Friday 6 March 2009

Dragon Seed (1944)

Directors: Jack Conway and Harold S Bucquet
Stars: Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston, Aline McMahon, Akim Tamiroff and Turhan Bey

Oh dear, I didn't want to watch this one. I have huge respect for Katharine Hepburn as an actress, but there are points in her career where she played parts that she shouldn't have played. I still shudder at the memory of her playing Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary of Scotland or mountain girl Trigger Hicks in Spitfire. This would appear to be another such example and while we're happily saved from the experience for at least ten minutes it inevitably arrives and we get Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan, wife of a Chinese village farmer. Yeah, you can imagine. The filmmakers tried, I'll give them that, so her yellowface makeup is actually much better than that of the rest of the cast, but she's as much a Chinese woman as I am.

We're in the valley of Ling in the summer of 1937, a peaceful place in rural China where what seems like half the MGM roster are attempting and failing dismally to be Chinese. Henry Travers and Walter Huston and Agnes Moorehead, all superb actors, are as out of place as Jackie Chan would be playing James Bond. It isn't just how they look and how they sound but what they say. This is based on a novel by Pearl S Buck and attempts to portray the simple language of simple farmers but instead makes them sound too often like idiots. There are some real oriental actors in the film, don't get me wrong, but they don't have any of the major parts, thus putting us into some utterly bizarre situations as viewers.

Here's how the first utter gem arises. The Second World War hasn't yet started but the Japanese are already attacking and burning Chinese cities. So Chinese students present slideshows to the peasants so that they might understand what is going on. Of course nobody pays any attention because these peasants are simple folk who haven't ever travelled beyond the hills. They have no real conception of most things because they've never seen them and they believe that what they've been shown on film is all make believe. The only ones who have a clue what's going on are the students who are fighting a losing battle to pass on their knowledge.

And so we find ourselves watching these Chinese students raid a store owned by a Chinese merchant called Wu Lien, because he sells Japanese goods, and burn these goods in the street. They call him traitor and collaborator and a disgrace to the Chinese people. Yet the Chinese students seem to be played by Japanese actors and the Chinese merchant is played by Akim Tamiroff, another fine actor but unmistakably Russian. And on it goes, as the Japanese invade and the horrors of war are brought home to the valley of Ling: Americans and Russians and Mexicans playing the Chinese. We even have Japanese actors pretending to be Chinese and talking about the evil dwarves coming from over the sea; and Chinese actors pretending to be sadistic Japanese rapists and murderers.

It's all insane and the only way anyone can enjoy this movie is to look past this insanity and I can't. For those who can, the actors do try and they have plenty of opportunity to do so in a story that has a lot of angles to it, all about change. Everyone's view of life has to change for a number of reasons and in a number of ways. As we begin, the valley of Ling is a male chauvinist dream where women are there to walk behind the men and do precisely what they're told. They aren't allowed to read or have their own opinions. Men feel it beneath them to even talk to their daughters in law. The old are revered and the young are nothing. With war in their village they have to re-evaluate what women can do just as they have to re-evaluate what the rest of the world is.

Beyond that it's a unsubtle propaganda piece as much as it attempts to frame such a story in a more artistic and literate way than the norm. The Chinese are all wonderful people, the Japanese are all evil monsters. It's not all bad. It's an MGM film so there was serious money thrown at it, meaning excellent sets. There are some well written and well directed scenes, such as the buildup to the rape of Orchid Tan. There's some good cinematography and use of shadows and silhouettes and reflections.

There are also plenty of opportunities for powerful acting and the names involved are certainly able; Agnes Moorehead and Akim Tamiroff in particular acquit themselves well, especially in scenes after the destruction comes, but some of the best acting is on the faces of some of the Chinese children. Mostly though the good stuff is only there if you're really willing to search for it and forgive much in the search. Mostly it's an endurance test. Towards the end I found that I could look past the insane casting and be drawn into the story, which is stirring and emotional. I just couldn't do that and see this as Chinese too. By this point I watched it as a universal story. On those grounds it isn't too bad.

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