8 March 2010 | delibebek
My first taste of Wong
Before seeing this movie, I'd never heard of Anna May Wong, so seeing that a woman of Chinese extraction played a lead role in this movie in 1939 was a surprise. Seeing that she played the role without being shoehorned into a stereotype was even more of a surprise. Her English was like silk, but that was the most oriental thing about her voice. Her performance in this movie was serviceable, but it's understandable that she didn't cause more of a stir in Hollywood, regardless of ethnicity.
In contrast to the racial authenticity of the leading lady, the same occidental actor who played Charlie Chan played her father, working hard to be something other than Charlie Chan but to still be the older Chinese American man. Somehow, during the course of this move, his off-pitch monotone reminded me of Dan Ayckroyd's Conehead skits. Plus, he got to deliver some of the strangest attempts to praise the Chinese identity within the American community: "We do not eat American food. I do not think many Chinese have heard of your great American dish, chop suey." While this is a nice try, it sounds pretty odd, considering that the producers couldn't put a real Chinese American actor into the part. At least they got an oriental, albeit a Korean-American to portray the younger man.
Rounding out this multi-cultural cast is Armenian-Russian playing a Russian mafioso who operates in Chinatown. He's the king, but he eventually shows another side, thanks to the kindness Dr. Ling (Wong) shows to him. Of course, she has her own motives for the kindness, but it all makes sense eventually.
During the first 30 minutes of the movie, it seems there are two stories moving independently. Only slowly do they begin to move together, and the handling of the points they overlap and intersect could have been the source of more character drama. As it is, they are too abruptly shoved against each other as some unseen clock ticks away expected run time.
There's an interesting montage in the middle of the film, which doesn't further the story at all. I'm guessing that there was some gambling and extortion and someone was getting rich. This montage is interesting mainly for being a bit obtuse. As unreal as it seems, there was more story here than this movie could contain. I imagine they cut out some of the clues about what was really happening so that Ms. Wong could have more screen time. Maybe it was in her contract.
Some things aren't quite explained, just mentioned. Dr. Ling dotes on her recovering patient so heavily, and we are left to wonder how a newspaper could stress a man so much after a gunshot wound, but still, she takes no chances. Pretty devoted for a surgeon who becomes a nursemaid (with an assistant nursemaid to boot).
And then, the film wraps up. Yes, just like that. I think someone died in the end, but I really couldn't tell. Maybe it would be too stressful for us to know the truth about that.
As I watch a movie like this, I try to imagine its potential. The story isn't a bad outline and I could definitely see Michelle Yeoh bringing more to the main role. Without massive changes, the story would still need to take place in the 30s, and ironically, I doubt current movie- goers would believe the Chinese-American female surgeon could exist in that era.