January 12, 2018
Lady From Chungking – 1942, US
William Nigh’s Lady From Chungking is better than it has any right to be. It is first a product of its time – an awkwardly cast, convoluted piece of blatant propaganda made to encourage Americans to support China’s efforts in the Second World War. It is also a film in which the majority of its lead characters act in completely unrealistic ways – joking when they would be serious, sweet when they would aggressive, passive when they would be anything but, kissing when they should be running – and deliver speeches that are intended to be dramatic, but come across as slightly clumsy. And yet the film works. It has several extremely moving moments and a lead performance that never allows viewers to lose focus on the film’s more serious undertones and the real threat of the times in which it takes place.
In the film, Anna May Wong plays Lady Kwan Mei, a Chinese aristocrat whose life has been greatly altered by Japan’s invasion, so much so that when we first see her, she is working in the rice patties and referred to as a slave. However, even with her face dirtied and her back sore from the long work hours, she still maintains both her dignity and the respect of the villagers. She is also the leader of a clandestine group of rebels plotting the defeat of the Japanese soldiers occupying the land she grew up in and still considers home. She gets her chance when a high-ranking, somewhat alcoholic Japanese general arrives ahead of his massive infantry of soldiers.
The film is a combination of the effective and the silly. It works best when it focuses on Kwan Mei, and it reaches new heights of silliness when it zooms in on two shot down members of the Flying Tigers. The two of them act as if they were anywhere but in enemy territory and in danger. One is captured, yet can’t resist making the kinds of comments that only a prisoner in a movie makes – ones that are much more sarcastic and humorous than one would expect from someone in his situation. The other one gives a brief narration of a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball game, and I had the same reaction to it as I had to a similar one featured in The French Connection 2: I was embarrassed for the character having to listen to it.
Other characters fare much better. A Nazi-sympathizing hotel owner (Ludwig Donath) referred to as Herr Gruber is properly opportunistic and groveling, and a beautiful singer at the hotel named Lavara (Mae Clarke) has just the right combination of self-preservation and empathy. While she says her primary concern in taking care of number one, we know she’ll eventually do the right thing.
As for the casting, the film must be seen through the lens of the times in which it was made. The Japanese characters are not played by Japanese or Japanese-American actors. For example, Harold Huber, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, plays General Kaimura, and New York-born Ted Hecht has the role of Kaimura’s unfortunate subordinate, Lieutenant Shimoto. The casting of Caucasian actors in Asian roles was not uncommon in the early days of Hollywood, yet it was more pronounced during World War II, when the Japanese-Interment Camps were in operation, and xenophobia was rife. I don’t blame the actors for taking the roles, yet their presence gives the film an unfortunate sense of inauthenticity.
The film’s length is also a problem. At 63 minutes, there just isn’t enough time to develop all of its characters or present them in realistic storylines. As a result, romances are rushed, characters see the light far too quickly, and wounds heal in no time at all. Interestingly, the character we expect to rush his interactions moves rather slowly, General Kaimura. Sure, he’ll kiss a woman’s hand and tell her how beautiful she is, yet he also seems content to let the relationship progress somewhat naturally. Even stranger, his actions imply a heart quickly won and long-term commitment rapidly given. It is an interesting choice, even if it is not entirely realistic.
I have often entertained the notion that Ms. Wong was a better actress in silent films, yet I may have to re-evaluate that. Here, she simply commands the screen. Her eyes reflect her character’s deep commitment to her cause, and in a key scene in which Kwan Mei’s loyalty is questioned, Wong displays such a pained expression that I truly felt for her character. I also enjoyed watching the many layers of her performance – she is an aristocrat who has donned the role of a revolutionary pretending to be a poor worker pretending to be an aristocrat, and she makes all of these roles believable to the people encountering them. She also holds her own next to Clarke, who could steal scenes like the best of them. I found myself rather involved in Kwan Mei’s plight; I even bought the sappy nationalistic speech she delivers at the end of the film. Like I said, the film just works - somehow. (on DVD)
*The film deserves a better DVD release. The version from Alpha Video is cropped on the sides. This is especially apparent in the opening credits.