Monday, January 19, 2015


Anna May Wong is a schoolteacher in Chungking during the Sino-Japanese War. It seems odd when an itinerant street peddler comes into her classroom one day hawking his wares, but he is actually delivering a coded message to Wong who does some spy work for the Chinese. She is to accompany a group of people on a bus along the Burma Road and help keep a food supply caravan safe while also being on the lookout for anyone who might be leaking information about such supply trips to the Japanese who then bomb the roads in an attempt to stop the supply chain. Back in the classroom, there is a horrific scene of a Japanese bombing; Wong evacuates the room but forgets one child who had been made to sit in the corner for misbehavior, and he is killed by a bomb blast. Distraught, Wong is even more determined to carry out her mission, but along the way, the bus breaks down and the small group of travelers spends the night in a Buddhist monastery. Tensions rise among the group members, which include a British diplomat (Leslie Denison) and an obnoxious American (Dan Seymour), and when it's discovered that the head monk (Noel Madison, pictured at left with Wong) has a secret transmission room hidden behind a large Buddha statue, we're not sure who to trust.

In general, I can't join the chorus of voices in praise of Anna May Wong. She was certainly a culturally important figure as one of the first popular Asian-American movie stars, but I've rarely found her performances compelling, with words like "wooden" and "low-key" recurring in many of my reviews of her films (DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, WHEN YOU WERE BORN, CHU CHIN CHOW). The same goes for her here; the only time I found her effective was when she expressed sorrow over the death of the child. The first half of this Poverty Row B-film is sluggish, but the pace picks up with the interplay of characters at the monastery, which itself has a nicely mysterious (albeit low-budget) atmosphere. Aside from Wong, the acting is fine, and the way the climax plays out is especially interesting, with a surprisingly intense moment of reckoning for the villain. Sadly, it seems the only print available is in bad shape with lots of splices and dirt; it's just this side of watchable. [Streaming]

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