Los Angeles has a long history of riots, going back to at least the Nineteenth Century. Who better to helm this pre-Exclusionary Act melodrama, culminating in the 1871 mass Chinese lynchings than British-HK director Po-Chih Leong. Arguably, his knack for straddling cultures makes him a logical choice, but casting South Korean Clara Lee in the lead is bound to rile the authenticity police. Given the subject matter, the cosmetics of it are admittedly a little awkward, but there is no getting around the fact she is the best thing going for Leong’s The Jade Pendant (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.
Fleeing an abusive arranged marriage, Ying Ying Leung and her best friend Lily agree to a five-year term of indentured service, in return to passage to San Francisco. They believe they will be working in a flower shop, but of course it is a brothel. Leung is renamed Peony, but Lily conveniently stays Lily. However, unlike the other girls there, Leung can read and write both English and apparently Mandarin. She can understand her contract and assert her rights. She never agreed to be a prostitute, but she still owes fives years of service, so Madame Pong, much to her own surprise, assigns her housekeeping duties. Needless to say, this does not sit well with Yu Hing, the big Tong boss, who wants Peony for himself.
Eventually, Peony will start romancing Tom Wong, a prodigal prospector, who has had better luck slinging chop suey. They even start building a life together in Los Angeles after Madame Pong grants Peony her independence, as a means of asserting her own. Yet, they cannot abandon Lily, who bears the brunt of Yu Hing’s abuse. Nor is he willing to let Peony go, especially since she reminds him of his late wife, who committed suicide to escape him.
As the titular accessory-wearing Peony, Clara Lee is mostly a satisfyingly dynamic and charismatic Western heroine. Still, it is frustrating to see her suffering from Alex Rodriguez Syndrome, in which her martial arts are at their highest when the stakes are negligible, but during times of crisis, she can hardly punch straight. She has okay chemistry with Taiwanese Godfrey Gao’s Wong, but her best scenes are played with Madame Pong, played with tart dignity by Tsai Chin. They have an intriguing relationship that wears well over the course of the film. As Yu, Tzi Ma chews the scenery with fair degree of relish, but it is difficult to buy his ultra-bad martial arts sequences.
As you might have deduced, Jade Pendant has serious consistency issues, careening from a scruffy Kung Fu throw-down to an awkward issue-driven film at the drop of a ten-gallon hat. Arguably, co-screenwriters David Assael and Scott Rosenfelt simplify the racial politics of the riots, painting them as white versus Asian, overlooking Hispanic participation in the killings. Frankly, the whole ugly incident vindicates San Francisco’s Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, because the eight men convicted for manslaughter had their sentences over-turned on technicalities.