The Academy Museum is dedicating November to a monthlong reflection on the history of Chinese depictions in cinema.
“Hollywood Chinese: The First 100 Years,” programmed by documentarian and longtime Academy member Arthur Dong, is a screening series of features and shorts – some classics, some obscurities – that mark both highlights and lowlights of how Chinese have been portrayed in film, particularly in the Western studio system. The series is an evolution of Dong’s 2007 documentary, which kicks off the series Nov. 4, and 2019 book of the same name.
“When people see a film like Hollywood Chinese, they’re really only seeing snippets. We really need to see the whole, because it’s not fair to the artists and the creators that we critique and examine the work based on 30 seconds,” Dong, who previewed his series Oct. 23 as part of his ongoing Hollywood Chinese exhibition at West Hollywood’s famous Formosa Café, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Here’s a chance for these questions about representation and the development of the Chinese persona in Hollywood films to go further now, with a full-fledged screening of entire films. I took it on as a responsibility and a burden to contextualize certain films, like [1937’s] Lost Horizon and [1964’s] 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.”
As part of the series, Dong has programmed seven double features, films that may be separated by decades but are connected by certain similarities. For example, in Nov. 12’s “The Tong Wars,” both The Tong-Man (1919) starring Sessue Hayakawa and Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon (1985) spotlight Chinatown gang violence that drew ire from real-life Chinese American groups about the stereotypically violent portrayal of their community. “The Tong-Man was the catalyst for, as far as we know, the very first legal protest by a Chinese American organization against racist images in Hollywood films. The organizers in San Francisco wanted to file an injunction against it being shown,” says Dong, adding that 60 years later, MGM/UA settled a lawsuit from the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in L.A. by agreeing to add a disclaimer to Year of the Dragon. “This is the legacy of uprising from the Asian American community, but it’s also the legacy of racist portrayals that are still happening today. Even in series like the current Kung Fu, whenever there are Chinese American or Chinese characters, there’s still this fallback to the more exotic and dangerous ‘vice’ of Chinatown.”
The series also will look to celebrate underappreciated gems, particularly those that were made by venturing outside the Western studio system. In “Escape From Hollywood” on Nov. 27, Dong will screen 1968’s The Arch, considered one of Hong Kong’s first art films, and 1998 indie Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. Both directed by Chinese women (Tang Shu Shuen and Joan Chen, respectively), the movies also represent examples of Chinese American talent having to leave America in order to expand their creative and professional horizons. “Joan Chen had the breakthrough role in The Last Emperor and was the ingénue who should have burst out, but she was mainly offered roles that exploited her sexualized exoticness,” says Dong, adding that Lisa Lu, who starred in The Arch, also faced typecasting in Hollywood before she made a name for herself in Chinese film. “That to me is Hollywood Chinese, too. It’s not just the films that we can trash. It’s also about the experience of the Chinese or Chinese American artist and what they went through and accomplished and the legacy they left us.”
In his programming of the series, Dong intends to help attendees reckon with the complicated and sometimes contradictory legacy of Chinese portrayals in Hollywood, sometimes within the same film, such as Charlie Chan in Hollywood, The Sand Pebbles (which earned Makoto Iwamatsu an Oscar supporting actor nomination) and even Flower Drum Song. “Flower Drum Song is one of my all-time favorite films, it’s celebratory, but as David Henry Hwang says, it’s a film that has a lot of guilty pleasures. Sand Pebbles is beautifully made and kickstarted Mako’s decades-long career on screen and stage and put him on the map. But it’s about colonialism and white saviors and Chinese prostitutes and lecherous Chinese men played by James Hong,” says the programmer. “Most if not all the films have questions but also levels of celebration, of saying that we should be proud of what we’ve accomplished – within context – and we should take the critique in context and move forward and learn from all that.”
Several screenings will be accompanied by conversations with special guests, including Hong for Big Trouble in Little China (screening Nov. 5), Chen for both Xiu Xiu and The Last Emperor (which will be shown Nov. 27 as part of the museum’s ongoing Oscar Sundays series), Nancy Kwan (discussing both her starring role in Flower Drum Song, screening Nov. 25, and her experiences working with early leading men James Shigeta and Bruce Lee as part of Nov. 11’s double feature for Walk Like a Dragon and Enter the Dragon) and Academy president Janet Yang, who produced The Joy Luck Club (screening Nov. 26).
For some of the selections, the Hollywood Chinese screenings will represent the highest-quality exhibitions some films have received in quite a while, or ever. “So much hard work has been done to put this series together, scouring archives, working with filmmakers and their families to secure the best available copies of these films,” says Bernardo Rondeau, the museum’s senior director of film programs, who first discussed the possibility of this screening series with Dong, a member of the organization’s inclusion advisory committee, several years ago before the museum even opened. “Some of these are rarely shown, like [David] Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly and The Arch, certainly not in [a setting with] the caliber of the Ted Mann Theater.”
“To me, this series is one of the hallmark series for the museum. It contains in its methodology, approach and subject matter the DNA of what this museum and our film programming is about: focused on inclusion and expansion,” Rondeau says. “It’s a bittersweet story of film history. We’re going back in the past and hopefully, in rediscovery, reshaping our understanding of film and the future of film.”
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