Arthur Dong’s Asian American Stories (Kino Lorber, NR)

Arthur Dong is one of those filmmakers whose work is well known to aficionados of documentary film, but whose name may draw a blank among people whose taste runs more toward multiplex fare. That’s a shame, because his films are not only well-made but also tell stories you aren’t likely to come across elsewhere. Many of Dong’s films went out of print, but now four of them, all dealing with aspects of the Asian American experience,* are now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, which hopefully will bring them to a wider audience.

The four films included in Arthur Dong’s Asian American Stories are all traditional documentaries, straightforward and unfussy, which allows Dong emphasize the story being told rather than flashy film-making. Having said that, he shows great skill in combining archival materials, interviews, and narration to make the stories come alive and to place individual histories in social and political context.

The title of Dong’s 14-minute short “Sewing Woman” (1982) is taken from his mother’s description of herself: “I’m just a sewing woman.” True enough, Zem Ping Dong worked for decades in the rag trade in San Francisco, but she also lived a remarkable life that demonstrates a determination to thrive no matter what the world threw at her. Her arranged marriage turned out well, she and her husband figured out how to work the U.S. immigration system to bring her and her extended family to America, and they managed to live the American dream despite having to deal with blatant anti-Chinese discrimination.

Zem Ping Dong’s story is revealed through narration by Lisa Lu, accompanied by images and clips of Dong and other women who lived similar lives, making this film both the story of one unique individual and a collective portrait of a whole class of people. “Sewing Woman” was nominated for the 1984 Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film and won the Silver Plaque for Best Short Film at the 1982 Chicago International Film Festival.

Forbidden City, U.S.A. (1989) captures a little-known chapter in American history: the success and then the demise of Chinese-themed nightclubs in San Francisco. The focus is on the Forbidden City nightclub, which was not the first club of its type, but was the most famous, enjoying a remarkable run from 1938 to 1970, and, in contrast to many similar clubs, was located outside Chinatown. Some say it provided the inspiration for C. Y. Lee’s The Flower Drum Song and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on it, and Jack Soo, who performed in both the Broadway and film productions of that show, was discovered by stage director Gene Kelly while he was performing at Forbidden City.

Owned by Charlie Low, Forbidden City offered performance opportunities for many Asian Americans who were otherwise largely shut out of the business (there was no race blind casting in those days). Many acts were billed with reference to well-known Caucasian performers, so you could hear the “Chinese Frank Sinatra” croon or see the “Chinese Sally Rand” display her prowess as a fan dancer, and some advertising for the club capitalized on white people’s curiosity and/or prurient interest in Asian Americans, particularly Asian American women (perhaps not surprising for a nightclub, but somewhat jarring today). Constructed primarily of performance clips plus interviews, Forbidden City, U.S.A. was unjustly overlooked at the Oscars but won a number of festival awards, including Best Documentary of the Decade at the Hawaii International Film Festival.

Dong’s 2007 Hollywood Chinese also takes on the subject of Chinese in the entertainment world, with two main foci: the experiences of Chinese performers and technicians who worked in the film industry,  and the portrayal of Asians on the big screen, often by non-Asian actors (a.k.a. “yellowface”). The latter is still with us, unfortunately, but Asian representation is at least better today than it was in the early years of the film industry.

Interviews with both Asians and non-Asians help create context for Hollywood choices: it’s a business whose primary purpose is to make money, the largest audience for American films until recently were Caucasians, and producers assume the audience will be more interested in movies if the cast resembles them. There’s also a brief discussion of other ethnic films, including “race” films by and about African Africans and Yiddish films by and about Jewish people, while such a market never developed for Asian American film. The most interesting aspect of Hollywood Chinese today is the film clips, which date back to what is probably the first Chinese America film ever: The Curse of Quon Gwon (1917), written and directed by Marion Wong. Hollywood Chinese won Best Documentary at the 2007 Golden Horse Awards (Taiwan’s equivalent to the Academy Awards).

The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor (2015) tells the real-life story of the man who played translator Dith Pran in Roland Joffé’s 1984 feature The Killing Fields, which won three Oscars including Best Supporting Actor for Ngor (in his first acting performance, he became the first Asian American to win this award). Pran worked for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and was not allowed to leave the country when the Americans evacuated after the country fell to the Khmer Rouge, somewhat miraculously surviving four years of torture and starvation before escaping to Thailand and then to the United States.

Ngor had similar experiences to Pran: a physician in Phnom Penh, he spent four years in concentration camps before escaping to the United States, where he developed a new career as an actor and created a charitable foundation to aid Cambodians. It’s no spoiler, since it’s  mentioned early in the film, that Ngor died as a result of either a botched robbery or an assassination attempt (the jury is still out on that one), to which I can only say that the universe can have a very dark sense of irony sometimes.

Animation is used to fill in events for which there is no footage, while the film keeps returning to footage of his friend Jack Ong and niece Sophia Ngor sifting through his posessions after his death. His nephew Wayne Ngor provides narration that includes a quick review of the history that led up to the Khmer Rouge coup, including the role played by American involvement in Cambodia (spoiler alert: the MAGA crowd won’t like it). The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor  won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2015 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. | Sarah Boslaugh

*Dong has also directed several documentaries dealing with the gay experience, including Coming Out Under Fire (1995), Out Rage ’69 (1995), Licensed to Kill (1998), and Family Fundamentals (2002) which are also available from Kino Lorber.

Arthur Dong’s Asian American Stories is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor includes an alternate audio track in Khmer.

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