15 March 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Sessue Hayakawa had a respectable career in silent-era Hollywood as an actor in films produced by white men for white audiences. But, as a Japanese man contending with the racial prejudices of the time, Hayakawa nearly always played villains ... usually wily Orientals who lusted after decent white women.
SLIGHT SPOILERS COMING. In 'Alien Souls', Hayakawa has top billing (he's the best-known actor in the cast, even by 1916 standards) but he has far less screen time than Tsuru Aoki does as a virtuous Japanese maiden named Yuri Chan. (I would have thought that 'Chan' is a Chinese name, and 'Yuri' is a Russian *man's* name, but nobody asked me.) Yuri attracts the unwanted attention of a young American playboy deeply in debt, who rejoices in the glib name Aleck Lindsay. For extremely contrived reasons, this smart Aleck outsmarts himself by getting the mistaken impression that Yuri is rich ... and he pursues her accordingly, pretending to be in love with her. This film seems to take the racist attitude that any Oriental woman would be grateful for the attentions of a white man, as surely a white man is more desirable than a man of any other colour.
Director Frank Reicher (better known for playing the ship's captain in the original 'King Kong') generates some slight but genuine suspense: we know that Yuri has no wealth, but we fear for her safety when Aleck will eventually learn the truth. All the other Caucasian characters in this fusty photoplay are jaded socialites with names like Smythe and Van Ness. One point in this movie's favour is that the white characters are stereotyped almost as badly as the Oriental ones.
Unlike in most of his other films, Sessue Hayakawa here plays a character who is absolutely virtuous and admirable. He eventually rescues Yuri, and there's a chastely romantic ending for these two Oriental souls. I liked Hayakawa better when he was the prison-camp commandant torturing British servicemen in 'Bridge on the River Kwai'. As for the depressing 'Alien Souls', I'll rate this only 2 in 10.