywood Chinese" has a built-in appeal for Chinese-Americans but doesn't expand on that base as much as it might have. Theatrical prospects are limited by technical considerations if nothing else, making a TV or DVD release most appropriate.
The most immediate liability here is image quality. Talking-head material looks blurry even for video photography, and too many of the film excerpts suffer from distractingly crummy transfers. Audio is sometimes wobbly as well. The difficulties aren't hard to understand in what appears to be a shoestring-budget labor of love from filmmaker Arthur Dong, and they'll be more forgivable on the small screen.
Getting beyond that, the doc does hold some discoveries for movie buffs who, once tantalized, may wish they were seeing more: from the cinema's first years we get actualites shot in China contrasted with sensationalized American visions of the land. A few years later, Dong introduces Marion Wong, a self-trained silent-era filmmaker whose name isn't even in the IMDB (but whose "The Curse of Quon Gwon" is on the National Film Registry), followed by the unrealized ambitions of James B. Leong; film historian Stephen Gong muses over the failure of Chinese-Americans to develop a commercial equivalent to the African-American "race film."
As we move into more familiar territory -- the overuse of "yellowface" performances, the outrageous Fu Manchu caricatures, and so on -- viewers may accuse Wong of soft-pedaling. It's surprising how forgiving his interviewees are, say, of Hollywood's casting of Paul Muni and Louise Rainer in "The Good Earth," the Pearl S. Buck adaptation that, according to Dong, "should have been our 'Gone With the Wind.'" Interviewees may regret, for instance, that Anna May Wong couldn't play the lead, but they accept the premise that white America wouldn't have bought tickets to that version of the tale.
Similar notes of acceptance are struck by actors who have had to take demeaning roles in order to earn a living -- some of whom have fun with their self-effacement, as James Hong does when admitting how many times he's imitated Peter Lorre's imitation of a Chinese man.
The balancing of material is strange the closer we get to the present day. In a general-interest survey, for instance, it's odd that B.D. Wong's musings on the emasculation of Asian-American men should seem to get as much attention as the entire phenomenon of the martial-arts film. On the other hand, interviews like Wong's -- those with writers, actors, and directors who are still working -- prove to be some of the most thematically engaging material here.
That may be because Wong and Joan Chen, who have taken jobs they had qualms about but are still young enough to make changes, can criticize themselves freely, while Dong is loathe to speak harshly of figures whose careers are strictly past tense.
Whatever the case, "Hollywood Chinese" offers fodder for further conversations, both celebratory and critical, even if its own tendency is toward the former.
Director: Arthur Dong
Writer: Arthur Dong
Producer: Arthur Dong
Director of photography: Hiroki Miyano
Music: Mark Adler
Editor: Arthur Dong
Running time -- 90 minutes
No MPAA rating