By his own admission, documentary director Arthur Dong has devoted his last three films (including the exceptional “Licensed to Kill”) to “the destruction caused by America’s war against homosexuality.” He calls his new film, “Hollywood Chinese,” “a welcome break from a decade of tense reportage, and a chance to delve back into my love for cinema.” It is all of that and a fascinating journey for audiences as well.
Written, directed, edited and produced by Dong, “Hollywood Chinese” is both a history of the Chinese presence in American films and a meditation on the difficulties Chinese Americans have had in being seen as individuals and in putting the reality of their experience on screen.
Dealing with these questions are the biggest Chinese American names in the business -- such actors as Joan Chen, Nancy Kwan and B.D. Wong, writer David Henry Hwang and directors Ang Lee, Justin Lin and Wayne Wang. There are also segments with some of the Westerners who have acted in “yellowface,” including Christopher Lee and the rarely interviewed Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar playing a Chinese woman in “The Good Earth.”
That film, like “Demon Seed,” which featured Katharine Hepburn and Walter Huston as Chinese characters, is a bit of a sore point among Dong’s interviewees, who feel, as one of them says, that the film “could have been our ‘Gone With the Wind’ ” if Chinese people had been the stars.
As reflected in Hollywood films, China as well as domestic Chinatowns have always been exotic places, likely even outside the law. This is reflected in some of the turn-of-the-century nickelodeon shorts sampled here, items with names like “Beheading the Chinese Premier” and “The Heathen Chinese and the Sunday School Teachers.”
Though Chinese American filmmakers never created a full-fledged ethnic cinema on a par with directors who worked for either Yiddish-speaking or African American audiences, it wasn’t for lack of trying. In fact, Dong unearthed some long-forgotten reels from 1916-17’s “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” likely the first Chinese American film ever made.
It took awhile, but breakthrough moments did come. Kwan starred in the crossover hits “The World of Suzie Wong” and “Flower Drum Song,” and Wang beautifully directed the adaptation of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.” When she met him, novelist Tan tells Dong, “I knew I could trust him. I didn’t have to say to him, ‘You’re not going to make it all Caucasians, are you?’ ”
“Hollywood Chinese.” Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. At Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224.