New Anna May Wong documentary

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While in San Francisco recently, I had a chance to check out the new documentary Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. As an Asian American, I’ve always been interested in Anna May Wong, the first Asian American movie star who shot to fame in the 1920s, but who some criticize for the humiliating characters she portrayed–evil Dragon Ladies, humble servants or exotic prostitutes. There are three biographies about Wong, but Frosted Yellow Willows (the translation of Wong’s Chinese name) is the first full documentary. Though rich with archival materials and historical information, Frosted is an overall disappointment, presented as a chronology/filmography rather than a digestible journey through Wong’s life. Veteran actress Nancy Kwan (of Suzie Wong fame) narrates, but the never-ending narration makes it hard for viewers to breathe. Director Elaine Mae Woo seems too eager to pack in certain details, but avoids answering the big questions that Wong fans want to know. For example, she spends a few jarring seconds informing us that Wong’s sister committed suicide, but there’s no discussion about Wong’s love life or sexuality (though Wong had a series of relationships with older white men, she never married—California law forbade marriage between white men and Chinese women at the time. Rumors of her bisexuality made her an icon in the gay community). It’s not until the final credits when we are treated to interviews—we hear from film critic Leonard Maltin, a former Paramount producer who worked with Wong, among others. Surely some talking heads would have broken the monotony of this film, but Woo told me she didn’t want to distract from the archival materials. After spending 10 years producing this film, Woo plans to release an Anna May Wong pictorial book and DVD in late 2009. Hopefully those projects will do more justice to a subject as entertaining as Anna May Wong.