At 93 years of age, Chinese-American actress Lisa Lu Yan acts a guide exploring both the history of the film industry in China and Chinese actors in Hollywood in Zhang Tongdao’s heartwarming documentary In Pursuit of Light (追光万里, zhuīguāng wànlǐ). Lu may be best known to International audiences thanks to her roles in ‘90s hit The Joy Luck Club and the more recent Crazy Rich Asians but began her career in the US in the late 1950s fulfilling her dream of becoming an actress at the comparatively late age of 31 having already become a wife and mother.
In recounting her own path to stardom she looks back at those who came before her such as Ann May Wong who grew up almost “on set” walking past film crews shooting silent movies on the streets of Chinatown who nicknamed her the “curious Chinese child” before she got the opportunity to star in a film of her own. The documentary suggests that it was a sense of rejection from Hollywood on being denied the lead role in The Good Earth on the grounds that even if, or possibly because, the film had a Chinese setting audiences would not accept her in the lead that led Wong back to China in search of her roots and cultural identity which she continued to maintain for the rest of her life and career.
Lu may have faced some of the same problems in that the roles open to her in Hollywood were often restricted, but presents her return to Chinese-language cinema as another fulfilment of a dream. Travelling to Hong Kong for the 1968 film The Arch, she won the first of her Golden Horse awards picking up a second soon after for her supporting role in the Taiwanese wuxia film 14 Amazons. She reflects on her wandering journey which began with her working as an interpreter for English-language films in Shanghai, translating the dialogue and performing for non-English speaking audiences who could rent a headset to hear her. Her mother had been a talented Peking Opera singer and the pair were taken in by a prominent opera family in Hong Kong after the fall of Shanghai who became her god parents and encouraged her talent for performing.
Talking to others often around her own age, she looks back at the origins of the Chinese film industry through the story of Lai Man-Wai, “father of Hong Kong Cinema”, who began his career following Sun Yat-sen into battle and later founded one of the most important film studios in Shanghai. She talks to the son of Cai Chusheng whose 1934 silent film Song of the Fishermen played for more than 80 days in Shanghai and went on to become the first Chinese film to win an award in an international film festival. Cai also directed tragic star Ruan Lingyu in her final film, New Women, shortly after which she took her own life after being hounded by the press just as the actress she played in the film, Ai Xia, had done the year before.
Like Lai and Cai, Ruan had ties to Cantonese-speaking Guangdong where Lu’s father was also from. The documentarians who contact Lu via telephone in the film’s beginning expressly ask her to act as a guide introducing the stories of other Cantonese filmmakers though she herself was born in Beijing, lived for a time in Shanghai and then Hong Kong before travelling to the US and eventually returning to star in Chinese-language films. Coming full circle, the last star she introduces is of course Bruce Lee who made his film debut as a baby in Esther Eng’s Golden Gate Girl shot San Francisco in 1941. At the start of the film, Lu had taken her grandson to see the statue of Ann May Wong in Hollywood, taking her own place in film history as she continues to share its stories with future generations. “I will keep going” Lu vows, having recently celebrated her 94th birthday, flying around in pursuit of light and the no longer far off dream of filmmaking.
In Pursuit of Light screens in Chicago April 8 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)