On May 13, in honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, JANM will present The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West. This is the earliest known example of a film made by an Asian American. It is also one of the earliest films to be directed by a woman, Marion Wong. Wong involved her family in many aspects of the production, both in front of and behind the camera. Now nearly 100 years old, The Curse has seen better days. But the fact that it can be viewed at all by audiences today is a tale of good fortune.
Arthur Dong is an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker. Back in 2005, he was hard at work on a project titled Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films. During the course of his research, Arthur learned of the existence of some reels of film from a title he had not previously heard of: The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West. Following his source’s instructions, Arthur went to a building near San Francisco International Airport. There he found two reels of original 35mm nitrate negative film—the actual film that was in the camera when the movie was made in 1916 and 1917—and a 16mm print that was likely made in the 1950s or 60s. This was an incredibly exciting find. “But scary!” recalls Arthur.
Nitrate film was commonly used in the early days of moviemaking and up until about 1951. It is now understood to be highly unstable and extremely flammable. Proper storage and careful handling are required to maintain its integrity and prevent combustion. Nitrate burns at a temperature even higher than gasoline and once ignited, it is extremely difficult to extinguish because the combustion process produces its own oxygen. It also produces highly poisonous fumes.
Arthur knew the danger that nitrate posed. He contacted the Academy Film Archive, part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organization that presents the annual Academy Awards). One of the archive’s intrepid experts agreed to drive up to San Francisco and bring The Curse back to Los Angeles for inspection and restoration. In addition to making safer film-based copies for long-term protection, the Academy Film Archive transferred all of the found material to video. (The original nitrate is now safely stored, as is the 16mm print.)
The two nitrate reels and some additional scenes depicted in the print are by no means the entire movie. Arthur and Academy archivists believe there were originally seven or eight reels; the ones found were numbered four and seven. So, what JANM will present is an incomplete movie. Despite this, one can easily follow at least some of the story, even though the film is silent and devoid of title cards. (The musical score is one that Arthur commissioned in 2010.) Regardless, the joy of seeing The Curse, which utilizes Chinese actors and Chinese interior décor, lies not in its plot but in its provenance. For Arthur, the film demonstrates “the contributions of Chinese Americans in the formative years of America’s film industry.”
Each year, the Librarian of Congress and its National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) select 25 films for the National Film Registry to showcase the range and diversity of American film heritage and to increase awareness of the need for preservation. There are currently 650 films on the registry, each deemed to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Thanks to Arthur’s nomination while serving on the NFPB, The Curse was placed on the registry in 2006.
Come see The Curse of Quon Gwon on May 13 and learn more about it from Arthur Dong and Mai-Lon Gittelsohn and Dr. Greg Mark, two descendants of Violet Wong, Marion Wong’s sister-in-law who stars as the film’s heroine.