Secrets of Wu Sin, The
U.S.A. Before 1950
Directed by Richard Thorpe.

Surprising for films of this time period, no yellowface actors appear. Instead, its a showcase of Asian talent. Wu Syn runs a coolie smuggling operation, and an ace reporter is determined to break the story.

Newspaper Editor Jim Manning or 'Manny' (Grant Withers) is at the druggest trying to get information about a Chinatown case when a despondent and bedraggled woman, Nona Gould (Lois Wilson) gomes in to get some poison for her dog. Suspicious, Manny follows her home and stops her from killing herself. He also gives her a job at his newspaper.

Manny hands of the Chinatown coolie smuggling case to his ace reporter Eddy Morgan ("I'm going down with the Heathen Chinese, squeezing in and out among the shadows where he smokes opium, burns incense, and smells punk, where he eats bean sprouts and takes his exercise banging gongs."), but Nona decides to follow it up as well to prove to Manny that she can take on the toughest cases. A romance seems ready to blossom, but he's engaged, and his fiance is Margaret King, daughter of the rich and powerful businessman Roger King, a man not to be trifled with.

Nona heads down to Chinatown where she meets her friend Mei Lin who runs a little concession shop there. Mei Lin proceeds to fill in the rest of the story: She loves one Charlie San (Richard Loo), but is not allowed to marry him. Instead, her uncle Wu Sin (Tetsu Komai) is going to marry her off to someone else, and is threatening Charlie to keep away -- or else.

After a fruitful night of investigation, the two reporters find out where the coolies come from and where they go. Wu Sin seems involved. They also find out the name of the ship they came in on, and Nona quickly follows up to see what rich businessman owns it. When the investigation gets too close for comfort, Wu Sin calls a meeting of the Tong, where they decide that the newspaper editor must be put to death. And Charlie San, to prove himself, must be the killer.

Of all the "yellow peril" mysteries that Hollywood cranked out relentlessly in the early thirties, The Secrets of Wu Sin is without a doubt one of the best in terms of the way it portrays the Chinese. For starters, there is not a single actor running around in yellowface. Asian actors play asian characters. Of course, some are Japanese, some are Hawaiian, but at least no one has to wear makeup and speak with an annoying accent to appear Chinese. Secondly, there is a spectrum of Chinese characters on display, and not one of them seems totally, unabashedly evil.

Of course, the characters played by Grant Withers and Lois Wilson are the nominal stars, and with hundreds of movies between them, they are both fine actors and acquit themselves well. But the real interest of the film rests with the supporting characters, in the conflict between Charlie San, Wu Sin, and Mei Lin. It is a conflict between tradition and modernity.

Charlie San represents the modern Chinese man, he works a good job, at a bank, his English is excellent, he wears a suit and tie. Wu Sin, on the other hand, wears his Mandarin shirt and jacket, runs a curio shop. He is also a member (leader?) of the Tong. He sticks close to confucian ideals -- "Honor your ancestors." He embraces the old ways, which includes arranged marriages, and arranged murder, too. Mei Lin is caught inbetween. She wants to embrace the modern concept of marriage for love, but cannot disobey the will of her uncle.

Some commentators on the sad state of Asian representation in Hollywood feel the conflict exposes a bias against Chinese tradition, and celebrates integration with America. By this interpretation, Charlie San is the hero because he sheds his Chinese identity and integrates with society. But when examined from a broader context, this interpretation is patently false.

China in the thirties was an explosive, exciting time. It is the era of the Republic, when the oppressive Qing Dynasty had at last been overturned, and modernity was flooding the country. The conflict between Charlie San and Wu Sin is not simply one of American immigrants, it is the same conflict which raged throughout China itself. The young generation was accepting new ideas from the west and embracing new ideas never before permitted in the country. The old guard was suspicious of the change, and still held to the old traditions. To be against arranged marriages and murder is not the same as being against Chinese culture. Rather, Charlie San rejects the barbaric and outdated ideas of old China. At one point he shouts at Wu Sin, "I am not a hatchet man! These things aren't done anymore! They've gone the way of the queue, and other traditions!" He refers to the queue hairstyle, imposed on the Chinese by their Manchu rulers during the Qing Dynasty.

Hawaiian born Richard Loo plays Charlie San with dignity and intelligence. He would go on to become well known as various vicious, evil, Japanese generals in a number of WWII films, rounding out a successful, though disheartening, career with an appearance in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Tetsu Komaii had a similar, though less distinguished career. But he must be praised for his performance here as the villain Wu Sin -- never did we just assume he was an evil man. Rather, he respected the will of his ancestors and upheld his honor at all costs, making him a dignified, yet misguided, man.

The Secrets of Wu Sin is a delightful surprise. An intelligent film which treats everyone like real human beings. It isn't the most exciting film around, nor the most compelling, but it has a heart, which is more than can be said for many.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 28, 2004.

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