January 20, 2018
The Tong Man – US, 1919
Luk Chan is probably the kind of role that Sessue Hayakawa had no qualms about playing. Just four years after his breakthrough role in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 The Cheat, in which he played a character that many feel embodies some of the worst stereotypes of Asian men, Hayakawa must have relished the chance to play a much more complex character, one who must appear cold and distant in one environment, yet is warm and loving in another. Sure, Chan is also a gangster, yet he is the kind that would fit right into films from the 1970s and beyond, films which sought not to glorify gangsters, but rather to present them as intriguing multi-faceted characters, ones that the audience could be forgiven for liking at least a tiny bit.
The plot of The Tong Man is a simple one. (How can it not be with a running time of just over 43 minutes?) A local merchant – and opium dealer – named Louie Toy (Toyo Fujita) has refused to pay protection money to the local Tong triad, and their leader, Ming Tai (Mark Roberts), offers him an ultimatum: he either pays or prepares to meet his maker. Chan, of course, is tasked with carrying out the dirty deed.
In his early scenes, director William Worthington (The Dragon Painter) gives viewers every reason to dislike Chan. For instance, when he first appears, he’s so disgusted by the sight of a man who has passed out standing up that he hurls a knife in his direction and scoffs at the fear the man exhibits upon awakening. The film also hints that Chan is not the film’s ethical anti-hero, for he too is running opium and – perhaps more importantly – is the Tong’s number one assassin. However, he is also a man deeply in love, and in a seemingly simply scene, we see him make eye contact with a young later named San Chee (Helen Jerone Eddy). As he does, he displays a touch of euphoria; she simply smiles and announces that she has just seen her prince.
One of the things I found most intriguing about The Tong Man is the way that no one – with the exception of Ming Tai – is a one-dimensional character. Take, for example, San Chee, Mr. Toy’s daughter. When we first see her, she’s blowing kisses to the birds that have greeted the start of her day with a song, yet a moment later, she’s imploring her father not to turn in a young man who murdered someone over gambling losses. Her reason: The police are their enemy. Or take Lucero (Yutaka Abe), the young man himself. First introduced as a murderer who shoots people in a most cowardly way, he soon proves himself to be quite skilled at helping the film’s sympathetic protagonists elude capture. In fact, this is one of the first films I can recall that dared to show the complex nature of criminals, that they could be ruthless one minute and whispering sweet nothings into their sweetheart’s ears the next.
To say more about the plot would risk giving away too much. Let it suffice then to say that this is one of the first one last job films and one of the only ones from Hollywood I can recall with an Asian or Asian-American in the lead role – a truly depressing reflection if you think about it. As good as it is, though, the film can easily be misread. I say this because modern day audiences may not be accustomed to seeing poorly constructed broken English in intertitles, and their sudden appearance has the potential to create unease. Yet if you look closely, you will notice that they only appear when characters of Chinese descent are speaking to non-Asian characters. When they speak to other Chinese characters, the intertitles are perfect, meaning that the characters are speaking Chinese to each other and a foreign language – in this case, English – to other people.
Also questionable is the inclusion of what can perhaps best be considered cultural voodoo. In a key scene, Ming Tai turns not to advisors or the elder Tongs for advice, but to the face of a dragon that appears to act as an altar. After posing it the question of Toy’s fate, its eyes open and shut, indicating that someone, though not necessarily Toy, must die. It’s a ludicrous scene, and it adds mysticism to a plot that up until then has been clearly set in the real world. However, scenes like this were not uncommon. In fact, having seen some of Anna May Wong’s movies, as well as other ones starring Hayakawa, I would say that this notion that Chinese characters had odd pagan beliefs or mystical abilities was fairly common in early Hollywood films, and its inclusion here is just another sign of the times in which the film was made.
And then there Ming Tai. Those without an understanding of silent film acting may mistakenly view him as just another caricature of the evil Asian character that dominated so many films from early Hollywood. Here, too, I believe they would be mistaken, for Tai’s mannerisms – the hunched back, lustful grin, wringing hands - resemble those given to other evil characters during the period. It was a common way to portray impure sentiments or the hatching of heinous plans. Also, he is the only character to display these characteristics. Even his fellow gangsters act normally.
All in all, The Tong Man is fun, action-filled film that never truly lets up. It is replete with intriguing characters, even if many of them are now commonplace in films with similar plots, and creative turns. As for Hayakawa, he does not disappoint. Here he is asked to portray a character’s dual nature, and he excels at showing both sides of an imperfect human being. It is easy to see just what made him the popular figure he was back in the day. And it is refreshing to see a movie like this end without a message of nationalistic hope. I don’t mean to suggest that I oppose them, but The Tong Man was made in 1919, a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act was still being enforced. America, therefore, is not necessarily the land of opportunity for these characters. It is a violent place that has made it clear that it doesn’t want them, and it’s not surprising that some of them choose to return to China at the end of the film. However, as I watched the ending, I could help wondering who the end appealed to most, those who felt unwanted or those who didn’t want them? Such were the times in which the film was made, and it gives the film a bit more importance than it might ordinary have. The Tong Man is a window into the past and a good gauge of the progress that came afterwards. I hope more people see it. (on DVD from Alpha Home Entertainment)