Yellow Willow in the Frost - Films of Anna May Wong at Film Archive
Known for her fluid grace and acting finesse behind the subtle, sensual beauty, Anna May Wong was once the most famous Asian on the American and European screens and an international celebrity in the 1920 and 30s.
She captured the hearts of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, yet her career never reached the pinnacle which many felt she deserved. A photo exhibition and a series of films highlighting different stages of her colourful career will be shown from November 12 to 27 at the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) to mark the centennial year of her birth and also the centennial celebration of Chinese films.
Film lovers are rediscovering Anna May Wong and her contributions to early cinema. In 2004, both UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City presented film programmes on Wong.
Presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the new programme “Yellow Willow in the Frost—Films of Anna May Wong” will screen eight films including the Josef von Sternberg classic “Shanghai Express” starring Wong and Marlene Dietrich, “The Toll of the Sea” which turned Wong into a star, her best silent film “Piccadilly”, her early European films “Song” and “Pavement Butterfly”, “Daughter of Shanghai” and “Lady from Chungking” in both of which she played heroine and “Daughter of the Dragon”.
A seminar “When Race Met Gender: The Career of Anna May Wong”, will be held at 4.15pm on November 19 at the Cinema of the HKFA. Film scholar Law Kar, the filmmaker and producer of “Frosted Yellow Willow”, Elaine Mae Woo and Ed Manwell will speak on Wong’s illustrious career as well as race and gender issues in Hollywood films. The seminar will be conducted in Cantonese and English. Admission is free.
Born in Los Angeles, Wong was the first Chinese-American woman to star in Hollywood and international productions. She appeared in more than 60 films, including major Hollywood productions.
Discovered at the age of 14 and appearing as an extra in “Red Lantern” (1919), her first success came after starring in the first Technicolor Hollywood feature “The Toll of the Sea” (1922). Yet she was also doomed to repeatedly play the Lotus Blossom, the hapless Asian victim.
In 1928, she moved her career to Europe by making several silent films with German director Richard Eichberg. She enjoyed a diversity of roles in Europe where she also became a society favourite, noted for her stylish fashion and polished manners. She also performed on the stage in French and German, and had a London run with the young Laurence Olivier in “The Circle of Chalk”.
“Piccadilly” (1929), filmed in England, became her definitive silent role. Sadly, her accomplishments in Europe did not translate into better roles back in America, where she again found herself in stereotype ghetto, playing either the Lotus Blossom or the Dragon lady. Yet when given a chance to shine, she rose to the occasion with a brilliant performance in Josef von Sternberg’s “Shanghai Express”.
Wong later refused to play negative Chinese roles, which alienated her from the Hollywood mainstream, limiting her mostly to TV or B-movie roles.
Wong’s determination, elegance, beauty and sophistication became the embodiment of Asian womanhood in the early 20th century. For contemporary films historians, she would forever symbolise the struggle for equality when true talent fell victim to Hollywood preconceptions.
“The Toll of the Sea” (1922) was inspired by Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly”. At 17, Wong shone with natural charm and measured grace, wowing audiences with a compelling performance. The film, the first Hollywood feature made in the two-strip Technicolor process, was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive from a 35mm nitrate negative. It will be screened together with “Piccadilly”.
“Piccadilly” (1929) is Anna May Wong at her best. Her performance is so powerful and presence so mesmerizing that she has commandeered the film as entirely her own. She transforms the melodrama into a timeless classic with the spirit of jazz-age London and her Asian-ness. Her dance atop a kitchen table remains one of the most erotic moments in film history. The copy shown is a restored version courtesy of British Film Institute.
“Shanghai Express” (1932), nominated for various Academy awards, is Wong’s best film. Josef Von Sternberg is one of cinema’s greatest directors of women and a master fabricator of atmospheric images. Under his fetishistic camera, Wong shines her erotic luminance and more than stands her ground beside the legendary Dietrich.
Not-to-be-missed are “Song” (1928) and “Pavement Butterfly” (1928), two early German silent movies with director Eichberg. “Song” represented Wong’s new lease of life from the racial stereotype in Hollywood. She first wowed the European audiences by her unique presence in a dangerous love rectangle.
“Pavement Butterfly” is a star vehicle for Wong. Parading in the latest Paris fashion and surrounding herself with bohemian types, she portrays a new image for the Asian woman: modern, composed and tinged with shades of the femme fatale. Both films have live music accompaniment by Ernesto Maurice Corpus.
After proving herself in Europe, Wong returned to the United States only to be awarded another stereotypical role of Dragon Lady in the “Daughter of the Dragon” (1931) which turned out to be one her biggest hits. The film is also marked by its pairing of early Hollywood's biggest Asian stars: Wong with Sessue Hayakawa, the Japanese actor who was a matinee idol in silent films.
“Daughter of Shanghai” (1938) and “Lady from Chungking” (1942) are rare Hollywood productions with Asian actors in benevolent leads. Wong appears as a Chinese heroine in both films. Though they are B-movies, the outstanding performance and vivid heroine image of Wong had upgraded the class of the films.
“The Toll of the Sea”, “Piccadilly”, “Song” and “Pavement Butterfly” are silent films with English subtitles. Other films are in English.
Tickets priced at $40 are available at URBTIX outlets. Half-price tickets are available for senior citizens, people with disabilities, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients. Reservations can be made by phone on 2734 9009 or on the Internet at http://www.urbtix.hk
Programme details can be found in the “ProFolio 29” at all LCSD’s performing venues. For programme information, call 2739 2139/ 2734 2900 or visit the website: http://www.lcsd.gov.hk/fp
Ends/Monday, October 31, 2005