Movie Review: Hollywood Chinese (2007)
It’s a polite documentary. That’s what you take away. It’s a surprisingly polite compendium of a century of racist casting and storytelling in Hollywood.
Only 10 years have passed since “Hollywood Chinese” first aired on PBS’s “American Experience,” but here’s how long ago that was: The talking heads in the doc use the term Yellow Face, rather than the hashtag-ready #whitewashing, to describe white actors playing Asian characters. And here’s how long ago that wasn’t. That shit’s still happening. Hollywood is still casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles. I’m not talking Matt Damon in “The Great Wall”—that character is supposed to be European—but more like Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange” and Emma Stone in whatever hell movie that was. How depressing that this still goes on. I get it: studios want a bankable name. I get it: actors want a challenge. But c’mon. Would Tilda Swinton do blackface? History won’t look kind.
In this regard “Hollywood Chinese,” as polite as it is, is a corrective. It’s a history lesson.
The sad earth
Writer-director Arthur Dong takes us all the way back to the beginning of the movies, the early Nickelodeon silents. Historian Stephen Fong mentions that the Chinese were subjects in two kinds of movies: 1) China as the oldest civilization in the world—and least-known to westerners; and 2) the exoticism of Chinatown. For the latter, we get no end of opium movies, including “Broken Blossoms” (based on the short story “The Chink and the Child”), but I don’t recall much for the former. Instead, we see fictionalized newsreel footage of the anarchy during the Boxer Rebellion. Two shorts, both from 1900: “Beheading a Chinese Prisoner,” in which, with stop action, a Chinese man appears to have his head cut off; and “Massacre of the Christians by the Chinese,” in which the Chinese do the same to Christian missionaries, then celebrate holding their heads aloft. It’s a “holy shit” moment. It’s like something ISIS would’ve produced.
The first Chinese-American filmmaker, according to the doc, was Marion Wong, born in California, who wrote and directed “The Curse of Quon Gown (1917), starring her sister-in-law Violet. She went bankrupt. We get the early films of James B. Leong and Esther Eng, and then Fong says this:
What we didn’t see happen is the development of an alternative cinema such as you have with a race film—black film—or with Yiddish film. You had some aspiration for that, but it was not to be.
That’s left hanging. Why didn’t it happen with Chinese filmmakers? Is there a reason? A supposition? A half-assed guess?
When a big Hollywood movie was finally made about China, “The Good Earth,” based on Pearl Buck’s novel, the Chinese leads, of course, went to Caucasians: Luise Rainier and Paul Muni. From there we explore Charlie Chan (played by whites), Fu Manchu (played by whites), Chinese playing Japanese and vice versa; the submissive sexualization of Chinese women (Nancy Kwan, Joan Chen) and the de-sexualization of Chinese men. Each subject could be its own doc. It’s a shame this isn’t a series.
The most poignant, thought-provoking moments for me are near the end. B.D. Wong rides his Tony award for “M. Butterfly” into a supporting role in the Steve Martin comedy “Father of the Bride,” playing the outlandish gay assistant to the more outlandish gay wedding planner played by Martin Short. And he says this about that:
I’m at once feeling like I’ve somehow been invited to a party that I’ve never been invited to—world-class comic film actors, all Caucasian, a character that was not written for an Asian-American character. And I won the role by merit. I was thrilled to have done so. And then I found myself in a kind of bed that I made, which was: You’re cashing in the Asian-American desexualized chip.
I was always aware of this chip being cashed in. And I’m not at all regretful of it. What I’m regretful of is that I even have to have this discussion.
That last part is perfect. Because what’s the difference between what Wong does and Martin Short? Why is one OK and the other not? Because there’s not enough macho Asian roles to counterbalance it? Is Bruce Lee not enough by himself?
I’ve never been a big fan of Justin Lin, but he says two things here that impressed me. The first is about how Chinese-Americans are trapped between two cultures, and they’re “other” in both:
As an Asian-American, I go to Asia and I don’t belong there. They have different rules. They want to see exotic white people in their world. Like, it’s the reverse, you know? So you’re kinda stuck as an Asian-American. You’re like, “Hey, we’re three-dimensional [in my movie]!” And they’re like, “Oh, fuck you, I don’t care. We wanna see white people.”
He also takes down a very white, very privileged notion of “selling out,” and it’s about fucking time:
When you’re in film school everyone talks about, “Oh, I wouldn't make a studio film, that's selling out.” And you’re like, “You know how hard it is to ‘sell out’? To, like, work with a studio? They only hire 12 people a year—in the whole world!”
Walking the earth
Oddly, no “Kung Fu.” I suppose because the focus is on movies rather than TV. But it would’ve been worth it. There’s Yellow Face issues (David Carradine), as well as the second coming of Key Luke and Philip Ahn. Or maybe I wanted this—expected this—because “Kung Fu” is where I first became aware of Chinese culture. And while it was “other” it was positive. It was strong, quiet and peaceful, and posited against dirty American racists. It was cool, too, and later referenced in one of the coolest movies in Hollywood history:
Jules: Basically, I’m gonna walk the earth.
Vincent: What do you mean, “walk the earth”?
Jules: You know, like Caine in “Kung Fu.” Just walk from town to town, meet people, get in adventures.
We get the example of Wayne Wang, who rode “Chan is Missing” into indie success and middling mainstream success—including Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.” We get the blistering embarrassment of Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles.” We get Ang Lee as talking head—more for the prestige value, one imagines, since he’s Taiwanese, not Asian-American.
I didn’t need Luise Rainier justifying her use of Yellow Face in grandiose terms; I didn’t need Christopher Lee talking about “Orientals.” I would’ve liked follow-up on the Chinese/Japanese thing, since, in “The Joy Luck Club,” which is viewed positively here, a Japanese-American actress, Tamlyn Tomita, was cast as one of the Chinese-American daughters, while another daughter, Rosalind Chao, gained fame playing a Japanese character on “Star Trek—The Next Generation.”
An update already feels necessary. I imagine the next one won’t be so polite.