Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Anna May Wong, Empress of Chinatown: Daughter of the Dragon

Princess Ling Moy might be cinema’s most reluctant femme fatale villainess. As a dancer with an international reputation, she really did not need vengeance or world domination. Unfortunately, they were very much part of her family business, because she just so happens to be the daughter of the nefarious Dr. Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu films were problematic in their day and even more so now, but the legendary Anna May Wong elevates and deepens Lloyd Corrigan’s Daughter of the Dragon, which screens as part of the Metrograph’s upcoming sidebar, Anna May Wong: Empress of Chinatown.

Despite her fame and artistry, the Princess always yearned to know her father, but their scheduled meeting comes nearly too late. Fu Manchu managed to murder his old nemesis, Sir John Petrie, but he was seriously wounded in the process. Secretly encamped with the Petries’ duplicitous next-door neighbor Morloff, Fu Manchu extracts a “son’s vow” from Ling Moy to finish his biblical vengeance by killing Petrie’s wastrel son Ronald. To facilitate the scheme, Fu sacrifices his own life, during what Petrie mistakenly believes is the rescue of Ling Moy.

Biding her time, Ling Moy starts to see Petrie socially, greatly annoying his blonde on-again-off-again girlfriend. Further complicating matters, she genuinely starts to fall for him. Meanwhile, Ah Kee, a Chinese detective serving as a consultant to Scotland Yard, falls head over heels for Ling Moy. She encourages his infatuation for tactical reasons, but she is really in love with her intended victim.

Frankly, Daughter remains an interesting film precisely because of its thorny racial-sexual dynamics. The Chinese princess falling for the well-heeled Yankee, while friend-zoning her infatuated countrymen still has provocative resonance. It is particularly potent in Daughter, because Ling Moy and Ah Kee are played by Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa (a huge Hollywood star during the silent era, as well as a Zen Master and a veteran of the French Resistance). They basically blow everyone else off the screen with their star-presence and eternal attractiveness. Indeed, it is easy to forget professional fake-Asian Warner Oland appears as Fu Manchu. Thanks to Wong and Hayakawa, Daughter becomes more of a tragedy than a “Yellow Peril” horror film, sort of like a Madame Butterfly for the Hollywood Bungalow set.

Most of the film’s romantic heft comes from Wong and Hayakawa, but you have to give Corrigan and co-screenwriter Monte M. Katterjohn credit for killing off Fu Manchu in the first act. That took guts, given his brand recognition at the time. Of course, the controversial character would return, played by Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellars. There would be other Daughters of Fu Manchu too, notably played by Myrna Loy and Tsai Chin. However, Wong’s Ling Moy is easily the least exploitatively exotic and the most human. Recommended as a guilty pleasure that nicely showcases Wong’s range, Daughter of the Dragon screens this Saturday (10/7) at the Metrograph, as part of Anna May Wong: Empress of Chinatown.