15 March 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
nearly a nasty Occident.
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.
Because Hayakawa was working in Hollywood with white actors, most of his silent films were slight variations on the same plot: Hayakawa as an outsider in the white man's world, caught in the clash of incompatible cultures. 'The First Born', intriguingly, takes place in China and all the characters are Chinese. Unfortunately, nearly all the actors in this film are Caucasians, and their makeup jobs as Orientals are ... well, let's say that Lon Chaney's talents are sorely lacking hereabouts. You've never seen so many unconvincing eyebrows and dodgy eyelids in one place. Particularly disastrous is the make-up job on Clarence Wilson, an extremely prolific character actor whose distinctive bald head (resembling a peeled garlic clove) is instantly recognisable despite the Sellotape on his eyelids. Another actor (a genuine Oriental, this one) plays a character identified in the intertitles as 'Man Low Tek' ... which suggests some very unfortunate low-tech puns. The differences between the facial structures of the genuine Orientals and the fake Orientals in this cast are glaringly obvious.
The plot? Cue Mister Wu. A boy named Chan Toy is killed, and his mother Chan Lee is sold into slavery. A tong war breaks out, with a murder committed to avenge the death of Chan Toy, and then another murder committed (in the opposite direction) to avenge the revenge. You want an abacus to count the corpses.
An Occidental onlooker might count it as a point in this film's favour that, for once, Hayakawa is able to star in a film with an Oriental setting. Hold the rice balls. Hayakawa was Japanese, and the characters in this film are Chinese. Those are two entirely different cultures, and the Japanese are not noted for their deep admiration of the Chinese. I've lived in Kowloon and visited mainland China, and I know a wee bit about the Chinese culture: I found the depictions in this movie inaccurate to the point of giving offence. This movie would have us believe that all Chinese are bloodthirsty buddhists, so deeply obsessed with tradition, saving face, and fealty to one's ancestors that they cannot act as self-willed individuals. As Hayakawa produced this film, he must ultimately take the blame for what a white screenwriter and director have perpetrated here. The fact that this film about Orientals was *made* by an Oriental does not change the fact that 'The First Born' is deeply racist. I'll rate this movie precisely one point, for the expert camera work and for some 'Chinese' sets that fail to convince me of their authenticity but which are impressive for sheer effort.