Sunday, February 18, 2018

The NFR Project #52: 'The Curse of Quon Gwon'

Violet Wong as the heroine of 'The Curse of Quon Gwon.'

The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West
Dir: Marion E. Wong
Prod: Marion E. Wong
Scr: Marion E. Wong
Phot: unknown
Premiere: unreleased (Filmed in 1916)
36:37 mins of footage remaining

Marion Wong is the first Chinese-American filmmaker, and one of the few silent-era female directors. What’s more remarkable, she accomplished this is near-complete isolation in San Francisco, before World War I. This was a period when only Essanay Studios had a primitive film-production site there. Her incredible ability to make an effective film out of nothing went unrecognized until 2004. That’s when filmmaker Arthur Dong found the remnants of the completed film (only reels 4 and 7 remain) in the possession of Wong’s descendants, and he had it restored.

This is not an example of some kind of effort that can only be praised for its academic or anthropological interest. The filming conditions are crude; the sets are obviously open to the light and breeze. But The Curse of Quon Gwon is watchable, clear, and controlled. The director pans, cuts in for close-ups, irises out of scenes — all the vocabulary of filmmaking at the time is there. One particular outdoor sequence shot at sunset, is hauntingly beautiful. It makes you wonder what else Wong might have accomplished if her film’s fate hadn’t been so unfortunate.

It’s a drama about heritage and assimilation, couched in terms of the supernatural. The film’s heroine, (Violet Wong, Marion’s sister-in-law) is a Westernized woman who marries into a very traditional Chinese family. Their displeasure with her seeming indifference to confirming to Old World ways. Director Wong plays the evil mother-in-law, who at one point takes the heroine’s newborn from her and flings a knife at her feet, evidently promoting suicide as the only way for her to conform to the family’s needs. (A small ceramic deity appears to be the vehicle through which the curse is perpetrated.)

The meticulous attention to rituals, dress, and culture is an invaluable insight to the state of Chinese-American culture at the time. Like every other immigrant subculture, its generations followed a pattern: the awkward and outmoded pioneers, usually stuck in their native language; the eager-to-assimilate second generation, and the third, which turns back and finds sympathy with and interest in the culture left behind for America. Wong’s movie seems to be a melodrama with a happy ending. The god is appeased and the family is reunited. The last images are of the couple and their child, now older. All are in Western dress, sitting on their front stoop, happy. The bottom edge of an American flag dangles down from the upper right-hand corner.

So what happened? Wong couldn’t get a distributor to pick up the film, plain and simple. Without that shot at life, it wound up in film reel canisters in Wong’s basement for decades, decaying and losing elements. Thanks to some adroit detective work, this remarkable effort can be acknowledge if not enjoyed as its creator intended.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: Where Are My Children?

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