5 January 2016 | BrianDanaCamp
Uneven documentary about Chinese-American star Anna May Wong
"Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Her Times, Her Legend" (2007), directed by Elaine Mae Woo, offers a heavily narrated overview of the film and show biz career of Chinese-American star Anna May Wong (1905-1961), who is probably best known for such silent movies as TOLL OF THE SEA, THIEF OF BAGDAD and OLD SAN FRANCISCO and such 1930s movies as DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, Josef von Sternberg's SHANGHAI EXPRESS and Robert Florey's DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI. She was the first Asian star to be under contract to a major Hollywood studio (Paramount Pictures) and she made films in England and Germany as well. She was less active after the 1930s, appearing in films only intermittently in the 1940s and on television in the 1950s and 1960 and making only one more film before her untimely death in early 1961. She spent much of her career struggling with stereotypical roles, including "dragon lady" femme fatales, and fought a losing battle to achieve recognition as an actress who transcended ethnic and racial identity.
This film does a good job of summarizing her achievements on stage and screen in the 1920s and '30s, boasting lots of film clips and movie stills that give a good sense of the range of roles she played and her attempts to inject her personality into otherwise stock parts. I was unfamiliar with a lot of her films from this period and I was pleased to learn that she was good friends with Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe, the other leading Asian-American figure in Hollywood cinema at that time. The film is less rigorous, however, in the years afterwards and is particularly weak in the last decade of her career. No mention is made of the roles she played on episodic TV in the years 1956-1961, including her remarkable portrayal of Tombstone's Chinatown matriarch, China Mary, in a 1960 episode of that title from "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp," an episode I've reviewed here on IMDb.
The film lists 29 interviewees in the end credits, but only eight of them are seen, in very brief snippets, on the side of the frame as the end credits roll. What happened to those interviews? We hear from Kevin Brownlow, Leonard Maltin, A.C. Lyles, and Nancy Kwan, to name the four recognizable interview subjects, but the list of interviewees also includes Douglas Fairbanks Jr., famed Chinese-American artist Dong Kingman, Mrs. James Wong Howe, Korean-American actor Philson Ahn (brother of Philip Ahn, Ms. Wong's sometime co-star), and Chinese-American actress Beulah Quo. I would like to have heard from all of them. Nancy Kwan reads the narration, which basically offers a long list of highlights but doesn't go beneath the surface of Wong's career struggles and says little about her personal life. Granted, it's a short film (50 minutes) and I imagine a longer work might originally have been envisioned.
There's another documentary about the actress, "Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words" (2013), by Korean filmmaker Yunah Hong, which offers more detailed information about Wong's offscreen life, emotional state and personal relationships. We get to know Wong much more intimately in that film and we hear much longer interview segments, including from producer A.C. Lyles, who had worked with Wong at Paramount in the 1930s, and veteran Chinese-American actor James Hong, who knew her in the 1950s. It's a little less encyclopedic on the subject of Wong's film career than Woo's film, so I would conclude that the two films do a good job complementing each other and suggest they should be seen together.