Joe's Movie Reviews

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hollywood Chinese

The relative lack of new, first-run movies of late has led me to resort to such subjects as the ratings board, and, now, movie-related television. But hey, I might as well write about TV while I can (since for me, it's going to disappear after June 12), and at least there is a legitimate movie connection.

The PBS series "American Masters" has given us documentaries on an extremely wide variety of topics, and almost all of them have been well worth watching. The proud tradition continues with "Hollywood Chinese", an examination of the ups and downs of Chinese and Chinese-American actors and film-makers over the decades, as they attempt to build a career in films that don't reduce them to stereotypes and offer them the same opportunities as others. As we see, they have faced a unique set of challenges on that quest.

Minority actors have always faced an uphill battle, but few of them have been consistently portrayed as the embodiment of menace the way Chinese characters were from the days of the silent movies on. Actors like the surprisingly youthful 80-year-old James Hong ("Big Trouble In Little China") are quite candid in interviews about how comparatively little the situation has changed for them from the 1940's to the present (Hong has been on TV shows like "Seinfeld" and movies like "Chinatown", but almost inevitably as a waiter, a butler or a super villain). Joan Chen talks with pride about her role in the Oscar winning "The Last Emperor" but also with frustration about how she finally had to go back to China in order to do any work after that with any substance, making her directing debut with "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl".

The film doesn't ignore the huge popularity of martial arts themed movies in recent years, with casts headed by Chinese actors, but notes interestingly how most of these roles are played by actors like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow-Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh... performers who were born or lived for many years IN China, not the U.S., so this genre isn't really giving new opportunities to many Chinese Americans.

And there are some very interesting observations about how (1) Chinese roles were played for so many years by Western actors (there are some amazingly embarassing film clips of stars like Katherine Hepburn "being" Chinese), (2) when Chinese actors got work during World War II it was often as Japanese characters (a practice which continues today: remember "Memoirs Of A Geisha"?), and (3) the rarity of a Chinese performer getting work in a role that doesn't blatantly call attention to their race.

But yes, there are some ups as well as downs, and as the film shows, most of them have come in recent years from Chinese/Chinese-American directors stepping behind the camera to tell the stories that Hollyood doesn't seem to be eager to tell. Film makers like Justin Lin ("Better Luck Tomorrow"), Wayne Wang ("Chan Is Missing") and of course the first Asian Oscar-winning director Ang Lee have been telling authentic stories of Chinese life in the U.S. film industry and have sometimes even broken into "mainstream" films (Lin, Wang and Lee have all had considerable success with full-fledged big studio Hollywood product). "Hollywood Chinese" does an impressive job in both showing how the situation has finally begun to change for the better while not minimizing the difficulty of the past struggles, or of implying that there are no more such struggles remaining. After all, there still to this date has yet to be a single Chinese Oscar winner in an acting category. But that's probably a great deal closer to being a real possibility now than it was several decades ago. Check out "Hollywood Chinese" when you get the chance, and once again learn more than you thought you could from a show this entertaining. The "American Masters" tradition continues.


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