I’ve read about Josef von Sternberg’s visual prowess and his successful collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, and due to my own laziness this shining partnership wasn’t part of my moviegoing experience. Thus, Friday April 29th’s screening of Shanghai Express at TCMFF was a total must.
A TRULY EXTRAORDINARY VINTAGE:
Anna May Wong.
Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express. pic.twitter.com/fx2srRTMdB
— Distracted Film (@distractedfilm) February 13, 2016
I was expecting arresting, B&W compositions with Dietrich’s presence commanding the frame as well as standout work from this silver screen legend, and on those levels the 1932 delivered in spades. Based on an actual incident that transpired in 1923 on the Beijing-Shanghai line, the narrative centers on the bittersweet reunion of Shanghai Lily (Dietrich), a seen-it-all beauty who, even after years of heartbreak, only has eyes for a terse and seemingly unforgiving military surgeon (Clive Brook). A cast of colorful characters populate the train, and the feature is a confident blend of romance, comedy, and drama, all filtered through Sternberg’s detailed and surprisingly evocative use of mise en scéne.
There are simply moments from this film that took my breath away, and Sternberg’s absolute love for Dietrich’s charisma and power, along with a cracking script from Jules Furthman, are the heart and soul of Shanghai Express.
But even with my pure adulation over Shanghai Express, the biggest “surprise” came from Anna May Wong who, until that morning, was a person in name only. In the film, Hui Fei (Wong) is often seen in close quarters with Shanghai Lily and in a train replete with dudes (including Warner Oland, who’s terrific as the film’s villain), it’s up to Lily and Hui Fei to stand their ground.
— TCM (@tcm) April 29, 2016
As Orson Welles (Touch of Evil) and John Wayne (Seven Sinners) have undoubtedly experienced, sharing screen time with Marlene Dietrich inevitably leads to being overshadowed. Wong, along with being a natural beauty, is a commanding presence and her ultimate chemistry with Dietrich (although very few words are exchanged between the two), is actually more palpable than Dietrich’s moments with Brook! And without giving out any spoilers, Hui Fei’s ends up being the biggest bada** in Shanghai Express (Dietrich, of course, is a not too distant second).
Though she’s been celebrated years after her passing and even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it would have been wonderful to see her take on O-Lan in The Good Earth (the talented Luise Rainer won the Oscar for the role) or simply have a sustainable career in Hollywood that was filled with memorable roles.
But as much as I love and will continue to adore cinema, it’s easy to understand that Hollywood, while a purveyor of fantasies, hasn’t exactly opened the doors to Asian-American actors and actress (at least in cinematic terms).
Though TV projects such as Dr. Ken and Fresh off the Boat are a step in the right direction, it’s shocking to realize that Anna May Wong’s work in Shanghai Express is one of the few Asian-American roles that have made an impact on my own moviegoing experience.
As much as I eat, sleep, and drink, cinema, Shanghai Express was a shocking reminder that if it wasn’t for Bruce Lee films, Jason Scott Lee (he’s wonderful and heartbreaking in Map of the Human Heart), BD Wong (check out his manipulation game with Will Smith in Focus), and now Anna May Wong, my appreciation and love for Asian American actors simply wouldn’t exist.
I’m all about seeing good movies, and though it’s understandable why Scarlett Johansson would land the lead in Ghost in the Shell or Emma Stone would say Aloha with Cameron Crowe, it’s embarrassing that significant movie roles featuring an Asian American actor are few and far between (that being said, thank you Alan Parker and Wayne Wang).
During my UCLA days, I wrote a weekly film column for the Daily Bruin titled “Dream Factory” wherein I spotlighted various stories about filmmaking and the seductive allure and harsh realities of the film industry. One of my final pieces was titled “shedding the kung fu curse,” and it dealt with my frustrating over the lack of Asian-American representation in cinema.
Having reported on Film & TV, first as a radio journalist for Westwood One and now as the editor of the movie sites Hollywood Outbreak and Deepest Dream, a big part of my life has been defined by my unconditional movie love. Somewhere along the way I’ve simply ignored the glaring misrepresentation and lack of opportunities that have been afforded for Asian Americans, and artists like Anna May Wong remind me that very fact.
I’m thrilled the Turner Classic Film Festival exists, as it gives movie buffs a nostalgic reminder of what once was and, more importantly, what still could be. In the coming months, as I struggle to finish watching 1,000 movies by the end of 2016, I’ll be adding all of Anna May Wong’s body of work to my list (as well as films featuring Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg).
The introduction to Shanghai Express was also a highlight, as Nicholas Sternberg offered up memories of his dad and he also divulged that, as a child, he had the privilege of sitting on Marlene Dietrich’s lap!
— Kimberly Truhler (@GlamAmor) April 29, 2016
It was a memorable Friday thanks to Shanghai Express, and I’m supremely thankful that Anna May Wong walked into my moviegoing life. There’s still miles to go before minorities receive their just due in cinema, but it’s trailblazers like Anna May Wong who help keep those fires burning.