18 December 2002 | arthursward
A world both delicate and deadly
In the Chinatown of 1911 in San Francisco, the specter of political upheaval casts a shadow over two lovers.
Helen Hayes and Ramon Navarro play Lien Wha and Tom Lee, whose ever-so-polite courtship advances haltingly under the watchful eyes of Lien's father, Dr. Tong (Lewis Stone, perfectly underplaying his role). In a world of wind chimes, flowers and birds singing, Lien Wha inhabits a world very different from the street below. Furtive shadows hide blade wielding hatchet men routinely "dispatching" self-described patriots disloyal to the repressive Chinese Emperor. It is to these patriots that Dr. Tong places his loyalty, and a $100,000 tribute for smugglers becomes crucial to save the repressed homelanders. Tong reveals to his daughter his unfulfilled wish to have had a son to send to fight for his people, and Lien pledges herself to be the son he lacks, she'll be his son-daughter.
Director Clarence Brown unfolds his drama in settings that are among MGM's best. Using complex lighting arrangements and crane shots, the director injects dread most effectively. The violence is quick and strong, definately pre-code. And if you're familiar with the portrayal of Chinese in America up to the sixties, you will forgive performances which play today as over the top. Indeed, during the final reel, you'll discover why Hayes was a great choice for the lead.
A great film for adults, and a must-see for students of great photography.