A collection of reviews of films from off the beaten path; a travel guide for those who love the cinematic world and want more than the mainstream releases.
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Imaginary Chinatown at the Metrograph beginning September 27
A Survey of Hollywood's Depiction of Chinatowns in America Includes Big Trouble in Little China, The Bowery, Year of the Dragon, Once Upon a Time in America, Gremlins, Alice, and Chinatown
"Anna May Wong: Empress of Chinatown" Sidebar to Open October 7
The international Chinatown, accessed through red lacquered gates bearing formidable dragon motifs, has been a vital aspect of both history and myth- making in the West for over 200 years and counting. At once a place of yearning for the far-flung homelands of an ever-growing pan-Asian population abroad and a locale onto which the West’s collective fantasy of the Orient can be projected, the exotic exteriors and supposedly mysterious, vice-ridden corridors of Chinatown have never failed to stir the imagination of Hollywood. Chinatown has been rendered as a hyperbolic fantasy space where anything—even Mogwais— can be bought and sold; where one partakes in copious amounts of opium from what a Broken Blossomsintertitle calls “the lily-tipped pipe”; where crime and sin are believed to go unpunished because the locals play by their own rules and “Forget it, Jake—it’s Chinatown.” While far too often trafficking in insidious stereotypes, these were among the first films to create roles—albeit caricatured ones—for pioneering Chinese-American actors (when not featuring white actors). Metrograph pays tribute to the complex tradition of Chinatown on film, beginning Wednesday, September 27.
Alice (Woody Allen/1990/102 mins/35mm) A lesser-known but wholly delightful entry from the heyday of Allen’s collaboration with the wizardly cinematographer Carlo di Palma, this magic realist spin on Alice in Wonderland stars Mia Farrow as a coddled Manhattan housewife whose tidy existence is upended when she begins to fantasize about handsome stranger Joe Mantegna. She seeks help from a Chinese herbalist, Dr. Yang (Keye Luke,Gremlins’ Mr. Wing and “Number One Son” to Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan), in Woody’s world a mystical version of an Upper West Side analyst.
Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter/1986/99 mins/35mm) Hop on the Jack Burton Pork-Chop Express! Long before Hollywood descended on Hong Kong to cannibalize its cinema, director Carpenter was attuned to the vibrations coming across the Pacific, as evidenced in his cult classic which has local boy Dennis Dun and honky buddy Kurt Russell penetrating the catacombs of San Francisco’s Chinatown to take on supernatural overlord Lo Pan. Shades of Sax Rohmer, but the joke is on Russell’s outsider, doing his best John Wayne impersonation and playing the archetypal all-American blowhard.
The Bowery (Raoul Walsh/1933/92 mins/DCP) Wallace Beery plays Chuck Connors, the legendary self-proclaimed “White Mayor of Chinatown,” here a slovenly unprincipled oaf whose prime preoccupation is getting the better of fellow showboat Steve Brodie (George Raft). Walsh was a true democrat who loved the feisty racial jibing of city life, and appropriately his rabble-rousing pre-Code imagining of New York in the Gay Nineties has something to offend end literally everyone.
Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith/1919/90 mins/35mm) Perhaps the most famous Chinese character in early American cinema was embodied by one Richard Barthelmess, cast against racial type as the lone friend of Lillian Gish’s poor wastrel, ceaselessly hounded by her bestial father in the slums of London’s Limehouse. Among Griffith’s best and most beautiful films, which finds the master of spectacle and sprawl forgetting his epic ambitions to work with rare delicacy and emotional intimacy.
Chinatown (Roman Polanski/1974/130 mins/35mm) “Chinatown” doesn’t play a major role in Polanski’s film of dirty dealing in 1930s Los Angeles, but it does a whole lot of metaphorical heavy lifting in the film’s famous kicker line, symbolic of a place where the rules and the language are beyond comprehension. We might mention that it’s a masterpiece, too, with Faye Dunaway as the woman in trouble, Jack Nicholson as nosey guy detective Jake Gittes, and John Huston as the vilest plutocrat in all of cinema.
Chinatown Nights (William Wellman/1929/83 mins/35mm) Four years before The Bowery, Wallace Beery played another uncouth variation on his “White Mayor of Chinatown,” here named Chuck Riley, in this pre-Code rabble-rouser (a/k/a Tong War) for hell-raising director “Wild Bill” Wellman. With the omnipresent Oland as the overboss of a sinister, opium smoke-wreathed Chinatown which tempts white rubberneckers like society gal Florence Vidor to come downtown, and a show-stopping shootout at a Chinese theatre.
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese/2002/207 mins/35mm) Fired by the spirits of Sam Fuller, Sergio Leone, and Walsh’s The Bowery, Scorsese drew from Herbert Asbery’s collection of underworld folklore to produce this rip-snorting epic of love and revenge in the time of the Draft Riots, with Daniel Day-Lewis as nativist Know-Nothing strongman Bill “The Butcher” Cutting and Leonardo DiCaprio as his sworn foe. For the shoot, Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti built their own Five Points at the Cinecittà studios in Rome, including a cavernous Chinatown club—this despite the fact that 1864 Manhattan lacked a large Chinese population.
Gremlins (Joe Dante/1984/106 mins/35mm) In American popular cinema, Chinatown has always been the place to go to find strange and exotic items, items such as—a pet mogwai? (That’s Cantonese for “monster,” by the way.) Joe Dante’s black-comic horror romp starts innocently enough, but when Gizmo’s new owners don’t heed the sage advice of Mr. Wing, there’s hell to pay for the residents of the little hamlet of Kingston Falls—and their Christmas decorations.
Jade (William Friedkin/1995/95 mins/35mm) A wild car chase through a Chinatown parade is the identifiable high-point of this sleazy-sexy little number courtesy Friedkin, who knows a thing or two about vehicular chaos, here contributing to the erotic thriller craze by way of a screenplay from subgenre godfather Joe Eszterhas. San Francisco detective David Caruso’s investigation of a millionaire’s murder puts him on the trail of a mysterious prostitute called “Jade,” who may or may not be lovely Linda Fiorentino, last to see the victim alive.
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone/1984/229 mins/35mm) Leone, known best for his sprawling Westerns, took on another distinctly American genre at the end of his career—the gangster picture. Moving back and forth along a timeline that spans from Prohibition to the late ‘60s, Leone’s rich, sad film, which manages to evoke both Proust and Fitzgerald, follows the character of Robert De Niro’s gangster Noodles from rags to riches and back again, as he considers his life from a palette in a Chinatown opium den—or is it all just a hop-head dream? Restored by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory in association with Andrea Leone Films, The Film Foundation, and Regency Enterprises. Restoration funding provided by Gucci and The Film Foundation.
Outside the Law (Tod Browning/1930/70 mins/35mm) Browning, lover and discoverer of Anna May Wong, here auto-remakes a title he first touched in 1920, starring Edward G. Robinson (before his Little Caesar break) as Cobra Collins, an aristocrat of the underworld who sets his eyes on tableaux vivant model Mary Nolan, who can’t disguise her disgust when she learns that Cobra has a Chinese mother. After an opening full of patented Browning grotesquerie,Outside the Law settles into a surprisingly sweet story about the vicissitudes of domestic life.
Year of the Dragon (Michael Cimino/1985/134 mins/35mm) After years in the wilderness post-Heaven’s Gate, director Cimino came barreling back with this passionate policier, which finds Polish Greenpoint-raised cop Mickey Rourke pounding a new beat, trying to clean up a gang-ridden NYC Chinatown run by suave crime kingpin John Lone. Vigorously protested at the time of its release, it stands today as a showcase for Cimino’s rich, baroque style, a vintage neighborhood snapshot, and the only movie whose closing credits roll over curtain call film of Teresa Teng singing “Tian Mi Mi.”
"Anna May Wong: Empress of Chinatown" Begins October 7
Born in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Anna May Wong’s early days of working for her father’s laundry made her meticulous about dressing. Since her father wanted a boy, she watched her sister wear masculine clothes to appease him, and this would in time inspire her androgynous onscreen presence, a quality she shared with Marlene Dietrich, with whom she would be glamorously paired in Josef Von Sternberg’sShanghai Express. Thanks to her preternatural beauty, Wong was modeling fur coats by the age of ten, and by the time she was a teenager she had broken into the movie business—not a time exceedingly receptive to screen testing Asian faces. Throughout her career Wong would bridle at the exoticized roles she was handed, even taking o for Europe when Hollywood disappointed her, but she approached every lm with incredible grace and dignity, and what remains of her through the years is a seductive, incredibly chic, and startlingly modern screen presence. Titles include Toll of the Sea (Chester M. Franklin), Old San Francisco (Alan Crosland), Daughter of the Dragon (Lloyd Corrigan), Shanghai Express(Josef von Sternberg), and Anna May Wong Visits Shanghai, a newsreel restored by UCLA, all in 35mm