Knit to This
Knit to This: Hollywood Chinese
For my money, there’s no better streaming service out there—none I watch more, none that provokes as much rabbit-hole research—than The Criterion Channel. And it’s not just because they’ve just piled up a billion influential movies from around the world and left me alone with them. No, the value for me comes from the curated packages of films they put together every month, each with some sort of through-line. Since the service launched, I’ve loved Western Noir, Black Westerns, Pre-Code Paramount, and a 17-film package devoted to Delphine Seyrig (!). The Disney Channel it is not.
August brought us one of the most intriguing sets so far: Hollywood Chinese. Introduced by Arthur Dong’s 2007 documentary of the same name, Hollywood Chinese examines the (almost always) problematic lens through which Hollywood studios have treated both China and its people as subjects.
You really should watch the doc before you dive into the two-dozen films Criterion has put together. It’s fifteen years old, but it’s full of interviews about the problems inherent in this group of movies: Amy Tan, David Henry Hwang, Nancy Kwan, BD Wong … the list goes on, but they all show up to talk about the conflict they felt growing up watching Katharine Hepburn and Luise Rainer and Paul Muni appearing in yellow face in these movies. It’s also interesting to hear what they think of the movies now.
The list is pretty wide-ranging. From a couple of shockingly troubling early silents through Anna May Wong’s rise, Charlie Chan, and Flower Drum Song, all the way to Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet and the great Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, there’s a pretty broad swath of types and styles of movies on offer. I’ve been making my way through them in order—which seems like the way to do it—and not one of them has turned out to be anything less than fascinating … for better or worse.