I go into documentaries like Hollywood Chinese with a little trepidation. Another dissertation on a minority dissed by the screen industry? And from Arthur Dong, director of the gay-persecution documentaries Coming Out Under Fire and Licensed to Kill? Sounds like a dreary gripefest, and the fact is, American film has always been an equal-opportunity offender, guilty of simplifications, distortions and stereotypes toward every social subset - ask any black, Jew, detective, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief (Lakota or Hindu). It's just . . . showbiz. The good news is Hollywood Chinese communicates its opinionated chronicle without feeling needlessly shrill or strident.
The feature covers 100 years of Asian Americans in American cinema; from early, flagrantly faked footage of dreaded Boxers beheading Christian missionaries, up to an indomitable Roger Ebert caught in a shouting match over the merits of Justin Lin's teen drama Better Luck Tomorrow. Dong accepts that there exist differing points of view, for example, on the hugely popular Charlie Chan mysteries - which critic Stephen Gong praises for the strong family dynamics and work opportunities for Chinese American actors like the late Keye Luke - even if Chan was inevitably a Caucasian thespian who tended to talk-like-fortune-cookie.
Durable troupers Turhan Bey and Christopher Lee speak about the once-common "yellowface" tradition of employing Anglo actors in Chinese parts, with Luise Rainer, in the prestige adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth (which apparently got a big publicity push here in Canton, Ohio), singled out for praise in conveying an "authentic" flavor - even though her casting put out of the running a genuine Asian actress, Anna May Wong, seen in extraordinary early-Technicolor process shots. B.D. Wong and James Hong denounce such, uh, colorful casting decisions as John Wayne as a Mongol; yet even Hong admits his many character parts (Big Trouble in Little China) are based on his childhood matinee hero, Peter Lorre, as sleuth Mr. Moto.
Veteran actresses Nancy Kwan, Joan Chen and Tsai Chin own up to playing their share of pliant concubines and Dragon Lady torturers in both blockbusters like The World of Suzie Wong and Fu Manchu cheapies (it's just . . . showbiz) and they all finally found a happy convergence in the Wayne Wang-directed screen version of Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club. Most tantalizing are early fragments from things you can't readily rent from the video shop. Witness unsung silent-era pioneers like director Marion Wong and her actress-sister Violet, and James B. Leong and Esther Eng (who once cast the infant Bruce Lee!). They attempted to cultivate a specialty Cantonese-language film circuit on the West Coast - much like the Yiddish film scene in New York - but without as much success.
Yes, there are omissions: American TV, from Sulu of Star Trek and Jack Soo of Barney Miller on up, is never discussed. Martial-arts cinema and the xenophobic treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII get sketchy coverage at best. As much time is spent parsing M. Butterfly as Flower Drum Song, never mind few audiences actually saw the former. But you get the idea that Dong actually likes movies and the people behind them, and isn't just fishing for complaints. - Charles Cassady Jr.
Hollywood Chinese: 7 p.m. Friday, July 25, at Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, 11141 East Blvd., 216-421-7450.
Director/writer/star Stephen Chow is best known for his kung fu comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, but if you're looking for another fight fest, you'd best look elsewhere. With CJ7 Chow seems to be aiming for the family-film market. However, due to cultural differences and the decision by the film's U.S. distributors to release the movie with subtitles instead of dubbing it, it's hard to see this having much kid-appeal in America. Dicky (Jiao Xu) is a poor kid sent to private school by his construction-worker dad Ti (Chow). Most of the other kids, and even many of the teachers and administrators, treat Dicky with contempt. But things start to turn around for Dicky when his dad brings home something he found at the dump - a green ball that turns out to be some kind of alien life form. Dicky sees his extraterrestrial pet turn a rotten apple into fresh fruit and assumes it can do anything. Although basically a good kid, Dicky starts to become corrupted when given what he thinks is the opportunity to have anything he wants.
There's some effort to use this aspect of the story to show how increasing capitalism is changing Chinese culture, but CJ7 is first and foremost concerned with entertaining. The film could easily have been a really bad E.T. rip-off, but thanks to Chow's aptitude for slapstick comedy, it manages to be its own movie. My favorite scenes are a couple of great schoolyard showdowns where Chow dips into his bag of kung fu comedy tricks, and a dream sequence where Dicky gets to live out his wildest fantasies. CJ7 is not a great movie, but in the end it's just so endearingly goofy and sincere that it won me over. I don't know if it'll have much mainstream appeal, but fans of cult movies in general and fans of Asian cult movies in particular should check this out on the big screen while they can. - Robert Ignizio
CJ7: 7:35 and 9:20 p.m. Thursday, July 25 at Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, 11141 East Blvd., 216-421-7450.
Jeremy Podeswa beautifully brings Anne Michaels' award-winning novel to life with this lyrically poetic film dealing with the Holocaust and all of the trials and tribulations that followed for one survivor. Aided by stunning performances and exquisite cinematography, Fugitive Pieces tells the moving story of Jakob Beer (Stephen Dillane), a man dealing with his painful childhood experiences in Poland during WWII. The movie opens with a nine-year-old Jakob witnessing the horrific murders of his parents and abduction of his sister, Bella. The terrified and newly orphaned Jakob escapes to the woods, where a warmhearted Greek archaeologist named Athos (Rade Sherbedgia) discovers the boy and decides to raise him. Together, they help each other rediscover themselves by overcoming their tumultuous pasts.
Through Athos' love and nurturing, Jakob begins a new life, maturing into a talented writer, though he is haunted by the fate of his family and images of his beloved Bella. Survivor's guilt takes a toll on his love life - though love can heal Jakob's old wounds, if only he can find some inner peace. Sometimes, moving forward means letting go of our past in order to become free of our demons. Robbie Kay illuminates the screen with his remarkable and unforgettable performance as the younger Jakob, a boy torn by tragedy who finds companionship and support through Athos. Dillane successfully creates a portrait of the older Jakob, a conflicted man working through his darkest memories by dealing with loss and finding happiness through love. But it's Sherbedgia who really brings the heart and soul to Fugitive Pieces. This film has incredible spirit, as it sensitively takes a depressing story and converts it into a beautiful tale about life, loss and the alluring effects of love. - Lauren Yusko
Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theater, 2163 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 440-564-2034, clevelandcinemas.com.
Inspired by the music of '70s Swedish pop group ABBA and adapted for film from the Broadway musical phenomenon, Mamma Mia! features an all-star cast. Donna (Meryl Streep) is a single mother to 20-year-old Sophie (Mean Girls' Amanda Seyfried), who runs a villa on a picturesque Greek island. When young Sophie decides to get married, she also secretly decides to invite her father to the wedding. There's only one problem: Three men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsg"rd) are potentially the baby's daddy, and they all arrive at the island unbeknownst to Donna. Add Donna's two kooky lifelong friends and fellow members of Donna & the Dynamos (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski) to the mix, and you have one hell of a celebration.
Seyfried (displaying an uncanny resemblance to Streep) is delightful to watch, with her sexy innocence and sweet voice. Streep is excellent playing Sophie's mother, diversifying her résumé and proving she can act and still have fun doing it. The men in the movie are hilarious, but I must say, you may want to fast-forward through Brosnan's songs if you decide to buy the soundtrack, since singing is definitely not his forte (though it does add to the humor of the movie). Although the performances can be overly theatrical at times, the music numbers never become overbearing. Sure, Mamma Mia! has its corny moments (such as a Titanic-like scenario involving Streep on the bow of a ship during "Money, Money, Money"), but unlike other film adaptations where the cheesiness should be left on the stage, it somehow works within this movie. Mamma Mia! is a fun, campy guilty pleasure about mothers and daughters, old friends and revived flames. - LY