The ninth annual Boston Asian American Film Festival kicked off with film “The Jade Pendant,” which detailed the largest mass lynching in American history. Opening night took place at the Brattle Theatre on Oct. 19, with more than 100 attendees joining the screening and panel discussion with the filmmakers.
This year’s festival theme was “liberty and justice.” BAAFF director Susan Chinsen said 2017 was an anniversary year for many events: the 135th anniversary of Chinese Exclusion Act, 75th anniversary of the Japanese internment and 25th anniversary of Los Angeles riots in 1992. “What a time that we can gather together here today to hear more about the works and inspirations from these filmmakers,” Chinsen said.
“The Jade Pendant,” directed by Po-Chih Leung, tells a tragic love story set during the Chinese massacre of 1871. Ying-ying (Clara Lee) was born in Taishan in the mid-1800s. With support from her open-minded father, she learned English and kung fu. On the eve of her arranged wedding, she escaped to San Francisco to work as a “flower girl.” Ying-ying becomes Peony in America, where she meets Tom Wong (Godfrey Gao), an American-born Chinese cook, whose father works on the Transcontinental Railroad. Tom buys Peony’s freedom and they flee to Los Angeles to marry, joining Tom’s best friend Sam Yuen (Brian Yang).
The newlyweds arrived as conflicts intensify between Chinese immigrants and locals over jobs. One night, hundreds of armed rioters rushed into Los Angeles’ Chinatown and killed Chinese immigrants. Whether they were men or women, young or old, Chinese immigrants were tortured and then hanged by the mob. Tom, Peony and Sam witnessed the chaos firsthand, yet the rioters are never punished.
The movie is based on L.P. Leung’s novel on the 1871 mass lynching, which resulted in 17 to 20 deaths. “This is my dream project — actually I wanted to start this project 50 years ago. I went to Paramount Pictures in the 1960s and some other independent filmmakers. They told me, ‘L.P., I will be very honest with you, America is not ready for this type of film at the moment,’” said author Leung.
After 35 years, Leung reconsidered telling the story as a movie. “In 2013, I published the book; then I got introduced to the producer in Hong Kong, which finally, we made a real movie.”
The Chinese massacre of 1871 is the largest mass lynching in American history; yet many people do not know about it. “I did a lot of research on the issue back in LA. What I found is that for about three days, the newspapers had about a one-inch column reporting this horrible incident,” said Leung. He felt passionate about educating more people about this hidden history.
The film was shot in Utah, which stood in for a Mandarin-speaking Taishan. However, Taishan is part of Guangdong province, where Cantonese is the primary Chinese language. “We need to think about the audience. If we do Cantonese, 99 percent of Chinese people can’t understand; however when we do Mandarin, it gets spread out to more people,” said Leung.
Actor and producer Brain Yang, who played Sam in the movie, said he was glad to join the cast. “Yes, it was in Chinglish, but I thought that was authentic, because these people do come from China. Obviously they have issues with languages, but they are integrating to America. That’s why you hear both languages,” Yang said.
The film is timely, as xenophobic rhetoric is on the rise. “We shot this in 2015,” Yang said. “What is happening in the real world actually mirrors so much of what we see in the movie. It is unbelievable how we are going through this again, almost 200 years later.”
“The Jade Pendant” is in Mandarin and English, with simplified Chinese and English subtitles. Its North American premiere took place at BAAFF and will be screened Nov. 3 in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City.
BAAFF took place from Oct. 19 to Oct. 22, featuring more than 25 Asian American movies and panel discussions from the filmmakers and actors talking about stories behind production.
This post is also available in: Chinese