If you think it’s difficult being an Asian American director today trying to make Asian American-themed projects, imagine what it must have been like 94 years ago. Up until recently, it was, in fact, thought that no Asian American filmmakers existed that far back (Sessue Hayakawa wouldn’t start his own company, becoming the first Asian American producer/actor, until 1918). That is until 2006 when two reels of a 1916 silent feature entitled The Curse of Quon Gwon were discovered. The director and writer of the movie was a Chinese American woman named Marion Wong.
Documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong was researching Hollywood Chinese, his excellent look at the history of Chinese Americans in Hollywood, when he unearthed the two 35 mm reels (about 35 minutes of footage) in an Oakland basement. The film was preserved on highly flammable nitrate stock and had to be carefully handled and restored (among other dangers, old nitrate stock has a tendency to suddenly explode). The Curse of Quon Gwon was the first narrative feature made by a Chinese American and also one of the first films to be directed by a woman.
Not much else is known about Wong herself. This seems to be the only movie directed by the Bay Area native and it was a decidedly family affair. Wong’s cousin Violet stars in the film and other family members worked in front of and behind the camera. The plot seems to be about the assimilation of the Chinese into American society but because the footage that survives is incomplete, it’s impossible to piece together the specific details of the story.
I had the chance to see the restored film in 2007 at a screening hosted by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (still the only public showing of the film in L.A. as far as I know) and it was truly an exciting cinematic experience. I felt like I was watching history unfold before me in reel time. Simply as a historical document, the movie would have been valuable and interesting, but what’s also amazing about it is that The Curse of Quon Gwon is also a very accomplished artistic work.
If you put this film up against any other work from that era, it can hold its own. The technological expertise and the expert storytelling technique is undeniably evident in just those two reels. I remember, for example, watching this one impressively fluid shot–a slow dolly in to one of the characters who is experiencing an emotional moment—and thinking that it could have been a shot that Orson Welles or Martin Scorsese would use decades later and be rightly praised for how effective it was. Unsubstantiated rumor has it that Wong’s cameraman was Charlie Chaplin’s director of photography and many of the crew were professional Hollywood veterans; that they were up in Oakland shooting another movie and would eat at the Wong family restaurant and could have been recruited by Marion to help on her film. But again, that’s all speculation.
After watching the film, I remember thinking—where did Marion Wong, a woman who lived over 300 miles from Hollywood, learn the sort of technique and craft that was clearly evident in this picture? What sort of obstacles must she have faced as a first-time filmmaker who was Chinese and a woman with a distinctly Chinese American story to tell—free of the “Oriental” stereotypes typical of that time? What must it have been like to see her movie buried and forgotten and not be able to make another film (Wong’s children didn’t even know their mother made a movie because she never mentioned it)?
In December 2006, The Curse of Quon Gwon was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry—a prestigious and well-deserved honor that speaks to both the artistic and cultural significance of Wong’s work.
Marion Wong was a talented artist who was ahead of her time. Had she lived in a different era, under different circumstances, I can only imagine all the films she would have made; the talent that would have been allowed to flourish. But thanks to the efforts of Arthur Dong and the National Film Registry, we will at least have her incredible sole pioneering effort preserved for this and future generations to discover.
Here’s a local Bay Area news piece on the film: