A century of Chinese and Chinese-American screen representation is gracefully charted in “Hollywood Chinese.” While documentarian Arthur Dong has often dealt with discomfiting subjects before (“Coming Out Under Fire,” “License to Kill”), here he and his interviewees take a circumspect tact that parts from the more accusatory tenor in “The Celluloid Closet” and other surveys of cinematic minority portrayal. Result has softer impact, but still holds attention via myriad familiar and rare clips, plus a stellar array of talking heads. Brief theatrical exposure is possible before longterm broadcast and educational play.
Chronology starts with stereotypes from the silent and early sound era, though the picnotes forgotten pioneers like Violet Wong, who tried to create independent production channels for Asian-themed pictures. “Yellowface” casting dominated mainstream hits like the Charlie Chan series and epic “The Good Earth,” reducing actual Chinese-American thesps to background players. Later luminaries from Nancy Kwan to Joan Chen bemusedly note the sometimes embarrassing roles and community criticism they endured. Key pics like “The World of Suzie Wong,” “Flower Drum Song” and “The Joy Luck Club” are spotlit, though 1985’s hotly protested “Year of the Dragon” goes unmentioned.