Sunday, May 05, 2002


Edward G. Robinson stars as a Chinese tong council member in San Francisco's Chinatown. He's sort of an enforcer and executioner for the tong, and his specialty is throwing hatchets at people's heads. The first third of the movie is set 15-20 years in the past with tong wars at their height, and the sets, lighting, and cinematography are all wonderfully atmospheric. Robinson has to execute his closest friend, and winds up inheriting the friend's business and daughter, who is just a child. Many years later, with Chinatown quite modernized and tong wars a thing of the past, the daughter has grown up to be Loretta Young and is herself quite modern and assimilated. Robinson marries her, which I found pretty creepy since their relationship seems so close to father/daughter. Soon, another tong war rears its ugly head and Young is seduced by a young gangster and basically sold into servitude (and, it's implied, prostitution). Robinson allows the young man to take his wife because he had vowed before Buddah to do nothing to cause her sorrow. His fellow tong members don't find his behavior honorable, so he is expelled and is forced to retire, sell his business, and work as a farm laborer. He gets a message from Young, now in China, begging for help, so he polishes up his hatchets and goes to rescue her.

Despite the fact that virtually all the main Chinese parts are played by Caucasian actors, the movie is still quite watchable, even fun. It's a pre-Code film which allows some skirting of the strict moral code (Young leaves Robinson on her own accord but doesn't get a divorce) and the climax involves a hatchet and a human head that must have been pretty strong stuff for 1932. (And maybe even now, since TCM rated the movie TV-14). The opening scene is very effective: as a funeral winds its way through the twisting streets of Chinatown, a gigantic tong war flag is unfurled and gongs are sounded, signaling the beginning of a war and sending the entire populace running and screaming through the streets. Robinson and Young are both quite good. Perhaps because of the non-"PC" nature of the movie, it doesn't show up very much, but it's worth seeing.

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