Golden Gate Silver Light
Hong Kong, 2013, colour/b&w, 16:9, 105 mins.
Director: Wei Shiyu 魏时煜 [S. Louisa Wei].
Fascinating but disorganised portrait of pioneering San Francisco-born filmmaker Wu Jinxia [Esther Eng].
Documentary on pioneering, US-born director Wu Jinxia [Esther Eng] (1914-70), from her early life in San Francisco, through her brief period as a film-maker in Hong Kong in the late 1930s, to her return to the US, where she directed and distributed movies for the Chinese diaspora before becoming a restaurateur in New York.
A fascinating slice of film archaeology on director-distributor Wu Jinxia 伍锦霞 [Esther Eng], a now-forgotten figure of the Chinese film-making diaspora, Golden Gate Silver Light 金门银光梦 is let down by a lack of documentary rigour and a rather strained feminist agenda by Mainland-born director Wei Shiyu 魏时煜 [S. Louisa Wei]. But it’s still an engrossing ramble through periods of history (San Francisco’s Chinatown, 1930s Hong Kong, postwar America) from the little-charted perspective of the US’ Overseas Chinese community. Hong Kong-based film teacher Wei frames her film as a personal journey of exploration, following the traces of Wu’s trail from Asia to the US, tracking down any survivors who knew of her, and assembling every piece of information that still remains.
The portrait that emerges is of an energetic, sunny and determined woman for whom “boundaries of race, language, culture and gender…did not seem to exist” but who – with only photos surviving and virtually all of her 10 movies lost (Wei is vague on the latter point) – will always remain tantalisingly out of reach. As the film’s major interviewee, Wu’s youngest sister Wu Jinping 伍锦萍 [Sally Ng], says, “You’ve left it too late.”
Wei was first alerted to Wu’s existence by a 1995 Variety article, co-researched by the present writer and written by then chief film critic Todd McCarthy. At the time, only scraps of information in English and Chinese were easily accessible, including a Variety review of her film Golden Gate Girl 金门女郎 (1941, co-dir. Guan Wenqing 关文清 [Moon Kwan]) and her Variety obituary; subsequently, Australian actor and film historian Frank Bren set up a website about Wu and Hong Kong critic/film historian Luo Ka 罗卡 [Law Kar] also wrote about her. The discovery in 2006 of some of Wu’s photo albums (for the years 1928-48) in a San Francisco skip provided a real basis for Wei’s documentary, which she started shooting the same year (2009) that they were finally deposited in the Hong Kong Film Archive. Wei found more albums during her three-year shoot but not, alas, any voice or filmed records of Wu – which would have really helped bring her to life.
After a scattergun start, the documentary settles down into six sections, with animated titles, that chronologically follow Wu’s life. A San Francisco Kid 金山少年 describes her early years, as the tomboy fourth child of 10 to a San Francisco-born mother, and as a lover of photography and Cantonese opera. Actresses from the latter seem to have made up a large part of her social circle, and when her lover, opera singer Wei Jianfang 韦剑芳, was invited to star in the Chinese-language Heartaches 心恨 (1936) made at a rented studio down in Hollywood, Wu went with her, as a co-producer, and changed the English spelling of her Cantonese family name from Ng to the more easily pronounceable Eng. As detailed in the second section, A Newcomer to Hollywood 银坛新秀, the movie was funded by San Francisco’s Cathay Pictures (based at Wu’s home), directed by 28-year-old Tang Lizhong 唐隶忠 [Frank Tang], and featured two of its nine reels in colour. Described in the press as “the first oriental production with sound finished in Hollywood”, it survives only in stills and a script lodged at the New York State Archive, Albany.
The third section, South China’s First Directress 南华第一, follows Wu and Wei to Hong Kong in 1936 for the release there of Heartaches (under the title Iron Blood, Fragrant Soul 铁血芳魂), Wu’s first five films as a director during 1937-39, and her role as a media darling and “China’s first female director” (not technically true). This section – plus the subsequent ones Golden Gate Girl 金门女郎, charting her return to the US in 1939 and taking over her father’s film distribution business, and Between Coasts and Islands 海岛海岸, following her to Hawaii with actress Xiaofeifei 小非非 [Little FeFe] – is the engrossing guts of the documentary. The final section, Autumn in New York 叶落纽约, describes her years as a celebrated restaurant boss and her direction of New York exteriors for her last movie, Murder in New York Chinatown 纽约碎尸案 (1961), on which her old friend Hu Peng 胡鹏 [Wu Pang] directed interiors in Hong Kong and director Chu Yuan 楚原 edited the combined footage.
Despite the chaptered structure, however, Wei too often wanders down byways that are interesting but barely germane to her subject. Chinese American actress Huang Liushuang 黄柳霜 [Anna May Wong] gets major biographical treatment but, apart from illustrating Hollywood’s endemic racism of the time, her career had nothing in common with Wu’s. Also frequently referenced is director Dorothy Arzner who, beyond being a lesbian and Hollywood’s sole woman director of the time, had nothing in common with Wu. Wei even tries to suggest that Wu deserves to be ranked alongside Arzner and later director Ida Lupino – which is a stretch, to put it mildly.
With most of the films lost, it’s impossible to truly rate Wu as a director, “feminist” or otherwise. Her films were largely standard romantic dramas, generally with women at the centre and, in the case of It’s a Woman’s World 女人世界 (1939) with its all-female cast of 36 actresses, exclusively about women. But until more of her work surfaces, she’ll remain a fascinating footnote in Chinese film history.
Her openly lesbian lifestyle is treated honestly by Wei and seems not to have affected her career in any negative way, partly because homosexuality was an accepted part of the Chinese opera world in which she moved and from which many film performers of the time came. With her boyish haircut and mannish clothes, she was always addressed by the nickname Big Brother Ha 霞哥, based on the Cantonese pronunciation of her name (Ng Kam-ha).
Production values are good, and Wei has assembled a mass of documentary footage showing life at the time that helps to immerse the viewer in the various periods. However, on-screen titles, and both English and Chinese subtitles, are full of inconsistencies in dates and spellings of names that urgently need to be fixed. Wei’s own English commentary is often stilted and would be better redone by a professional narrator.
[Wei subsequently changed the film’s English title to Golden Gate Girls, as well as making updates and other changes. Version reviewed is the original premiere one.]
Presented by Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HK), Blue Queen Culture Communication (HK). Produced by Blue Queen Culture Communication (HK).
Script: Wei Shiyu [S. Louisa Wei]. Photography: Wei Shiyu [S. Louisa Wei]. Editing: S. Louisa Wei. Music: Robert Ellis-Geiger, Trần Mạnh Tuấn. Art direction: Zhang Hanjie, Max Willis. Sound: Chen Zhuohua. Animation: Anna Walter.
With: Wei Shiyu [S. Louisa Wei], Huang Wenyue [James M. Wong], Wu Jinping [Sally Ng], Graham Hodges, Robert C. Jones, Todd McCarthy, Luo Zhonglang, Luo Ka [Law Kar], Wu Qianli, Li Qifeng, Tan Yongwei, Kuang Wanlin [Kenneth Kwong], Xiao Yanfei [Siu Yin Fei], Ma Jinling [Margarita Ma], Liu Die’er [Genevieve Lau].
Narrator: Wei Shiyu [S. Louisa Wei].
Premiere: Hong Kong Film Festival (Filmmakers and Filmmaking), 1 Apr 2013.
Release: Hong Kong, tba.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 4 Jun 2013.)