Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words is a documentary written, directed, and produced by Yunah Hong and first aired in 2013. For those unfamiliar with the titular actress, Anna May Wong was among the first Asian American Hollywood stars as films first began to take hold. The movie follows her career and personal life spanning the silent age and into the Hollywood contract system and beyond.
Wong’s achievements are nothing short of breathtaking when you consider the cultural racism prevalent against Asian people at that time in the States. Unfortunately, there was also a general ignorance about Asia that fed that prejudice. Add to that the widespread misogyny of the time and the pressures she endured to conform to her own family culture, and it becomes clear what an authentically tenacious badass Wong really was.
While she appeared in silent films, unlike many of her peers, the actress then easily made the transition to talkies when that time came. Wong was the beautiful exotic woman on screen but could not be cast as a romantic interest to white actors because of anti-miscegenation laws. She played second banana to white actresses made up to look Chinese (which one interviewee calls “yellow-face,” a term that in and of itself reeks of racism).
“…a glimpse into the glorious life and personality of Anna May Wong…”
Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words acknowledges the wild acclaim Wong received for her leading role in 1922’s The Toll of the Sea. Critics regarded her as one of the finest actresses of her time. While she continued acting, Wong tired of Hollywood’s persistent racism and, in 1928, went for roles in Europe, where she enjoyed great success and fame.
Hong’s documentary is crisp and moves along quickly with photos and newsreel-style footage. It also isn’t long, running only an hour, but that’s enough for a glimpse into the glorious life and personality of Anna May Wong. She is directly quoted from letters and writing, with her words performed by the stunning Doan Ly. In addition, we are treated to interviews with Asian movie and television luminaries such as James Hong and B.D. Wong, among others, who give their perspectives on Wong’s life and work.
Overall, the documentary reveals as much about America and the world in the 1920s as it does about Wong by following her career. She was constrained by racist and misogynistic rules of the time, but her quiet efforts to resist and follow her dreams simply by being herself laid the foundation for a more progressive perspective to follow. Fans of Anna May Wong will enjoy this look at her life. If like me, your film education lacked details about the life of this powerfully intense actress and independent woman, then Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words will delight you and fill in the gaps.
"…will delight you..."