ContactSales: Blue Queen Culture Communication, Hong Kong ([email protected])
Premiere: Hong Kong Film Festival (Filmmakers and Filmmaking), 1 Apr 2013. Theatrical release: TBA.
Presented by Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HK), Blue Queen Culture Communication (HK). Produced by Blue Queen Culture Communication (HK). Producers: Law Kar, Louisa Wei.
Script: Louisa Wei. Photography: Louisa Wei. Editing: Louisa Wei. Music: Robert Ellis-Geiger, Trần Mạnh Tuấn. Art direction: Brian Chang, Max Willis. Sound: Charles Chan. Animation: Anna Walter.
With: Louisa Wei, James M. Wong, Sally Ng, Graham Hodges, Robert C. Jones, Todd McCarthy, Law Chung-long, Law Kar, Wu Chin-li, Danny Li, Tam Yung-wai, Kenneth Kwong, Siu Yin Fei, Margarita Ma, Genevieve Lau.
Golden Gate Silver Light 金門銀光夢
2013, colour/b&w, 16:9, 105 mins
Directed by Louisa Wei (魏時煜)
By Derek Elley
Tue, 04 June 2013, 14:50 PM (HKT)
Fascinating but disorganised portrait of pioneering US-born filmmaker Esther Eng. Asian, documentary and gay events.
Documentary on pioneering, US-born Cantonese director 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 '30s, 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 Esther ENG 伍錦霞, a now-forgotten figure of the Chinese film-making diaspora, Golden Gate Silver Light 金門銀光夢 (2013) is let down by a lack of documentary rigour and director Louisa WEI 魏時煜's rather strained feminist agenda, but is still an engrossing ramble through periods of history (San Francisco's Chinatown, '30s Hong Kong, postwar America) from the little-charted perspective of the US' Overseas Chinese community. Hong Kong film teacher Wei frames her film as a personal journey of exploration, following the traces of Eng'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, Eng's youngest sister Sally Ng 伍錦萍, says, "You've left it too late."
Wei was first alerted to Eng's existence by a 1995 Variety article — co-researched by the present writer — 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 Golden Gate Girl 金門女郎 (1941) (co-dir. Moon KWAN 關文清) and her Variety obituary; subsequently, Australian actor and film historian Frank BREN set up a website about Eng and Hong Kong critic/film historian LAW Kar 羅卡 also wrote about her. The discovery in 2006 of some of Eng'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 Eng — 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 Eng'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 WAI Kim-fong 韋劍芳, was invited to star in the Chinese-language Heartaches 心恨 (1936) made at a rented studio down in Hollywood, Eng went with her, as a co-producer, and changed her family name from Ng to the more easily pronounceable Eng. As detailed in the second section, A Newcomer to Hollywood (銀壇新秀), the movie was funded by San Francisco's Cathay Pictures (based at Eng's home), directed by 28-year-old Frank TANG 唐隸忠, 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 (南華第一), follows Eng and Wai to Hong Kong in 1936 for the release there of Heartaches (under the title Iron Blood, Fragrant Soul 鐡血芳魂), Eng'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 Golden Gate Girl (金門女郎) charting her return to the US in 1939 and taking over her father's film distribution business, and Between Coasts and Islands (海島海岸) following her to Hawaii with actress Little FeFe 小非非, are the engrossing guts of the documentary. The final section, Autumn in New York (葉落紐約) describes her years as a celebrated restaurant boss and her direction of New York exteriors for her last movie, Murder in New York Chinatown 紐約碎屍案 (1961), on which her old friend WU Pang 胡鵬 directed interiors in Hong Kong and director CHOR Yuen 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 Anna May WONG 黃柳霜 gets major biographical treatment but, apart from illustrating Hollywood's endemic racism of the time, her career had nothing in common with Eng'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 Eng. Wei even tries to suggest that Eng 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 Eng 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 Women'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 her Cantonese 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. Wai's own English commentary is often stilted and would be better redone by a professional narrator.
[Above picture shows Esther Eng, flanked by actors Little FeFe and Ronald LIU 廖奇偉, at the time of shooting Back Street 遲來春已晚 (1947), adapted from the novel by Fannie HURST. Photo provided by director Louisa Wei.]