16:00 - 26th July 2014, by David West

The Flame Of Love

Boris Borrisoff (John Longden) is a lieutenant in the Imperial Russian army and head over heels in love with Hai-tang (Anna May Wong), the glamorous feature star of a troupe of Chinese performers visiting Russia. Unfortunately when The Grand Duke (Georg Schnell) sees Hai-tang on stage, he wants her for himself and will stop at nothing to have the beautiful dancer.

Released in 1930, The Flame Of Love was one of the handful of films that Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong made in Britain when she crossed the Atlantic seeking better roles after she became frustrated by the racism she encountered in Hollywood. In that regard, this particular sojourn was not entirely successful. While Wong is very much the star of the movie, the plot still makes it clear that any love affair between a Chinese woman and a white man is doomed to end tragically.

The film was produced and shot in London and the English cast make no attempt to approximate Russian accents. John Longden in particular speaks in perfect Received Pronunciation and sounds more Home Counties than Slavic. Anna May Wong manages to soften her Californian inflections (she was an LA girl, born and raised) but ends up with a somewhat non-descript accent that doesn't suggest China anymore than it does Russia. Fortunately, the costumes and sets are much better at capturing the pomp and grandeur of Imperial Russia, although Anna May Wong's stage outfit is far too skimpy for any sort of traditional Chinese theatre. Similarly, both her song and her dance routine betray their western origins - the film is full of songs and dancing, including several exuberant Russian folk tunes. While Longden performs his own songs in a terribly earnest fashion, both Anna May Wong and the other female lead (Mona Goya as the jealous Yvette who clearly has designs on Boris) mime their musical numbers with limited success.

By modern standards, the acting and direction can appear stiff and overly theatrical, but they are typical of the period. The film was actually shot in three distinct languages - English, German and French - for release in each country with different actors rotating around Anna May. The English version, which is the one on this release, originally featured an onscreen kiss between Wong and Longden, but it provoked an outcry in the press (interracial relationships were illegal in the US at the time and were still considered shocking in Britain) and the kiss wound up on the cutting room floor, never to be seen again.

A common practice at the time was for Asian characters to be played by white actors in 'yellow face' make-up. The performers in the Chinese troupe that Hai-tang belongs to are all Asian and the only instance of a character in yellow face appears to be Hai-tang's maid, whose role is minor (mostly she answers the door). J. Leyon has a thankless task playing Hai-tang's brother, Wang-Ho, who makes a vital contribution to the plot but barely has two lines of dialogue.

The melodramatic story may seem old fashioned and the dialogue can sound stilted, but this is a beautiful restoration of a fascinating film from the vaults that captures the first Chinese-American star at the height of her fame and appeal.
SCORE: 4/5
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