The demeaning portrayal of minorities in the first century of American movies (and 60 years of television) has been chronicled with righteous indignation and academic rigor in countless documentaries. So veteran doc maker Arthur Dong (Coming Out Under Fire) wisely adopts an irreverent and unexpectedly intimate approach in his endlessly entertaining survey of Hollywood's depiction of Chinese and Chinese-American characters. Tacking toward oral history and away from ivory-tower analysis, Dong elicits firsthand experiences from a dozen candid artists, including Nancy Kwan (who burst through the bamboo curtain in The World of Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song), Joan Chen, and even Christopher Lee (who played Fu Manchu in a series of films in the '60s, to his admitted embarrassment). The overall tone is of bemusement rather than resentment, and self-reflection instead of indictment. The filmmaker has a few other surprises up his sleeve, beginning with poignant passages culled from the long-unseen reels of Oakland actress-writer-director Marilyn Wong's silent feature The Curse of Quon Gwon (1917). The timing couldn't be better, as Hollywood Chinese arrives amid the mini-furor over 21, which cast a Caucasian actor in a role based on the actual exploits of a Chinese-American student. More proof, as if it were needed, that Hollywood is still behind the curve.
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