Dragon Seed (1944)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dragon Seed</strong> (1944)

(On Cable TV, February 2019) Oh boy—at a time when we talk a lot about cultural appropriation, it’s worth remembering that once upon a time Hollywood had no qualms about using the whitest of white actors to play other ethnicities, and so I suspect that Dragon Seed will forever live in infamy as the movie where Katharine Hepburn plays a Chinese peasant. That’s right: New England exemplar Hepburn as an Asian woman, in grotesque makeup. Oh boy. Beyond sharing a common literary origin in Pearl S. Buck’s novels, there’s a clear line from The Good Earth (with similar Caucasian casting) to Dragon Seed, and the film is trying to make heroes out of its Chinese characters … just as much as it’s trying to make despicable villains out of its Japanese antagonists occupying the village. But do remember that the film was made at the height of WW2, and designed to be a propaganda piece as to why the United States should fight Japan. Still: the miscasting here is astonishing, and while the black-and-white of the film makes it just slightly more convincing … it’s still incredibly gauche. There’s a small consolation in that this allowed Chinese characters to be made accessible to American audiences and in that light the idea to use a strong-willed actress such as Hepburn to present a female character with a strong agenda feels just a bit more acceptable. But there’s no denying that the film takes and gives racism—this is a war film, and it’s meant to whip up anti-Japanese fervour. The wartime focus of the film does make it more interesting than the similar The Good Earth, but also more offensive as well: while some scene do offer a warm and sympathetic portrayal of Chinese couples in love, it also makes for an infuriating portrait of the Japanese occupation. Dragon Seed is clearly a film of its time, but I feel better knowing that it would be unacceptable these days.

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