Just in time for China’s (sometimes warranted) resurgence in the press as global bogeyman, Arthur Dong’s survey of Chinese-Americans’ prickly relationship with Hollywood is a fascinating exploration of the intricacies of cultural assimilation. Its impressive bonanza of interviewees and film clips make it a joy to watch, too.
Among the former, actors Lisa Lu, TV stalwart James Hong and erstwhile sex kitten Nancy Kwan discuss their experiences eking out a living as all-purpose movie Asians, while Wayne Wang and Justin Lin shed light on their travails as filmmakers. On the flip side, old-schoolers Turhan Bey, Christopher Lee (star of Hammer’s risible Fu Manchu series) and near-centenarian Luise Rainer convincingly defend their turns faking it as “Orientals.” Movie snippets include such guilty pleasures as the Charlie Chan films and Flower Drum Song, and more intriguingly, a series of Chinese-American-made films produced from the silent era into the ’40s.
Disarmingly lofty from the get-go, Hollywood Chinese tackles its topic with visual grace and narrative agility. Dong sidesteps foregone conclusions, giving the rawness and equivocation of his subjects (particularly Joan Chen and B.D. Wong) an unencumbered airing. All the better to emphasize the callousness of an industry that stifles expression of ethnic identity in favor of safe, tired stereotypes of sexual and philosophical mystique.