June 2018, arsenal cinema

Anna May Wong – Star, Icon, Boundary Breaker

Anna May Wong (born Wong Liu Tsong, 1905 – 1961) first arrived in Berlin almost 90 years ago to the month. It was April 1928 and the first Chinese-American movie star, who was already acclaimed internationally, had great expectations. She was glamorous, extremely beautiful and oozing with sex appeal. Her success had not changed the fact that in view of the Chinese-American population being largely excluded politically, socially and economically, she was often cast in (supporting) roles that promoted stereotypical ideas of the “exotic”. She would “joke” about the thousand deaths she had died during her film career, playing meek housemaids or calculating servants, women prepared to sacrifice themselves to their lovers or evil femme fatales, but always trying to bring dignity and elegance to the part. Main roles were rare, as were romances with happy endings. From the late 1920s, Wong travelled to Europe several times to find other opportunities for developing her artistic talents. She wooed the cinema audiences and artistic and cultural scenes of Berlin, London and Paris with her grace and elegance, her unstoppable energy and calculated coolness and her acting skills that allowed her to go from the erotic to the unscrupulous with such ease. Nonetheless, she never really fulfilled her hopes to escape the norms, stereotypes and roles of Hollywood. Despite the contemporary audiences’ enthusiasm and the global coverage of Anna May Wong’s films, her trips to China and her campaign to promote a better understanding of Chinese culture in the US and in Europe, apart from THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1925) and SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932), films featuring her have rarely been shown in Germany. Our program comprises 12 films, including a documentary, and illustrates Wong’s career in adverse political conditions, paying tribute to an extraordinary actress who broke boundaries and acted as a mediator between continents and cultures.

GROSSSTADTSCHMETTERLING. BALLADE EINER LIEBE (Pavement Butterfly, Richard Eichberg, G/GB 1929, 1.6., Introduction: Yiman Wang, University of California, Santa Cruz, Musical accompaniment: Eunice Martins, Abril Padilla & 6.6., on piano: Eunice Martins) From a shabby vaudeville stage in Paris to a glamorous carnival ball in Monte Carlo: Anna May Wong’s second collaboration with Richard Eichberg, one of the most popular German directors of the 1920s, is an obstacle course though very different worlds, from dilapidated street stages and dingy but romantic artist homes to elegant restaurants and stately homes. Playing the vaudeville dancer Mah, Wong traverses these different melodramatic environments with a tour de force of acting. Everything begins with a murder that takes place on the open stage. Mah is wrongly suspected and flees, finding refuge with an unsuccessful street painter. A short period of happy bohemian life and a germinating love affair is thwarted by a former vaudeville colleague (Alexander Granach) who forces Mah to follow the artist that she loves. Costly sets and splendid costumes provide the frame for Wong’s acting: “sublime, piercing, luminous” (Ernst Blaß, 1929).

ANNA MAY WONG: IN HER OWN WORDS (Yunah Hong, USA 2011, 2. & 17.6.) This portrait of an extraordinary actress combines the voices and evaluations of Asian-American actors and film experts today, as well as the impressions of Wong’s colleagues and contemporaries, interweaving the different stages of Wong’s life with a multitude of photos and film extracts. It also features  scenes of a performance reading based on interviews of Wong and letters by her. The documentary not only conveys an impression of Wong’s great talent and exceptional screen presence, but also a paints a picture of the dramatic social obstacles that she was confronted with and that she constantly tried to overcome.

THE TOLL OF THE SEA (Chester M. Franklin, USA 1922, 2. & 19.6., on piano: Eunice Martins) Anna May Wong played her first lead role at the age of 17. In this (early) Technicolor adaptation of Madam Butterfly, which is set in China, the young and romantic Lotus Flower (Wong) rescues an American from drowning. In the background, a Chinese legend about the luring dangers of the sea, whose gifts also entail despair and loneliness, sounds the end of their love in the coming happy months. When the couple separates temporarily, Lotus Flower plays the role of the tragic heroine who confronts her heavy disappointment with stoic resignation. Anna May Wong’s acting was rich with nuance, as she went from an easygoing and happy tomboy to a mother who denies her feelings; she enchanted and stirred (not only) the audience of the time and was propelled to stardom practically overnight. But the Lotus Flower character - a woman prepared to sacrifice herself - was typical for the roles she would be offered in future: A suffering heroine, whose love of a white man cannot end happily, against the backdrop of the Draconian mixed race marriage laws in the US.

DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (Robert Florey, USA 1937, 3.6., Introduction: Yumin Li, Humboldt University Berlin & 8.6.) For decades, Hollywood deliberately chose non-Asian actors to portray Asian characters. Therefore, it is all the more astonishing that in DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAItwo Asian characters not only form the focus of the film but are actually played by actors of Asian origin:   Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn. The two are hunting down a group of human smugglers. Anna May Wong plays the daughter of a rich businessman who was murdered after getting in the way of some racketeers and Philip Ahn plays a US government official tasked with putting an end to the gangsters’ game. This is a fast-paced, stylishly lit, cleverly edited thriller in which Wong is not reduced to a “dragon lady”: at the beginning she is a courageous and independent woman intent on avenging her father’s murder; later she turns her attention to her love interest and there is a happy ending.

SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Josef von Sternberg, USA 1932, 4. & 26.6.) This is probably the film with which Anna May Wong is most often associated. It features her most famous one-liner in a scene in which she is asked to confirm that she is “respectable”: “I must confess,” she retorts. “I don’t quite know the standard of respectability that you demand in your boarding house, Mrs. Haggerty”. Cool, unapproachable and restrained, Wong is a member of a small, random party of travelers on the fast train from Beijing to Shanghai. She shares her compartment with Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich). On board are also Lily’s ex-lover and Henry Chang (played by the Swedish actor Warner Oland wearing yellow-face) who turns out to be a brutal Chinese rebel leader. The train crosses a country ravaged by civil war: It is first stopped by government troops and then by a nefarious rebel group. Hostages are taken, demands are made. Wong’s character puts an end to the whole episode, saving her fellow travelers’ lives as casually as heroically. Wong was accused in the Chinese newspapers of bringing shame to China with her portrayal of a Chinese prostitute. The first screenings were disrupted by demonstrators and then the film was banned in China.

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (Raoul Walsh, USA 1924, 5. & 25.6.)  is an oriental fairytale extravaganza. Douglas Fairbanks was producer, co-author and also actor, playing the role of Ahmed, the roguish and reckless thief of Bagdad; Raoul Walsh came up with grand ideas and fireworks, setting off a cascade of special effects; William Cameron Menzies was the megalomaniac furnisher of an exotic fantasy world inspired by One Thousand and One Nights and Anna May Wong played a supporting role as the Mongol slave of a caliph’s daughter. During a daring robbery in the caliph’s palace, Ahmed falls in love with the daughter. The next day, he asks for her hand wearing the stolen suit of an aristocrat, alongside three other suiters: A prince from India, one from Persia and one from Mongolia. When the ploy comes to light, the Mongol slave (Wong) betrays Ahmed to the Mongol prince. Ahmed narrowly escapes the death penalty and decides to become a real prince. The entire caliphate, including the princess, is jeopardized. Wong’s costume was as daring as plotting servant character was scheming. The film marked her international breakthrough.

SONG. DIE LIEBE EINES ARMEN MENSCHENKINDES (Show Life, Richard Eichberg, G/GB 1928, 7. & 21.6., on piano: Eunice Martins; 21.6.: Introduction: Michael Wedel, Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf) In his “Speaking with Anna May Wong: A Chinoiserie from the Old West” published in July 1928, Walter Benjamin cited the actress as saying ‘But the role is perfect. It is a role that belongs to me like no other before.” She was talking about her role as Malaynin Song, a woman who rescues the knife thrower John (Heinrich George) from intrusive sailors, from which moment on she supports as his partner and as a dancer on vaudeville stages, until his earlier life catches up with him. It was a role that fulfilled her desire for more layered and less stereotypical lead roles. This first collaboration with Richard Eichberg in Germany was also a melodrama of tension: Between Anna May Wong’s delicate and subtle acting and a huge George, between dingy gin dens and fashionable clubs, between the power of memory and the force of illusion, not wanting to see and not being able to see. Anna May Wong’s balancing act between silent love, a concealed career and covert help culminates in a trancelike sword dance, for which she wore a wonderful robe in which she tried to drive away the demons once and for all.

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (Lloyd Corrigan, USA 1931, 8. & 11.6.) Wong’s first work after returning from Europe once again shows the restrictions of Hollywood. She was given the lead role of this thriller inspired by the bestseller The Daughter of Fu Manchuplaying side by side with Sessue Hayakawa, who had been an established Japanese actor and Hollywood star since the mid-1910s, but there is no mistaking the stereotypical nature of her role as the nefarious “daughter of the dragon” Princess Ming Loy, who seeks revenge after the death of her father Fu Manchu (Warner Oland in yellow-face again). Ming Loy’s temporary grappling with an oath to restore the family’s honor leads her to act in an even more merciless way in the showdown. Once again, Wong embodies the “yellow peril”, undergoing a transformation from dancer (dressed in magnificent costumes) to a villain who pulls an infamous dagger from her long Chinese sleeve.

CHU CHIN CHOW (Walter Forde, GB 1934, 9. & 13.6.) An oriental musical fantasy with opulent sets (Ernö Metzner) and lavish costumes where glamor and grotesque meet, one in which one would wish Anna May Wong had more appearances in a less stereotypical context. She plays Zahrat, the slave of an overweight master; she sings, dances, seduces, betrays and at the end she gives a hint that plays a crucial part in a rescue. This film adaptation of a successful stage musical focuses on Zahrat’s lovers, the crafty Abu Hasan (Fritz Kortner rolling his eyes), who killed the salesman Chu Chin Chow to be able to Bagdad in his place. But Ali Baba, his 40 thieves and his beloved Marjanah stand in his way. In an awful confusion of kitchens, caves, market place and banqueting hall scenes, Wong masters the quieter but not less dramatic scenes.

PICADILLY (Ewald André Dupont, GB 1929, 9. & 16.6., on piano: Eunice Martins, 16.5., Introduction: Tim Bergfelder, University of Southampton, GB) One has to wait a long 12 minutes for Wong’s first   brilliant appearance in Dupont’s noir melodrama. Playing the kitchen maid Shosho, she dances on the washing table, lost in herself but very confident. She not only prevents her colleagues from washing but also inspires the owner of the title’s Piccadilly club Wilmot to make her into the star his evening program - wearing a breathtaking Chinese costume. A spiral of ambition and jealousy, desire and deception is set in motion: Shosho’s predecessor at Piccadilly is not ready to be pushed off the stage and out of Wilmot’s heart quite so easily. The musician Jim observes Wilmot and Shosho’s rapprochement with silent jealousy. The erotic tension of a rendezvous between Wilmot and Shosho is discharged into an act of despair. The atmospheric mise-en-scene and the masterful camera work focus on a cool and charismatic Anna May Wong.

THE FLAME OF LOVE (Richard Eichberg, GB/D 1930, 10. & 23.6.) Wong’s third cooperation with Eichberg was her first talkie. But the new technology did not give Wong much more significant possibilities to expand her range of roles: In THE FLAME OF LOVE, she plays Hai-Tang, a dancer, singer and star in a Chinese song-and-dance ensemble that has a guest performance in Tsarist Moscow. Lieutenant Boris Borrisoff (John Longden) falls head over heels in love with her. Her situation becomes even more complicated when the Russian archduke makes a claim on her too. The first version featured a kissing scene between Won and Longen. It was cut out of the prints after public outrage at a kiss between a Chinese woman and a white man.

TIGER BAY (J. Elder Wills, GB 1934, 22. & 29.6.) Originally supposed to be set in the London Limehouse district, the eponymous location of the film as “the home of all the riffraff of the seven seas” was transposed to South America - who would imagine that there might be a hotbed of vice in London! Unthinkable! In this multi-cultural den of thieves, Lui Chang (Wong) runs a bar in which she performs as a dancer. Lui’s “adoptive” sister Letty, who was put into the foster care of Chang’s family as an orphan, and is not actually allowed to enter the shady club watches one of her performances. Soon a gangster harasses her and he is stopped by an English adventurer. The gangster wants revenge and kidnaps Letty which prompts Lui to action. Her coup has dramatic consequences and the social prejudices and different fears of the time have bitter echoes today. (mg)

Supported by funds from the Capital Cultural Fund.

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