When young Lotus Flower sees an unconscious man floating in the water near the seashore, she quickly gets help for him. The man is Allen Carver, an American visiting China. Soon the two have fallen in love, and Carver promises to take her with him when he returns home. But Carver's friends discourage him from doing this, and he returns to the USA alone. By the time the two of them meet again, much has changed, and their reunion proves very trying for them both. Written by
For a long time I only knew of this film for it's historical place as the earliest surviving 2 strip Technicolor film. I was curious to see it but expected little more than an interesting museum piece.
A wonderful surprise then, to discover this version of Madam Butterfly, self produced by Technicolor, is a poignant gem of silent cinema, deserving much wider exposure than it's status as a technical first would indicate.
On the technical side the colour is extremely attractive and well integrated into the story. Unlike some two colour films (The Viking, Show of Shows and King of Jazz) where colour correction is used to bring out blue's which originally photographed as silver grey, "Toll of the Sea" is authentic and unretouched, aside from the final lost sequence which had to be reshot in 1985. Since the process wasn't yet refined for filming in artificial light, the "interiors" in "Toll" are filmed in daylight. This is no drawback, however, since the real exteriors lend the film a freshness lacking from later studio bound works.
Another big plus is that the makers actually cast an Asian actress in the central role, instead of going the route of say Broken Blossoms. Perhaps this was because few actors would risk working on such an experimental project, or perhaps the film makers wanted the film to be as authentic as possible. Either way it gives the film an honesty absent from Hollywood's occasional treatments of such themes.
Sensitive direction and the wonderful performance of Anna May Wong, make this a particularly compelling piece. Although just 19, Wong's acting is both subtle and deeply felt. Witness the devastating moment when he tells her she can't come to America with him. The hurt and pain in Wong's face and eyes, which she bravely covers, could melt the stoniest heart. (I'll definitely keep an eye open for Wong's other work) Her leading man is somewhat stiffer but then his performance fits with the confused character he's playing.
Even if like me, you start watching this for the colour, you'll swiftly be caught up in it's story and by the artistry of it's youthful star.
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