Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Secrets of Chinatown (1935)

Let me take a crack at trying to explain the plot of this very complex movie: In and around the Chinatowns of Seattle and Vancouver a dark organization of black robed men is smuggling drugs and worse in from China and elsewhere. If anyone gets to close they are send a coin which spells their doom. As police informants and investigators fall, the commissioner of police is forced to turn to a special investigator with a knack for disguise and a vast knowledge of Eastern ways to help bring an end to the body count. Also in the mix is a young man infatuated with a mysterious young girl (who can appear and disappear into thin air) who is somehow tied to the band of villains.

IMDb lists this as running 62 minutes, the version I saw ran 55, and in either case the running time would be way too short for what is going on the screen. There are so many characters, subplots, locations, and wild ideas (in a good way) that this movie easily could have run two hours and have kept you on the edge of your seat the whole time. The short running time is the problem with this movie because things are not explained, they just happen. Frequently you get the feeling that another scene or two should have been included. I don't think that the missing scenes were filmed, I think they filmed the bare minimum of scenes for you to be able to follow the plot and went with that.

I like this movie a great deal. No, its not completely clear as to whats going on at times, but its clear enough to make you want to see whats going on. In some ways the lack of clarity works for the film since it forces you to pay attention to the action. Besides in the end the film does tell you everything you need to know to enjoy the story, you just have to be patient and wait for the end. Additionally there are enough loose threads that make you get a sense that the film world actually exists somewhere and not just on the screen.

If you've seen a good many low budget mysteries or films from the same period where everything seems to be set bound then you'll want to take a look at this movie. Clearly filmed on location the film makers show us locations that aren't the run of the mill. Sure some of the offices look like normal film sets but the streets, the caves, the temples, the noodle shops are not. Its great that the film makers take what could have been very a "been there and done that" film and spiced up every element and turned it into something unique and worth watching.

Even better is the camera work. I don't ever remember seeing a any 1930's sound film that looked this good and mysterious, certainly not one that was shot on a small budget. I'm certain that some of the effects were achieved by simply choosing to shoot silent and post sync the sound. Its a small thing but the effects are stunning. Look at the murder of the police detective on the street, the high shots in the Chinese temple, or the sequence with the yogi where the drifting smoke seemed to lighten up everything behind it. Amazing, truly amazing. The technical work makes me want to show this to people just so they cam see the camera work (which most will probably not appreciate, but thats okay).

This is a great little film. Its one to search out especially if you want to see what a bunch of clever people can do when they refuse to do things the same old way.


  1. So glad you mention this film - it is one of my favorites!

    This a Canadian film filmed in Victoria BC, on Vancouver Island (not a Hollywood studio film). For more info on the film's production history, check out this entry in the Canadian Film Encyclopedia by Peter Morris: http://tiff.net/CANADIANFILMENCYCLOPEDIA/content/films/secrets-of-chinatown

  2. http://www.uer.ca/forum_showthread.asp?fid=1&threadid=19236&currpage=192