Sessue Hayakawa heads up this tale of Chinatown, opium smuggling and the Tong. He is a gangland assassin who is sent to kill a rival drug dealer. But wouldn’t you know it? His target has a beautiful daughter and Hayakawa has fallen head over heels. I smell a gang war…
A hatchet job
After taking the motion picture world by storm in The Cheat, Sessue Hayakawa formed his own production company and started putting out films that explored Asian themes. Sadly, many of these pictures are now considered lost. One of the survivors, The Dragon Painter, is a beautiful and introspective tale of creativity and love set in Japan. (You can read my review here.) The Tong Man takes the exact opposite approach. It is a lurid, violent crime tale set in the heart of Chinatown.
Luk Chen (Sessue Hayakawa) is the hatchet man for a local Tong family. “Hatchet man” is literal. He kills people with a hatchet. It was an actual thing. Anyway, he works for Ming Tai (Marc Roberts), a mustache-twirler of the first water.
Ming Tai has it in for Louie Toy (Toyo Fujita), a rival opium dealer who refuses to pay for protection. Toy has a beautiful daughter, Sen Chee. Our heroine is played by the statuesque Helen Jerome Eddy, who towers over most of the cast, including the criminal mastermind who is supposed to be intimidating her. Normally, I try to stay away from talking about performer’s physical appearance but, you see, it gets rather awkward later in the film. Her character is constantly being called upon to faint and everyone has to take turns dragging her around. It provides a few moments of unintentional levity, let me tell you.
Anyway, Luk Chen has been making eyes at Sen Chee and she is all giggly over him. They are planning to elope to China once he makes his last drug deal. (We all know how that usually turns out.) However, Ming Tai wants Sen Chee for himself and he finds out about the romance. Being of nefarious persuasion, he assigns Luk Chen to kill her father. Mwahaha!
Will Luk Chen do it? Come on, we’ve all seen this plot enough to know he won’t. A gang war ensues and the movie becomes a pretty gory affair once it gets going. Hayakawa uses his hatchet to hack a henchman’s face during the climax (yes, it is shown) and there are stabbings, shootings and fights galore.
Marc Roberts is utterly painful as Ming Tai. In an egregious early scene, he shuffles into Louie Toy’s shop (Roberts seemed to feel that playing a Chinese man meant taking steps of no more than two inches) and spots Sen Chee. He then (I kid you not) wipes drool from his chin.
The title cards also give him ridiculous faux Chinese-isms, things like: “Your daughter grows like a lotus flower.” Let’s see if we can improve things.
Ming Tai: Your daughter grows like a lotus flower.
Louie Toy: She sits in water all day?
Ming Tai: No!
Louie Toy: Her roots can be pickled in chili and garlic to make a delicious side dish?
Ming Tai: No!
Louie Toy: She is only distantly related to Nymphaea caerulea?
Ming Tai: No, she’s beautiful, I mean she’s beautiful!
Louie Toy: Why didn’t you say so? Now shoo.
The whole movie is like this. They throw around general Asian-themed terms like they mean something. At one point, our heroes book passage for China on the ship Korea. I wonder what would happen if they accidentally booked passage for Korea on the China.
Helen Jerome Eddy is very pretty and manages to avoid shuffling and stuffing her hands into her sleeves, so there’s that. However, she does get an odd kick out of kissing her bird (what is it with silent era women and their birds?) and she is always losing consciousness. She is like the fainting goat of movie heroines.
Sessue Hayakawa does quite well as the hero of the picture. Of course, Hayakawa had charisma and talent to burn but his antihero is pretty juicy. He is a gangland figure who never really pays the price for his crimes and manages to even get a happy ending. And do you have any idea how rare it was for Hayakawa to actually win over the object of his affections in one of his films?
The Tong Man does not have the sensitivity of The Dragon Painter. Of course, the films are completely different genres but I think it also has to do with setting. It is a bit disappointing that Hayakawa produced a film with cultural clichés but we must remember that he was born and raised in Japan, not China. Expecting him to know everything about Chinese culture would be like expecting someone from England to know every single aspect of the culture of, say, the former Yugoslavia. Still, it’s a pity. I cannot imagine that actual Chinese people enjoyed this portrayal.
According to his biographer, Daisuke Miyao, Hayakawa wished to stem the tide of anti-Japanese stereotypes and so he chose to play villains of other Asian countries, thus differentiating Japan from the rest of the geographical region. China, India and Persia all took turns in the baddie parade. The problem, of course, was that Hayakawa was known as a Japanese actor and playing men from other nations simply helped to blur all of Asia together in American pop culture.
(You can read more about Hayakawa’s career in Miyao’s book Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom)
While it is marred by stereotypes and the use of white actors in Asian roles, The Tong Man is not without its good points. It is refreshing to see an Asian leading man presented as a central romantic figure in an American-produced film. (Something that is all too rare these days.) It is also fun to see Hayakawa try on the Good Bad Man character for size. I think he does an excellent job with his rather virile performance. Let’s face it, when it comes to intensity, Hayakawa is pretty much unbeatable.
The Tong Man is not the best introduction to Sessue Hayakawa but his fans should find something to enjoy. Other viewers may wish to give this one a pass as there are better options available.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
There are lots of editions out there. My copy is the Grapevine Video edition, which has a pretty decent score. There is the dirt cheap Alpha edition as well but I have not viewed it and cannot comment on its quality. Ditto for the more expensive TeleVista edition.