“If you do a painting with five strokes instead of ten, you can make your painting sing.” – Tyrus Wong
A Disney fan since birth, I jump at any opportunity to learn about the company, especially its various creative influences. Needless to say, when I was told that the film festival for the Center of Asian American Media (CAAMFest) 2016 would open with a documentary about the chief artist behind Bambi, I signed up immediately. This would become not only my first event covering with media credentials, but also my first film festival. Ever.
On the evening of March 10th, I drove out with two other GPP members, pen and paper stowed in my purse, safe from the rain. When I saw the lights of the Castro Theatre and surrounding shops shining off of the asphalt, I knew that something big was about to happen. Going into Tyrus, I expected a film containing a short biography on artist Tyrus Wong with more emphasis on his work at Disney. What director, producer, and writer Pamela Tom’s work offers is much more. The delicate, careful attention that she pays to the lives of Wong and his family cannot be missed. I would like to share a few of my specific reactions below.
In one of several interview clips, Wong states that his given name is Gen Yo, which translates into “grand scenery” in English. I remember feeling like this name was a sign of the great artistic prestige that would later befall him, like the power of the name conferred upon him the power to live up to it.
Wong’s cheeky sense of humor, combined with his humility and his boundless love for his family, is a testament to the strength of his character. (It also makes me want to talk to him in person; he sounds like a great guy.) In his view, art was the only thing he was good at, and it was not talent, but hard work and luck that helped him achieve what he did. I think that I speak for the viewers when I say that he’s far too modest; grace and heart, along with those qualities and more, helped him pull through. If a code for fulfilling the American Dream exists, I believe that Tyrus Wong has cracked it.
When asked about his earliest art experiences, Wong discusses his calligraphy practice, which his father directed. He would take a brush, dip it in water, and practice strokes on newspaper. This would later contribute to Wong’s art style, which, drawing upon traditional Chinese styles and integrating modern themes and techniques, emphasizes starkness and desolation. To paraphrase Wong’s description of the philosophy, to include extra details is childish; fewer details convey the artist’s enthusiasm more effectively than ornateness. It is this idea that Wong and Disney draw upon for Bambi, the minimalism and subtlety of which directly counteracts the abundance of detail in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Above all, I was disheartened by the level of discrimination Wong faced in the workplace—though, admittedly, I wasn’t altogether too surprised. When he was hired as the inspirational sketch artist for Bambi, some of his co-workers became resentful because of how quickly he ascended in the company. One year before Bambi released, Wong was fired and only credited as a background artist in the film’s credits, which is not consistent with what his roles actually were. It seems that such discrimination was only made more apparent later in his career, one representative from Republic Pictures even going so far as to call Wong a “chink.” The discrimination, I regret to say, was unavoidable, but to hear that people like that man had the gall to make a statement to his face is, nevertheless, appalling.
Tom has a clean, straightforward style of presentation that I find refreshing. Having seen many documentaries that skew reality and impose extraneous narratives, I really appreciate how Tom lets Wong’s story tell itself with little to no embellishment. She draws from the same art philosophy that inspires Wong’s works: using less to tell more. I found the cinematography similarly pure and as natural as though the viewers interview Wong alongside Tom. One of my favorite shots was near the end of the film: a joyful, painting-like shot of Wong’s kites flying at the Santa Monica Pier. Flashes of color lean and flash across a blank blue canvas, and its brightness awakens the Bambi-watching child in all of us. Overall, I find Tyrus a respectful and to-the-point telling of a great man’s story, and the film’s directness echoes the same style that launched Wong’s career decades ago.
CAAMFest 2016 concluded on March 20th, but be sure to follow CAAM for more updates, special events, and new projects! Curious to see what others have to say about CAAMFest, Tyrus, and more? Check out CAAM’s page for CAAMFest 2016 and #CAAMFest2016 on Twitter. Thank you very much for reading!
– Jeana Braun