Film + Video Show and Tell #5: Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words

About This Show

CRS (Center for Remembering & Sharing) presents Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, a one-hour documentary by Yunah Hong. Ms. Hong will be present to introduce the film, discuss her efforts to get it aired on public television, and take questions from the audience following the screening.

Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was the first Chinese American movie star. She grew up in L.A., daughter of a laundryman. She first starred, at age 17, in “Toll of the Sea,” a silent version of Madame Butterfly. Her best-remembered film is “Shanghai Express” with Marlene Dietrich. She made dozens of films in Hollywood, London and Berlin. She was glamorous; photographers flocked to take her portrait. She was worldly and articulate, with friends like Carl van Vechten, Evelyn Waugh and Paul Robeson. Yet she spent most of her career typecast either as a painted doll or a scheming Dragon Lady.

Director: Yunah Hong
Executive Producer: William Smock
Producer: William Smock
Cinematographer: Eric Lin, Liam Dalzell

Yunah Hong’s story begins in Wong’s dressing room – London, 1933. The actress Doan Ly, a veteran of stage and screen on both coasts, reenacts a series of key moments in Wong’s life and narrates the film in Anna’s voice. The commentary is drawn from Wong’s letters, performances and interviews. Yunah Hong draws a complex and ambiguous cultural history from this first- person perspective. Generous excerpts from Wong’s films, archival photographs and interviews contribute to a richly detailed picture of a woman and her times.

The film was funded in part by grants from the Asian Women Giving Circle, the Center for Asian American Media, the Jerome Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts and had its world premiere at the Pusan International Film Festival in Korea in October, 2010. It makes its American debut at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

This intricately constructed and bittersweet documentary of commentaries, film clips and re-enacted performances, details the life of screen legend and first major Asian American actress, Anna May Wong. I was incredibly touched by the candid and feisty reflections of a woman who courageously chose a life that was a radical departure from familial and cultural expectations. Her choice, was not without sacrifice yet there is nothing tragic about her tale. Anna May Wong’s story is one of resistance — of pushing back against close-mindedness and claiming space. Women are not supposed to do that! Of course, she was able to do this with glamour, style and humor which in my mind, forever secures her place in history as an icon of substance.
— Jennifer Banta, Art Drift

Anna May Wong could be perceived as a Chinese Stepin Fetchit, someone whose roles reinforced racist stereotypes. But a younger generation of Asian Americans sees her as a pioneering artist who succeeded in a hostile environment that hasn’t altogether changed. Yunah Hong’s documentary is a thorough and imaginative survey of Wong’s career, with commentary from actors, scholars and biographers, old colleagues and acquaintances. Tamlyn Tomita, B.D. Wong, James Hong and other stars turn out to have a highly informed appreciation of their Hollywood forebear.

In July 1933, Anna May Wong introduced a cabaret act at the Embassy Club in London. During the next two years she took it across Europe. Behind the scenes she was fighting the biggest fight of her career, for the leading role in MGM’s production of The Good Earth. Her highest hopes and brightest talents were up against a Hollywood that had tagged her as a character actor.

Director Yunah Hong first saw Anna May Wong in Joseph von Sternberg’s “Shanghai Express.” Though she is marginalized in the film as a Chinese and a prostitute, Wong was a beautiful, independent, gutsy American woman unlike anyone Yunah Hong had ever met. The filmmaker embarked on a seven-year quest to find out what Anna May Wong had been like as a person.

Doan Ly has appeared in ten TV series and two films. She has played major Shakespearean roles at New York’s Public Theater and the Classic Stage Company.

The Center for Asian American Media, a consortium of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, exists to bring Asian American programs to public TV. Don Young, Program Director at CAAM, says this about the project:

“I feel that ‘Anna May Wong’ is a very strong prospect for broadcast during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May). Yunah has done an exceptional job with her material – she has put a tremendous amount of energy and intelligence into the film. She has one more hurdle to pass before we can send the film to PBS. She has secured partial copyright licenses for her film clips of Anna May Wong — for festival screenings, but not for national broadcast. Until she does that, she cannot obtain the Errors and Omissions Insurance PBS requires. Both of these steps cost money. I strongly urge anyone who cares about Asian Americans in the media to help Yunah tie up these loose ends.”

Director Yunah Hong moved to New York from Korea to do graduate work. She has made eight films. All of them focus, in one way or another, on Asian American women. Between the Lines: Asian American Women’s Poetry is a one-hour documentary that weaves together autobiographies and readings by 16 poets. Becoming an Actress in New York (40:00) follows three hopefuls as they trek to auditions, work with coaches, strive to be noticed in workshop productions and labor at day jobs. Yunah Hong has made several experimental films, including Memory/all echo, based on the work of multimedia artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.

Doan Ly has appeared in ten TV series and two films. She has played major Shakespearean roles at New York’s Public Theater and the Classic Stage Company.

Show Details

Running Time: 1hr 30min (0 intermissions)
Dates: One Night Only: November 18, 2011