Montclair woman helped give earliest film with all-Asian American cast new life
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
When Cordelia Siporin, film professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Montclair resident, saw “The Curse of Quon Gwon” in a DVD box set called “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” in 2019, she was intrigued.
“Quon Gwon” — produced in 1916 — is believed to have been the first film with an all-Asian American cast. It was directed by Marion E. Wong, a Chinese American filmmaker, screenwriter, costume designer and actress.
The film never saw a wide release. Family members who'd preserved footage from the film invited filmmaker Arthur Dong, who was working on his documentary Hollywood Chinese,” to review it, and help make arrangements for the Academy Film Archive to restore it, Siporin said.
The surviving footage Siporin saw in the DVD set did not include intertitles, generally used to convey characters’ dialogue or descriptive narrative for the plot in a silent film. When the film was over, she was left with more questions than answers.
“It was like watching something avant-garde. It was completely incomprehensible,” Siporin said.
She went to bed that night tossing and turning, trying to figure out the plot of the movie.
“I was like, ‘Well, why does the villain do this?’ ‘What’s going on with this baby?’ And, like, ‘Why does this happen?’ ‘Why does that happen?’” Siporin said. “I was just drifting off to a fitful sleep when, out of nowhere, I just woke up having understood the plot.”
As a film professor — as well as daughter of the late Michael Siporin, founder of Montclair State University’s film department — Siporin has professional training in storytelling. Her background in cinema studies, including in the historical and cultural impacts films have, helped her with the mission ahead: Bringing the film back to life.
She reached out to several professionals in the field, such as professor of historiography (the study of historical writing) Dan Streible, who advised her to make a version of the film with her own intertitles.
That meant paying close attention to those elements of the film that did survive.
“Try to match their spirit and emotion and tone, and look for the plot that is locked and hidden within the gestures,” Siporin said.
In the silent film era, actors used gestural pantomime language, which derived from pantomime language used for Victorian theater.
“Basically, it was made so that you act with your whole body so that the people in the last row of the theater can see and understand the emotion of the actors that are way far away from them,” Siporin said.
Reading the cues from that sort of outsized acting helped Siporin develop a cohesive plot she and others believe is close to the original.
“Look at the emotion and think: ‘What is causing this emotion? Why would someone act this way?’ And kind of reverse-engineer it,” she said.
For example, in one of the scenes, the film’s long-suffering hero, played by actress Violet Wong (Marion Wong’s sister-in-law), has a scene with a villain, played by the director. The villain and the hero’s mother-in-law are both trying to take the hero’s baby away.
“When the villain comes up and tries to take the baby from [the protagonist], she shakes her head and says no. You can visibly read her lips saying ‘Nope,’” Siporin said.
The villain takes very long steps away and angrily makes a distinct gesture toward the protagonist, and says something. Then, the mother-in-law character comes into frame.
“So, I have her say: ‘Mother, come and help me.’ She still refuses to give up the child,’” Siporin said.
There is a struggle right after the interaction.
“At one point they convince [the protagonist] to give up the baby and I had to think, ‘Well, what could possibly motivate to give up her baby?’ And right before she does it, the mother-in-law character says something, like a little speech,” Siporin said.
The protagonist gives up her baby.
“I was thinking, [the mother-in-law character] had to say something like: ‘If we do nothing, your baby will die. There is no other choice to preserve the life of your child but to take it away from you,’” Siporin said. “Basically, looking for human motivation, looking for primal instincts, paying attention to the emotion of the actions and the gestures that they are making, the mood that happened, the blocking and why it comes out the way that it does.”
She reached out to Ilmar Vanderer, a longtime Montclair resident and founding member of the Friends of the Bellevue Avenue Library, who connected her with Jane Gaines, founder of the Women Film Pioneer Project. Gaines told Siporin the plot seemed right.
But there were some details to tweak. Another film scholar, Yan-Fei Song from Beijing University, helped Siporin notice that the villain in the story was probably a first wife in a polygamist situation in old China, rather than the unmarried aunt Siporin had originally interpreted her to be.
“She also was sort of the go-to for naming characters because we have Chinese names for them,” Siporin said. “So, she reached out to people who spoke Cantonese [to] see what people recommended — which is why I keep having to change their names because no one can agree.”
The most significant contributor was Gregory Mark, the grandson of Violet Wong and the grand-nephew of Marion Wong, and professor of ethnic studies at California State University.
“He had the golden key that unlocked every door. He had the answer to every question that we had about the film,” Siporin said.
Throughout the two years she spent restoring the film, she found out the reason why the film failed to get a wide release in 1917. Wong traveled to New York and tried to promote it. Her family invested money from the restaurant they owned, as well as time, effort and energy into making the film.
“It was an all-hands-on-deck production where everyone in the family was making costumes, building sets. The family came together and made this happen,” Siporin said. “And when it was rejected and ignored, I think that was heartbreaking for everyone. I think that really popped their balloon and discouraged them from trying again.”
Wong tried to promote her film elsewhere over the following year, but the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 made it even more difficult for the film to have a wide release.
“Marion E. Wong was born at a time when Chinese Americans born and raised in America were denied citizenship under the law,” members of the recently formed AAPI Montclair group said in an emailed statement, when asked about the importance of the film to representation. “In the face of discrimination and exclusion, Marion Wong paved the way for our community, and we are thrilled her work and story will gain the visibility and recognition it richly deserves.”
Moreover, Siporin said, the film is an example of how Asian American women, and women in general, played an early and important role as filmmakers before many of their contributions were pushed aside by men who later dominated the industry.
“The reason it is important, I think, is to understand that Asian American achievement and art has existed for well over 100 years in this country,” Siporin said. “It has been erased and suppressed and ignored. And I think, as a nation, we have lost so much progress by not listening to their narratives in a timely manner.”
Part of Siporin’s restoration of the film was shown at the Silent Screen Conference at Columbia University on June 4. She is working on bringing the film to a wider audience through a Blu-Ray release, and a documentary, produced by PBS, is in the works.
To learn more about the film, email Siporin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Siporin is also the creator of the children's cartoon "Jett Renegade," featured in Montclair weekly.