One of the highlights of the 'Doing Women's Film and Television History' conference in Norwich last month was the chance to see S. Louisa Wei's beguiling documentary on a women director I'd never even heard of before, the Chinese American film pioneer Esther Eng. Eng made a number of films in America, China, Hong Kong and Hawaii from the 1930s to the early 1960s before switching careers altogether and becoming a celebrated New York restaurateur. Wei carefully contextualises Eng's life and career in terms of Sino-American relations and the upheavals created by global conflict but also on a more personal level as an openly gay woman and one of a very limited number of female directors working at that time. Wei cleverly and subtly interweaves Eng's story with those of actress Anna May Wong, another Chinese American woman trying to carve out a successful career in film, and also Dorothy Arzner, the only other women director working in feature film in the US at the same time, and another out lesbian; Wei finds some fascinating parallels between their cool mannish styles of dress. The film is gorgeously illustrated throughout with stunning black and white photographs of Eng and her associates, many of them found in a box left for the refuse collector which was then reclaimed from the dustbin of history by a canny passerby. These still pictures of Eng are complemented and commented on by Eng's surviving relatives and friends, tracked down by Wei, and they help to round out the portrait of Eng not only as a filmmaker but as a kind, compassionate, clever woman. The fascinating interviews and the plenitude of stills partially compensates for the fact that many of Eng's films are lost, like the intriguing-sounding It's a Woman's World (1939) in which all the characters on screen are female (rather like Cukor's more familiar variation on the same theme The Women, also from 1939) or the evocatively-titled melodrama A Night of Romance, a Lifetime of Regret (1938). One film of hers still extant is Golden Gate Girl (1941), a Cantonese-language film made and set in San Francisco which boasts the first screen appearance of Bruce Lee as the heroine's chubby-cheeked baby.
So we may not have all her films to look at but what we do have, in the shape of Wei's documentary, is a renewed awareness of Esther Eng's significance as a remarkable woman filmmaker who had a truly transnational career and who deserves to be much better known and more widely recognised as a film pioneer.