About the Program
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words presents a vivid picture of the first Chinese American movie star – both an architect and a victim of her times.
Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was the first Chinese American movie star. She grew up in L.A., daughter of a laundryman. She first starred, at age 17, in Toll of the Sea, a silent version of Madame Butterfly. Her best-remembered film is Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich.
She made dozens of films in Hollywood, London and Berlin. She was glamorous; photographers flocked to take her portrait. She was worldly and articulate, with friends like Carl van Vechten, Evelyn Waugh and Paul Robeson. Yet she spent most of her career typecast either as a painted doll or a scheming Dragon Lady.
Anna May Wong in a still from Song (1928), a silent film directed by Richard Eichberg.
Anna May Wong could be perceived as a Chinese Stepin Fetchit, someone whose roles reinforced racist stereotypes. But a younger generation of Asian Americans sees her as a pioneering artist who succeeded in a hostile environment that hasn’t altogether changed.
Yunah Hong’s documentary is a thorough and imaginative survey of Wong’s career, with commentary from actors, scholars and biographers, old colleagues and acquaintances. Tamlyn Tomita, B.D. Wong, James Hong and other stars turn out to have a highly informed appreciation of their Hollywood forebear.
In July 1933, Anna May Wong introduced a cabaret act at the Embassy Club in London. During the next two years she took it across Europe. Behind the scenes she was fighting the biggest fight of her career, for the leading role in MGM’s production of The Good Earth. Her highest hopes and brightest talents were up against a Hollywood that had tagged her as a character actor.
Yunah Hong’s story begins in Wong’s dressing room – London, 1933. The actress Doan Ly, a veteran of stage and screen on both coasts, reenacts a series of key moments in Wong’s life and narrates the film in Anna’s voice. The commentary is drawn from Wong’s letters, performances and interviews. Yunah Hong draws a complex and ambiguous cultural history from this first-person perspective. Generous excerpts from Wong’s films, archival photographs and interviews contribute to a richly detailed picture of a woman and her times.
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words had its world premiere at the Pusan International Film Festival in Korea in October, 2010. It makes its American debut at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.