Tag Archives: East Asian actors

Yellowface Film Review #11: Ghenghis Khan

Ghenghis Khan (1965)

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Not as hideously embarrassing as the John Wayne version but this rather flatly conceived and directed take on the 12th Century Mongol conqueror is in its own way every bit as bad. It goes without saying that Omar Shariff is far more appropriate casting as the Asian warlord but the script is given minimal thought as in the early part of the film scenes and events are just plonked together with no real care or attention and several occurrences literally happening because people have chanced upon each other in the wilderness.

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Director Henry Levin obviously has a budget but an awful lot of this just looks like hordes of extras riding around in Yugoslavian fields with bombastic music laid on. It gets more exciting in the last half an hour when Levin suddenly seems to want to inject some chutzpah into proceedings but by then it’s all too late. The film follows The Conqueror’s (historically inaccurate approach) by making Jamuga Temujin’s arch enemy (they were blood-brothers in fact and their rivalry only developed later on) and Borte Jamuga’s “woman” who Temujin steals when in fact Borte and the later Khan were betrothed as children and Jamuga it was who helped Temujin rescue her when she was captured by the Merkits. Jamuga incidentally is played by Irish actor Stephen Boyd and the film climaxes with he and Shariff having a bare-chested “Mongol duel” which sadly isn’t as homo-erotic as it sounds.

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Along the way appear the Emperor Of China and the Shah of Khwarezm (Persia) who are portrayed as effete weaklings compared to the warrior Mongols, probably quite accurately in fairness but it does all seem a little crude with them offering fierce neighbours their daughters as if they were giving away tea coasters. Indeed at one point Telly Savalas as Shan proclaims to Temujin before they reach China “If we keep going East we’ll come to a land where I’ve heard they eat dogs”.

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Yellowface watch

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And here’s the rub. Shariff and Savalas aside there’s an awful lot of “ethnicing up” as firstly all the Mongols are portrayed by young actors who look and sound like they’ve not long left RADA and Temujin’s older advisor Geen is played by none other than Michael Hordern in Arab looking garb. 1352062351_genghis_khan_1965.0-20-36.386

Borte is played by Catherine Deneauve’s tragically short-lived sister Francoise Dorleac, who, according to one online reviewer,“doesn’t look remotely Mongolian or Central Asian, and considering she doesn’t really have much to do except be flung about by the men and very occasionally say a dialogue or two, it really wouldn’t have hurt to have an Oriental (sic) actress here

chingiz_han_genghis_khan_1965_dvdrip_1_87gb_1550025 Well, she does get wooed by a man with a doughnut around his neck.

Things get far worse though when Temujin and his band of brothers arrive in China to be greeted by none other than James Mason as Kam Ling who proves once again that there isn’t a screen legend in the history of cinema who wasn’t capable of coming a celestial crocker as one of the true greats of the big screen proceeds to make an almighty tit of himself in chinoiserie.

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Here’s where it gets controversial though because we have heard some argue that no make-up means no yellowface but here’s proof to the contrary as there’s no Lon Chaney-style taped eyelids here. Instead Jimmy simply affects a supercilious grin, pushes his front teeth out so they protrude Benny Hill style, squints his eyes up and spouts twee epigrams in the very highest vocal register he can find. An embarrassing outing for such a normally solid and reliable pro.

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The Emperor Of China on the other hand is portrayed by Robert Morley whose wiki page quotes film critic Leonard Maltin maintaining he was “particularly effective when cast as a pompous windbag“. And that’s exactly how Bob chooses to play the Son Of Heaven, as if he’s organising a particularly troublesome church bazaar rather than the affairs of the Middle Kingdom. Watching him attempting pick up tiny tea cups with his long tapering fingernails has a certain amusement factor but there’s no concealing the fact this is an utter train wreck of a perf and it should be remembered that once upon a time this type of “character” acting would be held up to us “effniks” as an example of a “technique” we obviously didn’t possess.

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Favourite scene? I’m tempted to say the one where the real-life Jamuga declares to Temujin “What use is there in my becoming a companion to you? On the contrary, sworn brother, in the black night I would haunt your dreams, in the bright day I would trouble your heart. I would be the louse in your collar, I would become the splinter in your door-panel….as there was room for only one sun in the sky, there was room only for one Mongol lord” simple because it’s obviously not in this film and with real-life dialogue and relationships like that why write your own?

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But instead I’ll opt for the one where Temujin clouts his oldest brother-in-law around the chops before telling him “You have a strong right-arm, and I like to know it is at my side, but your mouth…is young…and it needs training. With enough training, my brother, you may yet become my strong right-arm…” Dialogue which would surely grace any gay porn film.

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And this, ladies & gentlemen, is the final Yellowface Film Review (at least for the time being) as the Ovalhouse run of The Fu Manchu Complex draws to a close tomorrow. There are though still TWO PERFORMANCES LEFT. BOOK YOUR TICKETS NOW http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex for the play described as “incredibly guiltily hilarious” (The Public Reviews) and “a boisterous romp through the Yellow Peril canon” (Madam Miaow Says). If you’ve been already we do hope you enjoyed it and we hope you have enjoyed this series of reviews.

Yellowface Film Review #10: Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)

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The title of this rather stolid and cheesy 80’s actioner proved inauspicious as the adventure ended here and so did the intended franchise based on The Destroyer series of pulp paperback novels about a Newark cop framed for a crime and then having his appearance altered and identity changed so he can become an assassin for a secret government organisation.

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To this end he is trained in a fictional martial art called Sinanju by a Korean master called Chiun who is actually played by a white man in extreme yellowface (which is where we come in). Sinanju training enables one to hold one’s breath for over an hour, rip steel doors from their hinges, climb walls, dodge bullets (even at point-blank range), overturn a moving tank, outrun a car, seem invisible, overcome multiple opponents, and bring a woman to the heights of sexual ecstasy. We don’t see all of those in this film but we do see most of them and the last one is somewhat anti-climactic if you’ll pardon the expression.

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The film is but minutes old when we’re confronted by some truly hideous looking prosthetics. These though are not the yellowface variety but the ones applied to Fred Ward as the eponymous Remo before he’s called Remo and before he gets his face-lift. Ward has proved himself a solid character actor down the years, blessed as he is with craggy charm in abundance. This though is not a very well written role and it’s difficult to warm to him, as it is to the entire film being, as it is, not action-packed enough to thrill, not funny enough to amuse and not a good enough story to compel. There’s some rather perfunctory flirtation with Kate Mulgrew’s awkwardly cast army major but the whole thing feels as flat as a pancake sadly.

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Yellowface watch

Remo-Williams-and-Chiun The film though did garner a Golden Globe nomination for Joel Grey as Chiun and this in itself is probably quite revealing as to why there’s often such a reluctance to relinquish the right to yellowface because, as with playing disabled people, it offers the kind of dramatic transformation opportunities that trumpets loudly to the viewer what a great actor they’re watching.

remo_williams “The sheer GENIUS!!!”

Grey (a terrific actor who was rightly lauded for his turn as the MC in Cabaret) plays Chiun like an effeminate bird who mangles his l’s and r’s all over the place while his accent wonders across several hemispheres. Word to the wise, Joel; as any East Asian actor will tell you, if the dialogue ain’t written well that shit ain’t easy, blud.

1340797837-vlcsnap-2012-06-27-  “Praying Oliental learry nor-easy!”

Being a mystical chop sock “Oriental” he is of course endowed with sage-like wisdom and rather awkwardly realised eccentric “charm”.

  remowilliams “Hele I am, With a LEAL brack actor”

His basic model appears to be Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid films (the 80’s variety), though Mr. Miyagi was of course portrayed by a genuine East Asian (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) which helped  offset the contrived orientalism of the clumsy characterisation. At one point Remo asks Chiun if he always speaks like a “fortune cookie”, the one bit of penetrative wit in the entire picture because he does indeed seem to communicate in nothing but hodge-podge Zen Confucian truisms. He is buried under horrendously ugly prosthetic make-up to make his eyes slant and his skin yellow. It is in short a train wreck of a performance. Oh, and the make-up was nominated for an Oscar. I kid you not.

vlcsnap-2011-09-21-23h37m32s130 “You can’t come in. You’re not wearing Oscar nominated make-up, darling”

There is the vague notion at times that Chiun might turn out to be a threat (at one point he reassures Remo that if he has to kill him he will only do so “rerructantry”)… remo-williams-3 …and other times there’s a bit of moist-eyed “bromance” between the two characters… remowilliamschuin …but mostly he’s a funny little foreign chap lent some added cool by the fact he can dodge bullets.     remowilliams08  0411747_12195_MC_Tx360

At one point we’re treated to the following exchange between Chiun, Remo & Major Kate-

Chiun: “Women-a should stay home and make-a babies…plefelably man-child

Major Kate: “I see you both went to the same charm school!”

Remo: “Oh, he always talks like that. He’s Korean!”

view_13_REMO-WILLIAMS-THE-ADVENTURE_jpg It’s difficult to tell what’s more dodgy here, the idea that it’s okay for him to be a sexist pig because he’s a comedy “Oriental” or that all Koreans are sexist pigs. You take your choice.

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Fave scene? Gotta admit, the one where Remo uses the diamond in a villains tooth (without removing it) to cut a hole in a glass wall was pretty sick.

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Tomorrow sees our final Yellowface Film Review and sees us assail yet another Ghengis Khan bloodbath. Meantime there are just THREE MORE PERFORMANCES in which to catch The Fu Manchu Complex “a devilishly ironic spin on Sax Rohmer’s classic novel that will leave you in hysterics”(The Upcoming) at Ovalhouse. BOOK TICKETS NOW http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex

Yellowface Film Review #7: The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness

The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness (1958)

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The second highest grossing film in the year it was released, this is an especially frustrating piece of dodgy big budget yellowface mush in that there’s an extraordinary story in there somewhere but it’s buried under all sorts of hokey sentiment, feel-good schamltz and truly disastrous casting.

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Based on the true story Gladys Aylward, who worked as a missionary in China most of her adult life, this two and half hour epic tells the tale of Gladys’s early work in China and particularly her leading of 100 orphans across difficult terrain to safety from the invading Japanese army. In between all this (and dominating the screen time to an inordinate degree) is Gladys’s (by all accounts) almost completely fictionalised romance with Colonel Li Nan, here presented as a Eurasian but played by the entirely Caucasian German Curt Jurgens.

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There’s no doubting that Gladys Aylward was a remarkable woman and she herself loathed this film. Among a whole list of inaccuracies she was mortified to see herself (in real life short, dark and cockney) portrayed on screen by the statuesque, blonde, camera-genic and Scando-posh Ingrid Bergmann.

Gladys_Aylward Inn-of-the-Sixth-Happiness-Bergman Perfect casting!

She was also particularly upset by the way her passage to China was glossed over in the film as a convenient recommendation letter from a kindly employer and a few comedically rude Russian soldiers before “Hollywood’s train delivered her neatly to Tsientsin.” In reality Aylward and her family had to struggle particularly hard to get her to the Middle Kingdom (in a real indictment of class-ridden society she was turned down as a missionary because her academic qualifications weren’t deemed strong enough) and she had to spend her life savings on a perilous and complicated train journey where at one point she was forced to abandon the train in Siberia in what must have been a terrifying ordeal for a young woman on her own. Along with this the name of her missionary in Yang Cheng was “Eighth Happiness” (owing to the traditional “lucky” factor the Chinese associate with the number eight) and she felt her reputation was damaged by the numerous movie-snogging sessions Bergmann and Jurgens share in the film. In real life Gladys Aylward went to her grave never having kissed a man and the ending, where she leaves her orphans in Xian to return to Colonel Li Nan, is pure fiction. She continued working with orphans until she was in her sixties and never saw Li again. She also felt that Li being portrayed as Eurasian was an “insult” to his Chinese lineage. I wonder if she would’ve felt the same way had Li been portrayed by a genuine Eurasian. I do hope not.

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The film itself is actually reasonable engrossing for the first half an hour until Hollywood Gladys arrives in China (in reality Snowdonia) and we glimpse our first sight of Robert Donat as The Mandarin (no not the Iron Man one), a casting decision so ridiculous it beggars belief as well as shattering all credibility.

robert-donat-innofthesixthhappiness-2 Even more perfect casting!

From here on in it just gets worse and worse with the final 45 minutes, all tears and melodramatic declarations of love, drags the actors into unfortunate over-playing and there’s one extraordinary scene where Ingrid fluffs her lines no less than three times.

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In the beginning the Chinese (with the exception of Peter Chong’s jolly cook) are portrayed as scary savages but as the film progresses  they morph into picturesque peasants . Of the genuine East Asians the aforementioned Chong (usually second-fiddle in his numerous film appearances) is an amiable enough presence but his characterisation is forced into far too many “ching-chong simpleton” tropes and while there’s a nice role for the young Burt Kwouk as a reformed prisoner Tsai Chin is completely wasted.

Burt Kwouk  The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)    burt-kwouk-innofthesixthhappiness-2

The main problem, in my very humble opinion, with this type of film (or stage play) is that it wants its cake but it’s not even  sure how to eat it. In truth there’s nothing much wrong with wanting to put some “exotica” on the screen (or stage) but when you have a story set in China and then reduce it to endless scenes of two Northern Europeans supposedly portraying an inter-racial romance but in reality drearily flirting against a North Wales backdrop it rather banjaxes the intention.

10455 - Inn Of The Sixth Happiness Chopstick lessons with Bergman & Jugens

Yellowface watch

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First up there’s Robert Donat who with even his first non-speaking appearance sat in a sedan chair derails the whole film. Donat sadly passed away just before the film was released and one would hope this wasn’t his last acting role as it makes a very poor epitaph frankly. Despite Tolstoyish facial hair his fruity English tones and mannerisms are more Vicar Of Dibley than Mandarin of Yang Cheng and coupled to this the film requires him to go from concubine-laden public-beheading local despot to tearful goodbyes to a Christian missionary woman, a character-transformation tricky enough in the best of circumstances but one a man in yellowface will surely struggle with.

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Less embarrassing but possibly more confusing is Curt Jurgens as Bergmann’s love interest, beefcake hapa hunk Colonel Li Nan. His military uniform is so ubiquitous in appearance that in early scenes he looks and sounds more like Rommel Of The Desert than a Chinese Nationalist Army officer. Watching him talk of his “white blood” is extremely strange and it’s once again heavily indicative of  Hollywood’s almost pathological aversion towards featuring strong East Asian male actors in roles that aren’t subservient or asexual, an aversion certainly shared in Britain.

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My fave scene? All of the early ones before Ingrid’s character learns to speak fluent Chinese and Donat is dubbed into what I can only describe as florid Emperor’s mandarin. Utterly surreal.

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Next we tackle a real Beast Of Yellowface, John Wayne’s ill-fated turn as Ghengis Khan in the The Conqueror. Not to be missed. And neither is The Fu Manchu Complex. There are just 5 performances left of the show which the brilliant Madam Miaow (Anna Chen) says “deftly demolishes a slew of stereotypes, setting them up and bowling them down like skittles in a boisterous romp through the yellow peril canon” (and she knows a thing or two about that stuff herself). Book tickets here http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex 

 

Yellowface Film Review #6: The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (1918)

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Despite an undeniably progressive (certainly for its time) plot centered around an inter-racial romance between San San, a Chinese princess, and John Worden, an American diplomat (well it wouldn’t be vice-versa gender-wise, would it?),  and notwithstanding some heartfelt emoting from Norma Talmadge and Thomas Meighan (two of the great stars of their day) this is a fairly crass affair. The title itself is a giveaway. The heroine only goes there once and, though it could be argued that San San’s conniving father wants to curry favour there, the story certainly doesn’t revolve around the imperial palace. Like much of this film it seems to have been chosen for its exotica factor.

Forbidden city HA       The Forbidden City

Competently directed by Sidney Franklin the picture comes a cropper in its casting and portrayal (naturally) with even the 1918 New York Times lamenting that Franklin “was unable to make some of his actors seem like natives of the East”, a criticism which, having watched it, I can only regard as more than a little lenient.  The male Chinese characters (with one notable exception) are unremittingly ruthless in a manner that can only be regarded as gratuitous and San San herself is introduced with a caption that has her imploring Buddha to “please send love-man here to give me million sweet kisses”.

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Steady on! Indeed there’s an awful lot of snogging in the first part of this though there’s no surely no denying that the intended inter-racial frisson of these clinches go for a burton because of the spectacularly unconvincing yellowface casting.

forbiddenCity-grapevine  She’s half-Chinese you know.

It’s also more than a little a cheeky to begin the film with Kipling’s famous quote about “never the twain shall meet” between “East” and “West” but then put it in the mouth of the Chinese emperor!

Yellowface watch

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Yellowface is everywhere in the first half of this, though in fairness (and unlike a lot of similar films of the time) a great deal of effort seems to have gone into making the actors seems as “Chinese” as possible. There’s an awful lot of bowing and florid gestures and Norma Talmadge  as San San seems to be attempting that styilised but slightly stilted manner that many in the Western entertainment industry perceive as authentically “Eastern”. Talmadge later portrays the Eurasian fruit of San San’s union with Worden (the curiously monikered Toy) where she looks and acts like a regular Caucasian but is still captioned in hilariously clumsy pidgin English (even when speaking with other Chinese characters).

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Her conniving mandarin father is played by yellowface “specialist” E. Alyn Warren (The Hatchet Man, Outside The Law) who in his beard and glasses puts one to mind of Sigmund Freud in chinoiserie.

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This being a silent movie we are (unlike in The Hatchet Man) thankfully spared Alyn’s truly ludicrous Chinese accent but he nevertheless hams up his sly Chinaman role with relish. I don’t wish to mock a fellow professional here and I’m sure the man gave some truly fabulous performances in a 99 film career but he should never have been allowed to play East Asians.

63063-12294 63063-13349The many (yellow)faces of E. Alyn Warren

Such is the abundance of yellowface it’s something of a shock when two genuine East Asians turn up in the latter part of the film. Both perform creditably, though uncredited in the case of the first – an emperor’s court lady who racially abuses  the Eurasian Toy (most of the racism in the film eminates from the Chinese characters). Not so in the case of Charles Fang as the solely sympathetic East Asian male Yuan-Loo who fights heroically to help Toy escape but who is never seen again and whose fate the filmmakers don’t appear to deem worthy of interest. Fang’s contribution though did inspire this truly astonishing appraisal in the January 1919 Photoplay, “In one or two details the play missed its celestiality by an odd margin–notably the scene in which the Pekin palace guard, to overcome an unwary foe, resorts to a barroom wrestling match, a thing about as unlike the Chinese character as anything that may be imagined. Your Oriental moves more subtly and certainly: an overturned flower pot, the plunge of a knife, strong strangling fingers … and the outward course of events flows so serenely that even passers-by cannot tell murder has been done.”

vlcsnap_2013_04_16_22h30m13s107 “Enough cliches already!!!”

My favourite scene? When the Chinese Emperor, played by the impressively whiskered L. Rogers Lytton (who I’m devastated to say there are no pictures of), pretends to allow San San to go free with her baby by gesturing to walk along a corridor of drapes out of which appear about ten spears which promptly slay the hapless heroine. A display of “Oriental cruelty” that makes Sax Rohmer look mild.

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We are highly tempted to bust out John Wayne’s notorious turn as Ghengis Khan next but let’s see…maybe later. Meantime, if you haven’t already, don’t forget to book for the “funny, often outrageously so” (There Ought To Be Clowns) The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Just seven performances left!

 

Yellowface Film Review #5: 55 Days At Peking

55 Days At Peking (1963)

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As has been remarked before, yellowface has proved the undoing of many a great director and this barely disguised western in an exotic setting is no exception as one of the all time greats, Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life, Johnny Guitar), comes a serious cropper with this lavishly mounted and reasonably compelling Boxer Rebellion drama that nevertheless trades in dubious stereotypes and poor casting decisions as well as being overlong and more than a little dull. Indeed, Ray is said to have had a premonition that the film would finish his career and so it proved as the great man collapsed on set halfway through shooting, was replaced and never received another directing job again.

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The film boasts handsome photography and stirring action sequences as well as strong performances from Charlton Heston and David Niven (showing much more depth here than his reputation as a light comedian would lead one to expect) but Ava Gardner’s character is something of a bore and Heston apparently found her “unprofessional”. 18822751.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx The film’s best scenes though come in what is easily the most involving subplot between Heston and Lynne Sue Moon as an orphaned Eurasian girl who Chuck becomes a reluctant father-figure to.

s_82863lynne_sue_moon55days You can all relax though, there’s nothing seedy in it, and the old pro-gun lobbyist gets to show a tender side while Moon is a poignant figure throughout. Incidentally I can find virtually no info on Lynne. She appeared in four films in the 60’s (including the great To Sir With Love) but appears to have vanished afterwards. One can hardly blame her. It’s difficult enough to be an East Asian actor in Britain today let alone then.

Lynne Sue Moon  55 Days at Peking (1963)   6jTiPx9gtF

Yellowface watch

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Where the film really falls down though is in its depiction of the Chinese. There are sympathetic East Asian characters – the already mentioned Lynne Sue Moon’s Teresa, an old man (voiced by Burt Kwouk) who Gardner befriends and there are genuine East Asian actors; as well as the previous two, the Japanese film director Juzo Itami appears as a Nippon army colonel and the great martial arts star Yuen Siu Tien (Drunken Master) makes his debut (though he’s uncredited). pekinde-55-gun-55-days-at-peking-1963-dvdrip-dual-tr-dub-bb66-3

In general though the Chinese are portrayed as a bunch of Christian murdering blood-lusters who are also a bit weird. At one point Peking is described as a “backwater” and Niven’s wife breaks down fearing her injured son will be lost in “an endless Chinese limbo”.

18822734.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx The main Chinese characters are represented by three simply horrendous yellowface performances that make up a triumvirate of naffness. As Empress Cixi, Flora Robson (but of course!) is reasonably restrained, coming over as an old battle-axe in chinoiserie in an end of pier production of Charley’s Aunt.

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Full marks to her though for at least showing some commitment. The same cannot be said unfortunately for Leo Genn as General Jung-Lu who appears to treat the whole idea with contempt, though maybe this is understandable.

Leo Genn  55 Days at Peking (1963)    sm1p2BldGV

The very worst offender though (indeed, maybe a serious contender for worst yellowface perf of all time IMHO) is the Australian actor Robert Helpmann as Prince Tuan who seems to have make-up several times more ludicrous than either Flora or Genn, the most ridiculous long fingernails I’ve ever seen and an accent that beggars belief.

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It’s worth bearing in mind while watching this fiasco of an interpretation that this man would have been paid quite well for that performance.  I’m sure Robert was a very fine actor in the rest of his career but for this he should hang his head in shame frankly.

Robert Helpmann  55 Days at Peking (1963)     55days_3

My favourite scene? The one where Helpmmans Prince Tuan takes the Empress’s terms to the assembled representatives of the great colonial powers who all sit around looking at this latex-eyebrow’d ,golden finger-nailed cartoon caricature as if they can barely believe what they’re seeing.  Or maybe they’re just relieved it’s not them.

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Yellowface Film Review #6 will see us go forwards or backwards in cinematic history, depending where the fancy takes us. Meanwhile don’t forget to book tickets (if you haven’t already) for the “wildly satirical and steeped in sexual innuendo” (The Upcoming) The Fu Manchu Complex at Ovalhouse http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Some people are saying they want to come and watch it twice. A hilarious evening guaranteed.

8x10_55_days_at_peking_KS00592_L “I COULD’VE BEEN FU!!!!!!!”

Yellowface Film Review #4: Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly (1915)

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Not a film of the opera but supposedly based on the original John Luther Long book in which interestingly enough Cho-Cho-San doesn’t commit suicide at the end (in the book). Indeed, the briefest glance at the synopsis is deeply revealing of just how Colonial-Orientalist thinking has conspired to create an enduring cliché. It’s notable how much feistier Cho-Cho-San is in the original novel (at one point she asks Sharpless to write a letter to Pinkerton where she threatens to marry Yamadori and take their son with her) and how much more unsympathetic Pinkerton (who Sharpless finds himself feeling “contempt” for) and Adelaide are.  The latter is portrayed as utterly callous sending the following telegram upon discovery of her husband’s son “Just saw the baby and his nurse. Can’t we have him at once? He is lovely.  Shall see the mother about it tomorrow.  Was not at home when I was there today.  Expect to join you Wednesday week per Kioto Maru. May I bring him along? Adelaide.” At the end of the book Cho-Cho vanishes with Suzuki and her baby after being prevented from committing suicide in what really feels like an “Up yours, Whitey!” moment.

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A far cry from the “dying Oriental swan” and consciense-stricken Westerners who nevertheless must return to “civilisation” taking the child with them to a “better life”.  What of this film? There’s no soundtrack and one gets the impression it was lost for a long time. As well as looking like it was shot in a corner of Kew Gardens it’s also risibly patronising, especially with its use of pidgin English captions when the Japanese characters are speaking to each other, one particularly ghastly example being “I choke him with much big American cocktail. He get mad, and no come back”. Just keep talking to him in that doggerel, love, that’ll do the trick.

"He told me he do not want my relatives." "There is an American battleship in the harbor."

Yellowface watch

Pinkerton and Cho-Cho’s genuine (looking) Eurasian baby aside this film is populated by Caucasians in silk robes and kimonos with their hairstyles the only authentic looking thing about them. Cho-Cho is of course played by the great Mary Pickford , co-founder of United Artists studio and also known as “America’s sweetheart” , though her trademark curls are naturally hidden here.  She and director Sidney Olcott apparently clashed repeatedly over the fact he thought her “too Americanized to play a Japanese” Quelle surprise! True to form, Mary has one or two stabs at coy “oriental” flirting near the beginning but for the most part just acts herself, as does everyone else in the cast with the possible exception of David Burton as Prince Yamadori who perhaps feels he has to ham up his “Japaneseness” because he’s in ostensibly Western dress.

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Fave scene? All of the scenes featuring Cho-Cho’s family are unintentially hilarious, particularly the one where they sit in two lines facing each and bang their fists repeatedly as they decide to disown Cho-Cho. Because they do that in Japan. Obviously.

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Our next Yellowface Film Review will follow shortly. Meanwhile don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex a production The Public Reviews describes “incredibly guiltily hilarious” and The Upcoming says is “wildly satirical and steeped in sexual innuendo”

Yellowface Film Review #3: The Bitter Tea Of General Yen

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933)

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Proving the case that yellowface is the undoing of many a great director, Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life amongst countless other outstanding films) comes a cropper with this unwittingly (by all accounts) brave and ambitious tale of inter-racial sexual tension between a young American missionary and a man in ludicrous looking make-up during the Chinese Civil War. The acclaimed critic Derek Malcolm named this one of his hundred best films in The Century of Films but, while impressively mounted and with a compelling premise, the film lumbers somewhat, despite its relatively brief running time, and is IMHO undone entirely by the central casting.

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A flop on first release, the film’s female star, Barbara Stanwyck, blamed its poor showing on “racist blacklash”. McBride quotes her as saying, “The women’s clubs came out very strongly against it….I was so shocked. [Such a reaction] never occurred to me, and I don’t think it occurred to Mr. Capra when we were doing it.” The generally sympathetic portrayal of miscegenation proving particularly unpalatable at the time.  The film’s sexuality is palpably conveyed, with Stanwyck appearing in several quite revealing (for the time) costumes and in one scene dreaming she succumbs to Yen,  who she first imagines as a Fu Manchu-type rapist with long tapering nailes, but who then melts into a gentle, courtly suitor. The New York Times described the film as “barely plausible”.

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Yellowface watch

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The film is notable for featuring genuine East Asians, most notably Japanese actress Toshia Mori, who features strongly throughout as the treacherous concubine Mah-Li , Time magazine describing her as a “a sloe-eyed Japanese girl” but praising her performance as “the most noteworthy“ of the film’s female performers. As her partner in duplicity  Chinese-American cinema mainstay Richard Loo is also given reasonable screen-time.

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Yet, proving once again Western media’s curious antipathy towards strong and dominant East Asian male figures, Nils Asther gives one of the famous yellowface performances of all time. Smiling serenely beneath make-up that looks like Botox gone wrong, Asther appears to be attempting some sort of “Oriental” accent as the film plays out King & I style tropes of “civilised white woman and exotically suave brute with a tender side”. Asther (along with Myrna Loy and Warner Oland) is one of several Swedes to have “yellowed up” and proves that, along with Germans Luise Rainer and Curt Jurgens, dusky North Europeans were often Hollywood’s yellowface actors of choice.

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There are several scenes where Asther appears to be talking some strange gibberish that I utterly failed to recognise as any Chinese language I’ve ever heard and his character seems to have been constructed around all-purpose Eastern clichés of vaguely sinister inscrutability and stoic “ honour” with his eventual suicide method (the “bitter tea” of the title) obviously designed to arouse lurid fascination.

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My favourite scene is the one where General Yen is shown to have some human consideration as he yells at his troops who are busily assassinating captured enemies right outside Stanwyck’s bedroom, thereby disturbing poor old Babs’ sleep, to go and do their grisly business elsewhere. A gentleman and a yellowface for sure.

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Our next Yellowface Film Review will follow shortly. Meantime don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex on now until October 19th