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The film is a triangle: not so much of Ling Moy, Ronald and Joan as of Ling Moy, Ronald and a Chinese detective, Ah Kee, played by Sessue Hayakawa, the Japanese actor who in the teens was Hollywood's first Asian male star. He's not plausibly Chinese here, and he is in a constant, losing battle with spoken English. But he is a part of movie history, in the only studio film of the Golden Age to star two ethnically Asian actors. And he gives his emotive all to such lines as "It is the triumph of irony that the only woman I have ever deeply loved should be born of the blood that I loathe." And in the inevitable double-death finale neither the villainess nor the noble detective can survive the machinations of Hollywood justice he gently caresses the long hair of the lady he would love to have loved. "Flower Ling Moy," he says, a moment before expiring. "A flower need not love, but only be loved. As Ah Kee loved you."
Daughter of the Dragon was the first of two pictures Wong made at Paramount in the early 30s. It happens that she bore similarities to two other of the studio's cuties: she looked a bit like Claudette Colbert, with the bangs and high cheekbones, and had some of Miriam Hopkins' sexual musk (though, again, those actresses applied a real or implicit smile to their roles). Of course, Paramount's big new exotic flavor was Dietrich. To see the German import and the Chinese girl from L.A. play off each other in Shanghai Express, as director Josef von Sternberg and cinematographer Lee Garmes swathe them in a kind of visual incense, is pleasure of a high order.
Lily (Dietrich), with her fancy frocks, and Hui Fei (Wong), in scythe-shaped sideburns and a bob with the sides parted, are prostitutes sharing a coach room on a train lumbering through China during the Nationalist-Communist civil war. The two women fend off the condemnation of the more proper passengers "One of them is white and one of them is yellow," says the Rev. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), "but both their souls are rotten" with glances that may be flirtatious or contemptuous. They toy with the huffy Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), who runs a boarding house; Dietrich wants to call it a bawdy house. When the matron declares that Lily and Hui Fei might not be respectable enough to warrant her hospitality, Wong looks up from her cards, takes the matron in her sights and murmurs, "I confess I don't quite know the standard of respectability that you demand in your boarding house, Mrs. Haggerty."
Wong imparts a ponderous, attention-grabbing delicacy to the speech, possibly because it's the longest she has in the film. She has no more than a score of lines, yet she is crucial to the film's plot. The villain Chang (Oland again) is a Communist rebel who takes the passengers hostage in order to secure the release of a comrade. As a diversion "It's a long journey, and a lonely one," he says to Hui Fei he rapes the Chinese girl. Later she fatally stabs him. "You'd better get out of here," she whispers to Lily's captive beloved (Clive Brook). "I just killed Chang." When Lily hears of this, she says, "I don't know if I ought to be grateful to you or not." Hui Fei replies, with quiet intensity, "It's of no consequence. I didn't do it for you. Death canceled his debt to me." (Spoken like the daughter of Fu Manchu.) Throughout, Wong exudes a star power that complements Dietrich's but doesn't compete with it. She has a stillness with a force field around it.
WONG RULES BRITANNIA
Paramount was Wong's home, or at least her hotel, throughout the 30s; she did three stretches there. But in 1933, going where the work was, she returned to Britain for four films; I've seen three. First was A Study In Scarlet, starring and written by Reginald Owen, directed by Edward L. Marin, and based on the title but not the plot of Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes novelette. Wong plays Mrs. Pyke, a suspect in the murders of several members of a secret society, the Scarlet Ring. She has a generous spot on the cast list (she's billed third), and a tiny role; she can't be on screen for more than eight of the film's 73 mins. She gets a few closeups for smirking privileges, and is enlisted into the climax, when she is arrested and disappears without a word. Her exit is appropriate, since Wong seems to be performing under silent protest.
In the 1934 musical fantasy Chu-Chin-Chow, Wong, though billed second, is again a supporting player. Her role as Zahrat echoes the one she had a decade earlier in The Thief of Bagdad: she's back in that once-fabled city as a slave girl in the royal house, scheming and spying for an invader villain with predatory aims. But this time she gets to atone, by turning on her master Abu Hasan, played by that thick slice of ham, Fritz Kortner. In one scene Wong displays more leg than most stars would. (Then again, the long-limbed Wong had more leg to show.) And when chained to a Wheel of Death, she nicely flexes muscles in her sinewy arms. She strangles one of her captors, escapes from the wheel (without bothering to free her fellow prisoners) and silently vows (actually, smirks) revenge against her master.
Chu-Chin-Chow embraces indeed, squeezes the life out of all manner of racial stereotypes, notably in the equal-opportunity offender "Slave Song" and in a joke about a fat African woman. Kortner, whose acting style manages the seemingly unimaginable blending Al Jolson and Klaus Kinski, appears in black-face (as an African), brown-face (an Arab) and yellow-face (a Mongol). The picture, directed by Walter Forde, is an appalling but vagrantly vigorous entertainment, especially at the end, when Wong leads a big dance number (Lots of sinuous arm gestures) so she can find and stab Abu Hasan, who dies as floridly as he lived. Here, as in Shanghai Express, Wong gets to kill without being killed.
The higher-minded Java Head, directed by Hollywood's J. Walter Ruben from a story by Joseph Hergesheimer, presents Wong as a tragic heroine, driven to death by her own high ideals and the prejudices of a 19th-century English village. Taou Yuen, the Manchurian princess Taou Yuen, is brought to England as the bride of businessman Gerrit Amiddon (John Loder). An epidemic of prejudice immediately erupts, with everyone but Gerrit and his sister fuming over Taou Yuen. The family cook calls her "a heathen, with fingernails like that" and spreads her hand into a claw. The brother of the pretty girl Gerrit left behind (Elizabeth Allen as Nettie) spits out his verdict: "The great Gerrit Amiddon playing the fool with a common little yellow girl from a teahouse." The great Gerrit is, at first, in love with, in awe of, his precious acquisition: "I feel like a clumsy fool who's stolen a priceless lacquered vase and expected it to serve as a beer mug." Taou Yuen smiles and says: "As long as you do not drop and break it." Guess what? He drops, he breaks.
Learning that the family fortune has been stoked by trading in opium, and feeling the fanning of an old flame with a white woman, Gerrit chides Taou Yuen for her "barbaric" and "pagan ways." He gives Taou Yuen the back of his hand, and Wong the chance to simmer regally. She notices Gerrit's attraction for Nettie and asks if an Englishman "can love two women equally" and opines that, in that case, "One would die, and the other grow stronger." Any moviegoer can recognize the Noble Renunciation theme that the young Wong had embodied in The Toll of the Sea. The film's only suspense: How will Taou Yuen be dispatched so Gerrit can marry Nettie? Answer: by taking a gulp of poison meant for the white girl.