Thursday, June 1, 2017

Asian Americans in Film

Bruce Lee - his presence on the big screen was short-lived - he died in 1973 when this blogger was in the 11th grade of high school.  Fear not for also admired was Peggy Lipton of the TV show Mod Squad.

There must have been quite a dry spell without Asian Americans in film.  Then a theatrical production, Paper Angels, aired on public television in 1985, and this blogger must have ordered this poster afterwards.  The play explored the experience of Chinese immigrants entering at Angel Island near San Francisco, the west coast version of Ellis Island.

(All images from this blogger's collection
except as noted)

Occasional high points of movie-going in the 1980s and 1990s were The Last Emperor, released in 1987, and The Joy Luck Club in 1993.  The year 2000 brought Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon proving the marketability of Asian actors albeit international stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, as well as the films starring Jackie Chan.

This blog posting covers many productions viewed through the years, including screenings for independent documentaries entailing Asian American stories.

In the year 2000 comedian Margaret Cho, survivor of a short-lived TV show, released a live comedy film I'm the One That I Want.  It was screened at the Nuart, and Margaret was at the door with a no-nonsense demeanor collecting tickets from attendees as we filed in.

Although the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival has been around since 1983 (originally under the name VC FilmFest) this blogger did not take notice for decades.

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam was shown at the Arclight in Hollywood during the 2004 festival.  Here is the description of the film from the National Film Board of Canada: 

"This feature documentary offers a whimsical tour through the history of Chinese magicians and performers in the Western world. Long Tack Sam was an internationally renowned Chinese acrobat and magician who overcame isolation, poverty, cultural and linguistic barriers, extreme racism and world wars to become one of the most successful acts of his time. Filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming travels the globe searching for the story of her great-grandfather, the cosmopolitan Long Tack Sam. A celebration of the spirit of Long Tack Sam's magic and art, this richly textured first-person road movie is an exhilarating testament to his legacy and a prismatic tour through the 20th Century."  The film can be viewed at the National Film Board of Canada website.

Not owning any memento on this film,
this blogger almost forgot about this screening
(Image courtesy NFB of Canada)

At the 2006 film festival, The Queen from Virginia, the Jackie Bong Wright Story was an enjoyable documentary following a Vietnamese woman as she competed in the Ms. Senior America Pageant.

A Brief Flight, Hazel Ying Lee and the Women Who Flew Pursuit, was a 2003 film by Alan H. Rosenberg.  It was shown at an event hosted by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, based in Chinatown Los Angeles.  The screening date might have been a year or two after the film was finished.  Hazel was the first Chinese American woman to fly for the U.S. military, for the WASP (Women's Air Force Pilot) program.  She crashed during a mission resulting in her death.  She fulfilled her life's goal to fly, but racial discrimination nearly followed her to the grave as hometown  Portland, Oregon, objected to her burial in an all-white cemetery.

(Image courtesy of Pinterest:
Chinese Americans in the Military)

An autographed DVD was snapped up following a live performance at the Aratani/Japan America Theater in Little Tokyo in September, 2006 by the Kims of Comedy at the annual AADAP (Asian American Drug Abuse Program) fundraiser show.  The four Korean American standup comedians were Steve Byrne, Dr. Ken Jeong, Bobby Lee, and Kevin Shea.  (This blogger recalls a couple of Korean American standups from an earlier generation: Johnny Yune and Henry Cho.)

The 2008 film festival prompted attendance at two documentaries.  Long Story Short, Not Your Typical Song and Dance was a tribute to actress Jodi Long's parents, nightclub entertainers who also garnered an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.


Filmmaker Arthur Dong released his documentary Hollywood Chinese, the Chinese in American Feature Films in 2009 or 2010 but not as part of the film festival lineup.

Another independent film widely screened in L.A., Hawaii, and many cities around the country was Cory Shiozaki's look at Japanese internment history through the Sierras freshwater fishing in The Manzanar Fishing Club.  It first came out in 2012 (?)

Its original working title was From Barbed Wire to Barbed Hooks.

In recognition of the Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month for 2015, the Japanese American National Museum presented a double feature in Little Tokyo:  a new documentary, On Gold Mountain, with a historical look at four Chinese American women; and The Curse of the Quon Gwon, a restored silent film with a new music score, thanks to filmmaker Arthur Dong.  Curse is the earliest known work by an Asian American director, who happened to be a woman, Marion Wong.  Here was my previous blog post on that terrific screening written in conjunction with admiration for artist Milton Quon.

2016's film festival screening of Tyrus at the Aratani Theater brought a full audience that included the subject himself, Mr. Tyrus Wong, who lived to see the Pamela Tom documentary.  Sadly, he died seven months later at the age of 106.

This year the 2017 film festival offered Robin Lung's Finding Kukan which prompted the blog posting from last month and continues to inspire for this current post.  Lung uncovers the story of the previously unheralded woman behind the making of the 1941 Kukan which was among the first documentaries to received Oscar recognition.

Asian Americans in film are gaining an inch of ground.  This blogger admires several actors, particularly as they have been able to attain roles that are not necessarily color-bound:  Ken Jeong, Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Gedde Watanabe and B.D. Wong.

Yet still a recent viewing of 1961's West Side Story on DVD brought a double-take, and nearly a jaw drop, as one of Maria's Puerto Rican friends, Francisca, was acted and performed by Japanese American Joanne Miya (real name Nobuko Miyamoto).

Finally, this blogger regrets to not have yet seen Linsanity from 2013.  The well-received film about phenomenal Taiwanese American NBA athlete Jeremy Lin is on the bucket list.

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