By Phil Hall | August 4, 2005

The title for this 1942 wartime propaganda programmer is a misnomer, since the film takes place in China and not Burma. But geographical gaffes notwithstanding, this fascinating yet forgotten B-Movie was significant for being among the first to celebrate America’s alliance with China in the struggle against the Japanese hegemony in the early 1940s.

Anna May Wong, the exotic Chinese-American actress (and the first non-white sex symbol in Hollywood), is top-billed as a Chungking schoolteacher who does double-duty as a spy for the Chinese. When a traitor is suspected within the Allied movement, she is reassigned on a secret mission to find out who is aiding the Japanese. Most of her adventure is in the company of Westerners living in China, although occasionally she encounters a white person in bad make-up pretending to be Chinese with shrill “speakee Eng-rish” voices. Hey, no one ever said the 1940s were politically correct.

At 65 minutes (with more than a bit of newsreel padding showing the devastation exacted on China by the Japanese), “Bombs Over Burma” doesn’t take up much time or space. Wong, despite being burdened with an unflattering double-bun hairdo that makes her look like Mickey Mouse, is sufficiently noble in her one-woman campaign to save China. Director Joseph H. Lewis offers a belated bit of art in the weird finale, when the unmasked spy is surrounded by a squad of Chinese coolies who gaze at him enigmatically for the longest time while grasping their field tools. The spy literally goes to pieces while the coolies stare him down before chopping him up into pieces.

This may not be a great film, but it offers a fascinating glimpse at how Hollywood viewed the conflict in Asia (and the speech by an American on how the Chinese are his blood brothers is a rare example of cross-racial unity during this period). And as Wong is enjoying something of a renaissance among film scholars, this late-career flick (while not as flashy as her more famous hits) nonetheless provides a wonderful glimpse at her abilities to shine her star power.

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