Sunday, March 13, 2011

Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words

Earlier today I saw Yunah Hong's new documentary Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words (2010) at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. I deliberately went in with modest expectations after my tepid response a few years ago to Elaine Mae Woo's documentary, Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows (2007). Woo's documentary struck me as being a little too reverent for such a groundbreaking individual as Anna May. Besides some rare footage, there wasn't much to recommend for those already familiar with her work.

Hong's documentary also features similarly rare footage: a young Anna May doing the Charleston; her 1936 trip to China, including a shot with Shanghai movie queen Hu Die; and scenes from the rarely screened Song (1928), her first European film. There are lots of great still photos as well. My favorite — and one I've never seen before — shows Anna May in boxing gloves, shorts, and a tank top with the initials HR, which must have been taken when she was working for the Hal Roach Studio in 1927.

The talking heads include actor James Hong, biographers Graham Hodges and Karen Leong, and cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Most surprising were Conrad Doerr (who rented an apartment from Anna May during the 1950s) and Susan Ahn Cuddy (who, along with her brother, actor Philip Ahn, grew up in the same Los Angeles neighborhood as Anna May).

But the heart of Hong's film — although most reviewers so far emphatically regard it as a glaring distraction — is the reenactment of Anna May by actress Doan Ly. She performs, in interview fashion, excerpts from Anna May's voluminous correspondence (evidently, much of it taken from letters to her dear friend, the noted photographer Carl Van Vechten), as well as songs from her European stage shows (the Chinese folk song "Jasmine Flower", "Parlez-moi d'amour", and Noel Coward's "Half-Caste Woman"). At first, Doan Ly's lack of resemblance to Anna May proved a stumbling block for me, but as soon as I let go of that unrealistic expectation, I began to appreciate her sensitive performance and Hong's use of this technique.

Anna May Wong is such an icon that it's often difficult to get a sense of her as a flesh-and-blood person. The performance of her letters and songs gives Hong's documentary an emotional depth that is quite touching. Incidents that I'd read about, such as Wong's absence from her mother's funeral because of her decision to keep working during the Broadway run of On the Spot (1930-31), are brought to life with great poignancy.

Yunah Hong's Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words paints a remarkably vivid portrait of one of the 20th century's most fascinating icons and is highly recommended to fans and strangers alike. It is screening one last time at the SFIAFF this coming Wednesday evening and will undoubtedly be making the festival rounds. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a not-too-distant DVD release (with lots of extras, please!).


Natalia Lopérgolo said...

I follow your blog from Argentina. Great info and beautiful photos.


dleedlee said...

Thanks for writing up your impressions on this documentary, Dave. Slowly, it seems Anna May will get the recognition she deserves. You're keeping the flame alive!

duriandave said...

-- Natalia, thanks for your support!

-- Dennis, BTW there was a screening afterwords of Charlie Chan at the Olympics, with Keye Luke competing on the US swim team and helping his dad return a top-secret military device back into US hands! Yunte Huang, who wrote the recent book about Charlie Chan, was also there for a short discussion. It was a perfect double-bill for me!

dleedlee said...

Cake and dessert on the same night! Too lucky you are. :D

ewaffle said...

Sounds like a great way to approach a biographical documentary--reading the words someone has left behind can be as illuminating as recreations or snippets of surviving film.

You point out how Doan Ly looks unlike Anna May Wong--an interesting choice on the part of the director. I wonder if Yunah Hong had that in mind when casting since trying to use someone who closely resembled Anna Mae Wong could also prove distracting.

Great review--this is a movie I will be looking for.

Hannah said...

I would of loved to hear some of Anna's letters, I find her fascinating

duriandave said...

-- Ed, in the Q&A after the screening, Yunah Hong said that the other final candidate looked exactly like AMW, but in the end she decided to go with Doan Ly because she gave a better audition.

-- Hannah, thanks for dropping by! I believe AMW's correspondence with Carl Van Vechten spans 30 years. They were very close friends. Anna May also wrote several newspaper articles, including a series of pieces during her trip to China.

Diana said...

April 7th at the Museum of the Chinese in America, NYC, one more chance to catch this film.

duriandave said...

Thanks for the link, Diana!

And it's totally free. Don't miss this, New Yorkers!

mojavevik said...

Finally---I feel as if I met Anna May---a short time machine---and that is good enough for me---Victor

duriandave said...

You'll definitely love this film, Victor. Don't miss it if it comes your way!

Zenka Ang said...

Hi Dave,

Great job there. I can learn so much about Anna May Wong from your blog.

I've also wrote 2 articles about Anna, one of them is about the song "These Foolish Things" I bet you like the song :)

Zenka Ang

duriandave said...

Hi again! Yep, I love this song. My favorite version is the one by Billie Holiday.

Glad to meet another AMW fan. Hope you write some more about her. :)