I just got back from the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival, where I saw two extraordinary films.
Frosted Yellow Willows
is the long-awaited documentary about Anna May Wong, the first true Asian-American movie star. Like many other pioneers, Wong was ahead of her time, and paid a heavy price for it. Indescribably beautiful, she was also brilliant and talented, but had to slog her way through several wretchedly stereotypical roles. Worse, the challenging roles she craved, such as O-Lan in "The Good Earth," always went to white actors. During tonight's screening, the audience laughed bitterly every time these white actors were shown in - to use the term of that time - "yellowface."
But the best film of the night was "Long Story Short," a delightful documentary about Larry and Trudie Long, an Asian-American husband-and-wife song and dance team from the forties and fifties. The film is narrated by their actress daughter Jodi, and directed by Christine Choy ("Who Killed Vincent Chin.")
The Longs worked for several years on the Chinese club circuit when they finally got their big break. They were booked onto the Ed Sullivan Show in 1954. They knocked 'em dead with their dancing, singing, and especially their comedy, which both played to and skewered the prevailing stereotypes.
But this was in the pre-VCR era. The Longs never saw their performance. Larry, a superb dancer and singer, was later cast in the original Broadway version of "Flower Drum Song," but was soon (unfairly) fired. A short time later, the Longs' marriage collapsed. Larry went back on the road, and later remarried.
Larry finally gained some measure of redemption when Jodi got a part in the Broadway revival of "Flower Drum Song." Better yet, Jodi tracked down a kinescope recording of their Ed Sullivan appearance. The most moving segment of the film shows Larry and Trudie finally seeing themselves on the Sullivan show for the first time. But they watched the clip separately. The two were not on friendly terms. They finally came to a reconciliation of sorts on - of all things - the night of their daughter's debut in "Flower."
I'm glad I had the chance to see this film with the SFIAAFF crowd. When the kinescope of the Sullivan show came on screen, showing Larry's world-class dancing and singing, the audience stood and cheered. Great moment. When the movie ended, Elaine Mae Woo, Christine Choy, and Jodi and Trudie Long came onstage for a Q&A session. The audience was so enthusiastic, the theater management practically had to evict us.
I chatted a bit with Christine Choy afterwards. She told me there is no deal - yet - for a DVD. Keep an eye out for it in your local art-film theater. It's one of the most enjoyable non-fiction films I've seen in years.