Tuesday, July 21, 2015

AAIFF ’15: Forbidden City, USA

San Francisco sure was fun in the 1940s. There was a thriving jazz scene in the Fillmore District, but for an elegant night out on the town, it was hard to beat the nightclubs of Chinatown. However, the iconic trail-blazing Asian American establishment was not in Chinatown proper. Nevertheless, it created a template for cross-over Asian-flavored supper club entertainment. Patrons and performers pay their respects to the nocturnal institution in Forbidden City, USA (trailer here), which screens as part of a sidebar tribute to documentarian Arthur Dong at the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Frankly, it is rather baffling that there is not more of a memorabilia market fascination for all things connected to Charlie Low’s Forbidden City and its competitors. Founded by Low in 1938, the club struggled to find its footing until Noel Toy’s “bubble dance” became a sensation. Many of Low’s early (less risqué) dancers started with more enthusiasm than experience, but several honed their art to a remarkably accomplished level. Of course, they were all incredibly photogenic, which harkens back to question regarding collector interest.

Dong secured on-camera interviews with a number of veteran performers, including the aforementioned Toy (“the Chinese Sally Rand”), Paul Wing (“the Chinese Astaire”), Toy Yat Mar (“the Chinese Sophie Tucker”), and Larry Ching (“the Chinese Sinatra”). The “Chinese X” handle was something many were uncomfortable with, but as a marketing hook, it seemed to work, so they lived with it.

Indeed, Dong keeps viewers keenly aware of the tenor of the era by duly addressing topics such as the Japanese internment and racial segregation in the South (which was profoundly confusing for the Asian American artists when they were able to secure touring gigs). Yet, the film clips, audio selections, and glamourous still photos are so infectiously entertaining, the overall vibe of the film is nostalgic, but upbeat.

Although Forbidden City, USA was broadcast on PBS in 1989, Dong subsequently returned to the San Francisco nightclub milieu with a book and curated exhibition. It is easy to see why. The music swings, the performers are charismatic, and the vibe is welcoming. It all looks and sounds sharp thanks to the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s recent digital restoration. Highly recommended, the fifty-six minute Forbidden City, USA screens this Saturday (7/25, to be followed by a book signing with Dong) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.