In many ways this is my favorite of Sternberg’s many great films, and not least among the reasons for my admiration are the remarkable and remarkably strange and truthful performances of Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich. Much more than the sad romance between Dietrich’s and Clive Brook’s characters, the sisterly (and subtly erotic) bond between the two courtesans, played by Dietrich and Wong, is the central driving force of this wondrously propulsive masterwork. The climax of the film occurs when Hui Fei settles her debt with the revolutionary warlord, Chang, played by Warner Oland, by stabbing him in the back for having raped her, as well as for his intended abduction of Dietrich’s character, Shanghai Lily. This is one of those rare films where the women do the saving, not only of themselves and each other but the men folk as well. (No doubt Sternberg’s longtime collaborator, the screenwriter, Jules Furthman deserves a good share of the credit as well.)
Some twenty years ago I made a painting based on photographs I shot from a video cassette recording of the film, specifically from the scene where Hui Fei stabs Chang as he prepares to depart the station with Lily as his captive. Despite the complexity of the image, the layers of shadows and gauze, the illusionistic lighting scheme that Sternberg so carefully set up, which I also carefully reproduced, the image read very clearly and from near and far away as what it was: a young woman stabbing a man in uniform from behind. I had this painting along with a few others from the same series set up in the racks that were meant to display artists' books in our storefront. I noticed every few days for a while a middle aged Russian woman stop and stare at it through the plate glass window and one day she knocked and demanded that I sell it to her for next to nothing or give it to her outright. She said she had to have it. I didn't sell it to her, despite her insistence and she went away rather angry. She believed that the painting inherently belonged to her, that it was about her.