Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2020: Where Lights Are Low (USA, 1921)

This year Le Giornate del Cinema Muto is entirely digital, which is great because it means I can actually go! It’s super cheap, too.

On top of that it has a special gift for us nerds in the form of a new Sessue Hayakawa film.

The National Film Archive of Japan has restored this from a print in Belgrade. I can’t compare prints (obviously), but the restoration looked great. It was wonderfully scored by Philip Carli.

This movie is very silly, but I loved it.

Wong (Sessue Hayakawa) is a prince in China, who is in love with commoner Quan Yin (Gloria Payton), and his family don’t approve. While he studies in the US, Quan Yin gets human trafficked and also shipped to San Francisco.

He finds out just in time, and tries to buy her to save her from a local gangster, Chang Bong Lo (Togo Yamamoto). But his uncle won’t give him the money because he disapproves of the girl, so Wong has to work to get the money. When he finally gets the money, the human trafficker has already given her to Bong Lo.

They fight but get saved by the police. The police ask for help to find the gangster, but Wong refuses. But just as he and Quan Yin are about to return to China he runs into Bong Lo again!

As you can tell it’s KIND OF an undermining of the yellow peril trope, because the victim is also Chinese, and is saved by a Chinese man. I say kind of because the Chinese characters are played by Asian actors (mostly Japanese) but Quan Yin is played by a white lady (not in yellowface as far as I could tell). It seems an inexplicable choice, and I don’t know if it was racism or if they were like “But white women have to be able to fantasise about being bought at auction by Sessue Hayakawa, or they won’t come see it.”

In any case, this was great, if very silly. There are some weird things in this movie, like how Sessue is graduating in medicine and becoming a doctor at the beginning, but when he has to work to earn money to buy Quan Ling, he works his way up from being a dishwasher at a restaurant like he couldn’t get a better job. It might be that there is some footage (even a reel) missing, or so I heard in the talk after, so maybe that would have explained it.

This doesn’t require any intense acting, but everyone was fine, especially Togo Yamamoto. Quan Yin was a complete cipher which was a shame. Sessue looks gorgeous; in white tie and tails, in ragged shirt sleeves, and in immaculately fitting kid gloves.

I’d call this accessible to people who don’t regularly watch silent films. It goes very fast and is cut and shot in a way that won’t alienate modern audiences, the acting won’t seem weird, and the plot is easy to follow.

4 thoughts on “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2020: Where Lights Are Low (USA, 1921)

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  1. Ooh. This I want to watch. I’ve only seen Sessue Hayakawa in his later films – like Bridge on the River Kwai – and had no idea he had been this hunky as a young man. 🙂

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    1. Oh, I love him! I don’t know when the NFAJ is bringing this out for the public. If you can handle the racism you can try The Cheat, or you can try The Man Beneath (my favourite even though it is EXTREMELY silly) or The Dragon Painter.

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