Review: Tyrus (Tom, 2015) – CAAMFest 2016


Director Pamela Tom‘s love letter to accomplished Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong was the Opening Night film at CAAMfest this year. The documentary, which premiered at Telluride and garnered audience awards at the Hawaii International Film Festival and the San Diego Asian Film Festival, grew from Tom’s fellowship project investigating the artist who inspired the unique look and feel of Disney’s Bambi.

Wong moved from mainland China to California in 1920 via San Francisco’s Angel Island entry point. The subsequent tale, which describes a lifetime of artistic endeavor, is also a rare personal look at nearly a century of American history. Wong came of age during the Roaring Twenties; sold paintings to the WPA Federal Art Project during the Great Depression (and also worked as a waiter, an asparagus picker, a Christmas card artist, and, later, a Disney animator); watched the government send his Japanese friends and colleagues to internment camps during World War II; and, as a film production illustrator, set the tone for several iconic films during Hollywood’s golden era. By the time he retired in 1968, Wong had worked in movies for three decades.

Wong’s achievements are that much more admirable set against the backdrop of the explicit and intransigent racism of the early- to mid-twentieth century. Coming to Angel Island when the Chinese Exclusion Act was in full effect, Wong, then nine years old, was detained alone, without his father, for a month, forced to navigate a series of confusing and intricate questions designed to elicit incorrect (i.e., deportable) responses. Wong also recalls racist attitudes in Hollywood–some of it ambiguous but still palpable, some of it unequivocal. Even half a century later, the retelling of a racial slur still moves the quiet, humorous man to angry disbelief.

Because this documentary is meant as a celebration of Wong’s achievements and was made with the dedicated cooperation of Tyrus and his daughters, don’t expect an objective or nuanced look into the artist’s life. The story that Tyrus tells is the story the Wongs want to tell–one of perseverance and talent overcoming hardship and racial barriers. And Tom, who, over the course of the 17 years it took her to make the film, has become like a member of the family, is complicit in that perspective. Tyrus Wong has no flaws, besides, perhaps, working too hard, or loving his wife too much, if anyone can count those as flaws.

But Tom knows that the achievements that speak the loudest are Wong’s work itself. Throughout her narrative, the director weaves in the artist’s paintings, Christmas cards, movie illustrations, and other pieces (lately, hand-painted kites). These are perhaps the best aspect of the film. Some pictures are haunting, some are playful. All are beautiful and reflect a rare technical virtuosity. While it seems Wong could (and did) paint in myriad styles, his most impactful pieces are those that combine the fluidity and reserve of traditional Eastern painting with a more Western subject or medium. Since there are currently no exhibitions of Wong’s work anywhere, this film may be the only chance you will get to see this artist’s work–unless you go to the Santa Monica Pier on a Saturday that he’s flying his kites.

Tyrus is no Cutie and the Boxer, but it’s certainly worth a watch, if only for the moving artwork and the valuable history lesson.