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!).