For me, the best program at this year’s LA Asian Pacific Film Festival did not feature any celebrity guests, nor was Stella Artois on tap, and every short film featured was over 50 years old. But in terms of sheer aesthetic beauty, collective exasperation, and good ‘ol sense of community, it encapsulated Visual Communications’ mission to preserve, promote, and present authentic images of Asian Americans. LAAPFF’s James Wong Howe presentation of Howe’s rare documentary Dong Kingman, as well the legendary cinematographer’s home footage, did just that, and left sixty or so viewers thoroughly wowed.
The first hour of the show comprised of clips that Howe shot while on vacation, scouting locations, or testing out equipment. The multi-Oscar-winner Howe is already known as a master of the 35mm Hollywood style – in fact he helped invent that look with films like Yankee Doodle Dandy – but two things immediately stood out about his “amateur” footage. First, that his eye for elegant compositions was perfectly suited for 16mm as well.
But more impressively, Howe had an eye for everyday details of San Francisco Chinatown and the Hong Kong streets. New Years parades, nick-nack shops, children at play: we’ve seen these images before, but Howe picks up a human element lost in the newsreels of the day. I would go as far as to say that Howe’s eye is that of an outsider (he is, after all, a Hollywood giant), but in the way it lingers on the spirit and rhythms of the streets it is less that of a tourist of the exotic than that of a respectful observer of his own people. His footage of the New Years lion dance feels to me like an elder statesman capturing the spirit of play in the world he grew up in. This footage, along with The Curse of Quon Gwon, marks for me the beginning of a certain kind of Asian American filmmaking that would ultimately lead to the black-and-white on-the-ground realism of Wayne Wang’s landmark Chan is Missing.
But the LAAPFF’s program was more than just a clip show: it was an interactive event. The footage, shot without sound, included live commentary by film editor and VC board member Walt Louie, who grew up in the SF Chinatown that Howe depicts so lovingly. Louie’s commentary was as much a reflection on growing up (he excitedly pointed out old haunts and named every intersection) as it was a study of Howe’s technique. From any other commentator, Louie’s autobiographical asides might be seen as self-indulgent and irrelevant; but in the context of the program and in the spirit of VC, Louie’s commentary provided a community context from which to have a conversation. He invited the audience to jump in with comments and questions at any time to give life to Howe’s footage, most of which was unannotated and undated. From the audience, TV director (and fellow board member) Henry Chan chimed in with information on Howe’s Hong Kong footage. Other audience members gave their two cents about Howe’s equipment and in-camera editing technique. The Howe footage may have been an aesthetic and historical wonder, but in the hands of Visual Communications and Walt Louie, it became an occasion to pay tribute to an entire community and tradition of filmmaking, and not just James Wong Howe.
By the time the 15-minute Dong Kingman played, the featured program already seemed like an afterthought. But what an experience it was. There’s nothing new about a documentary capturing an artist at work. But when the documentary director and the depicted artist are considered two of the most important American visual artists of the 20th century, and both happen to be Chinese American? That’s something we’ve never seen. Visually, Howe doesn’t add his usual glamour, and just lets watercolorist Dong Kingman do his thing: collecting plein air inspiration and transforming it into a feast of detail. Kingman’s rough sketches become notes of color before transforming unexpectedly, even miraculously, into urban jazz. Aside from a few overly-cute edits (there are some decidedly unrealistic eyeline matches), Howe lets the master make art for the camera. It’s a loving gesture, as respectful as Howe’s Chinatown footage. Like Walt Louie to the famed cinematographer, James Wong Howe’s portrait of Dong Kingman is a gesture to the community and a reminder of its bountiful culture and creativity.