The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916)
Once upon a time, an enterprising Chinese-American businesswoman named Marion E. Wong set out to make a feature film, using friends and family members for her cast. After two advance screenings, the movie languished in her basement for fifty years before she gave it to a relative, and then it was another 39 years before it was restored and digitized in 2007. Now it is available, and serves as a document of a culture that was rarely captured on film at the time and even more rarely in charge of its own narrative when it was.
I cannot give a detailed summary of the movie, because some of it is lost, importantly including the Intertitles that would explain much of the relationships and action on the screen. The basic story is timeless enough, however, that we can follow it in broad outline: a young Chinese American girl (Violet Wong, real-life sister-in-law of the director) with Western ideas marries into a very traditional family and is driven out by her scornful in-laws. The movie opens as the groom gives a statue of a household god to his mother, who seems to lecture him about the old ways. We see a good deal of the build-up to the marriage, in which the girl and her betrothed have tea together in what will be her bedroom, and she pokes good-natured fun at some of the traditional accoutrements of the ceremony, including a pair of oddly-balanced slippers for the bride, and a dangly headpiece for the groom. We also see her efforts to get along with her future mother-in-law, who seems quite formal, but not unfriendly at this stage. There is a scene I couldn’t follow in which she speaks to her husband in an outdoor setting, and suddenly breaks down crying (I’m guessing that he’s telling her he must go away for a while, based on what happens next). Then we see what seems to be the tail end of the wedding ceremony, demonstrating that she has learned to walk in the awkward slippers.
In the next sequence, the husband is missing, but there is a new element: Now Marion Wong appears as the “villain,” evidently a sister-in-law or other relative living in the same house. She takes Violet’s baby away and the mother-in-;aw gestures for her to leave after a confrontation, offering her a knife to commit suicide. I think Violet is being accused of neglecting her baby, since what seems to be a doctor comes to look at the child in a later scene. Violet goes out into the rain and seems to be ready to slash her wrists, but suddenly throws down the knife and wanders out into the wilderness. There is an odd scene in which she cuddles a lamb, appearing no worse for the wear after sleeping outside in the rain. Then we return to the house, where the husband returns and learns what has happened. He cries for his loss and confronts Marion with her cruelty. Then Violet turns up at the door again, and her takes her in and comforts her. Marion, realizing that her plot has failed, plunges the dagger into her own heart. At the end, Violet produces the household god and pays homage to it, suggesting that all the turmoil was due to her disrespect at the beginning, and that the tragic events since then have helped her to accept traditional ways.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from an non-studio film from this period but I was pretty impressed, especially by the filming and editing techniques. Most beginning filmmakers, especially at this early time, don’t give themselves enough “coverage” to show a scene from multiple angles, get close-ups and establishing shots, etc., but Marion and her crew did quite well. It was, in fact, less “stagey” and static than a lot of professionally-made films at the time, and demonstrates a good grasp of so-called “film grammar” with a liberal amount of different angles and shots. Scenes sometimes end with an iris-in, especially for strong emotional moments. One particularly good shot shows Violet at her mirror, with her face perfectly framed by the mirror as she works on her complicated braids. That’s not to say there are no mistakes – one scene had a distracting reflection that kept hitting the leading man’s shoulder, and a couple of edits have a sort of “hiccup” effect where we see the last few frames before the cut were repeated. And, of course, some of the footage is less than perfectly intact, so it’s hard to know how good it was meant to be.
It’s a pity that audiences of 1916 missed out on this movie. I suspect that Ms. Wong discovered that distribution was more difficult and expensive an investment than she’d anticipated, and gave up when she realized she probably wouldn’t make her money back trying to do it independently. It remains however as a document of a truly under-represented segment of American culture from a time period that tends to look disturbingly white when only the most popular images are seen.
Alternate Title: The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West
Director: Marion E. Wong
Starring: Marion E. Wong, Violet Wong, Harvey Soohoo.
Run Time: 35 Min (surviving print)
You can watch it for free: here (no music).