Regarded as Hollywood's first
Asian male star, Sessue Hayakawa starred in over eighty
films in his long career. One such picture was William DeMille's
The Secret Game, a silent movie released in 1917.
Although many would suspect that a Hollywood picture from
that era would grossly caricature Asians, what's notable
here is how progressive the film is in making Hayakawa the
sole lead. Certainly, some noticeable stereotypical characterizations
still exist, but overall The Secret Game is a historical
document that proves remarkably compelling.
Hayakawa stars as Nara-Nara,
an agent in the Japanese Secret Service. Due to allegiances
with the West (it's pre-WWII, after all), he is charged
with sniffing out a traitor among his country's American
allies. It seems that the Germans have infiltrated the office
of Major John Northfield (Jack Holt) in the body of an unlikely
foe, the Major's pretty secretary, Miss Kitty Little (Florence
Vidor). She's apparently in league with Dr. Ebell Smith
(Charles Ogle), a sadistic bastard who'll stop at nothing
to steal intelligence detailing the U.S.'s covert operations
in the Pacific. Using nothing but his wits and some nifty
spy gadgetry, Nara-Nara eventually uncovers the traitors
in what amounts to a surprisingly gripping espionage picture,
especially for a silent film.
Sessue Hayakawa stands out
in this picture, in more ways than one. Whereas Asian male
actors nowadays tend to be paired with non-Asian stars in
major Hollywood pictures (that is, if given leading roles
at all), Hayakawa is allowed to carry The Secret Game
alone. He is not a sidekick to an American character, nor
is he given one to make the film more "palatable"
to American audiences. That, in itself, is an amazing achievement,
especially considering the negative and/or compromised depictions
of Asians in cinema that still exist today. Dressed in sleek
clothes and impeccably groomed, Nara-Nara comes across as
a Japanese James Bond, highly competent at what he does
and undeniably cool. So much for the emasculated Asian male!
Sadly, the film falters in
its last act thanks to Nara-Nara's sudden, out-of-character
obsession with Kitty Little. In one scene, he goes from
gentleman spy to out-and-out lusty cad, forcing himself
on the reformed villainess. The jump seems forced and rather
insulting from a modern perspective. Even worse are the
lengths to which the film stoops to eliminate Nara-Nara
from the film's love triangle, denying his status as a sexual
rival and reasserting the preferred Caucasian male-female
relationship through the union of Northfield and Kitty.
It's a sour way to end things, but it doesn't throw off
the remarkable strides made in the first three quarters
of the film.
But still, while definitely
notable for its historical and cultural value, let's not
kid ourselves: by today's standards, The Secret Game
is not exactly a summer popcorn film. It's got a thin plot,
loads of unintentional humor, and plenty of deadweight "dialogue"
(in the form of onscreen text). Then again, it's probably
wise to cut the film a break. After all, it was filmed during
the infancy of American cinema, and for many, watching this
black and white movie will feel a lot like checking out
a musty old book out at the library. How that sentence makes
you feel will probably determine whether The Secret Game
is worth a look. (Calvin McMillin, 2005)