Wednesday 11 June 2008

The Toll of the Sea (1922)

While it was stunning to see Keye Luke, an Asian actor, play the lead in a Hollywood film in 1940's Phantom of Chinatown, that sort of thing wasn't as surprising in the early twenties when films were silent and accents weren't an issue. Anna May Wong, probably the most recognised early Asian American actor, played the lead early in her career. What's most amazing about this film isn't the inclusion of an Asian actor as the lead, but the fact that it was shot entirely with a new technology, two strip Technicolor as far back as 1922. This isn't the first two strip Technicolor film but it is the first such example at a feature length, though admittedly feature length in this instance means just under an hour.

Wong plays Lotus Flower, a young Chinese girl who discovers a western sailor washed up against her shore. He's alive and taken away to be nursed back to health, but she goes back to the same spot to yearn for him. Before too long he finds her and they're married but as the local gossips suggest, Americans only marry in China and don't take their Chinese brides back to America with them when they leave. She doesn't believe a word of it and holds on to the belief that her man is different, even planning her travelling outfit according to a book on fashion handed down from her grandmother. Of course he isn't.

Anna May Wong looks great in two strip Technicolor, which uses red and green, both of which are deliberately prominent throughout, as you'd expect. She's young here, only seventeen, and she doesn't have the exotic vamp quality she'd acquire later. Then again, that would have been out of place. Here she's a simple girl who falls in love and pines for her absent husband and doesn't do a lot of anything else, even though she's bringing up the son her husband doesn't know he has.

My problem with the film is strangely part of its charm. Almost nothing happens for the entire running time, there's very little dialogue and the story just tells itself. After an initial scene where Lotus Blossom and Allen Carver meet, and an elder warns that nothing good will come of it, there's a whole slew of plot completely glossed over. They fall in love and marry so quickly that you hardly even see it. Then happiness for a while and Carver is gone back to America. There's a parting scene of pain when suddenly the words of the gossips ring true and then the bulk of the film is waiting. Finally back comes Carver, but not how Lotus Blossom expects and we have our finale.

From one perspective this makes the film suck: it's nothing but Anna May Wong emoting for an hour. From another perspective it's subtle genius for precisely the same reason and as such, there's nothing really here except Wong who is superb this early in her career. Kenneth Harlan is there, Beatrice Bentley is there and Priscilla Moran, a baby girl plays a baby boy, but that's as much as can really be said about them. They don't look out of place but they're simply there. It's Anna May's film, and beyond interest in her or in early Technicolor, there's nothing else except a quiet take on Madame Butterfly.

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