Overt racism collides with the economics of an industry and the perceptions of a culture in "Hollywood Chinese," a provocative critical survey of the first century of American cinema and the ways that Chinese and Chinese-Americans have been depicted by the industry.
Arthur Dong's "Hollywood Chinese," which opens today at Cinema Village, effectively connects historical dots, helping us to see how the stereotypes and clichés of the 1920s and '30s continue to mold the expectations of today's audiences and studio executives. The suppression of Chinese actors and characters that began a century ago and branded Chinese culture as the "other" has steamrolled right up to the present day.
All this said, one wonders who will see Mr. Dong's documentary, or, more specifically, if the audience of casual moviegoers that would surely benefit from the skillful introduction to film study will make their way downtown this weekend instead of watching the Middle East clichés on display in "Iron Man."
Building a case from the ground up, Mr. Dong (who, in "Coming Out Under Fire," "Licensed to Kill," and "Family Fundamentals" has spent more than a decade chronicling America's relationship with on homosexuality) re-creates the sad history of Chinese characters on Western screens and their narrow roles of mystical evildoers, humble servants, or forbidden loves. Even when that rare Chinese character has found mainstream success — as was the case with such fictional creations as Suzi Wong, Charlie Chan, and Fu Manchu — they have either dished out fortune-cookie wisdom or played the hooker with the heart of gold, just waiting to run off with the hearts of American soldiers.
Mr. Dong establishes the difficulties faced by Chinese actors, many of whom were directed to reinforce clichés about their culture in exchange for a paycheck. For a struggling actor, that was often better than the alternative, which was to watch an American actor play the role in Chinese makeup.
The history lesson in "Hollywood Chinese" is informative and enlightening, but the truly groundbreaking material in "Hollywood Chinese" is Mr. Dong's re-creation of the alternative Chinese cinema. While researching the film, Mr. Dong unearthed a silent 1916 film titled "The Curse of Quon Gwon," a grainy black-and-white print that today stands as the earliest known artifact of Chinese-American filmmaking. In the film, as in many other works from the silent era and beyond that Mr. Dong has assembled, we see real Chinese characters and families, all scripted and filmed by Chinese filmmakers, telling a much different story than Hollywood's tales of monsters and mystics.