From now on, whenever I see Roger Ebert, I'm going to point a finger in the air, roll my neck, and yell, "You go, girl!" Some years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, Ebert famously defended the film, Better Luck Tomorrow, against an outraged Caucasian audience member who felt that the Asian American-made BLT was an amoral affront to the Asian-American community. What I didn't know—until I saw Arthur Dong's juicy new documentary, Hollywood Chinese, this afternoon—was that Ebert's impassioned, vociferous outburst was recorded. Skip to the 2:35 mark in this video clip (from a BLT DVD extra, I believe) to see that electrifying moment:
That moment is among many enlightening pleasures in the endlessly fascinating Hollywood Chinese, which digs into 100 years of film history to trace the trajectory of the Chinese in American film.
In another eye-opening segment, Dong discovers two reels of the movie, The Curse of Quon Gwon, now considered to be the first-ever piece of Asian-American cinema—it was written and directed by Marion Wong, starred her family, and is also one of the only silent films ever made by a woman. The year...?1916! Did you hear that?! Way back in 19 fucking 16! A mere 35 minutes of black-and-white footage had been sitting in an Oakland, California, basement until recently.
Many of the themes explored here are surely familiar to anyone in the arts (racism, representation, art vs. commerce, etc.), but the film is not without new, intellectually stimulating conundrums. After surveying Asian-American cinema from the distant past, does it seem that we're actually going backwards? Can the relatively meager work that Hollywood currently doles out to Asian-American artists really be considered progress? Will Asian Americans make greater strides in the industry by remaining fiercely independent? Do Asian Americans have it tougher than Asians (Ang Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, John Woo, etc.) in Hollywood because Asians have not had to struggle with the issues of identity and empowerment that Asian Americans have faced all their lives?
Hollywood Chinese is now playing in Los Angeles and New York. I think it's only playing for a few more days, so hurry! Turn off that Korean soap opera for a couple hours, Asians, and get your ass to a theater!