Review: In Pursuit of Light

Written and directed by Tongdao Zhang, over hundred years of development, the Chinese film industry has been through a lot. Lisa Lu, a nearly hundred-year-old Chinese American actress, stands for a book of Chinese film history herself. In the film, Lisa Lu talks about her life, career, and her on-going process of dream pursuing inside the movie world. As well as exploring other memorable Chinese filmmakers, including one of the first Asian actress who has her own “star” on the Hollywood Boulevard, Anna May Wong, Minwei Li, Chusheng Cai and Bruce Lee.

We’re approaching an age where Asian actors are finally getting access to more and bigger roles in the wider film industry, so it’s a fantastic time to take a look back at some of the people who paved the way for them. Tongdao Zhang presents the charming and wonderful Lisa Lu and her rich acting career as the anchor to this wider story of Chinese film and its introduction to America. In doing so the film creates a beautifully sweet atmosphere, there’s a pride and honour at the foundation of this story. You can see that even more in the use of animation throughout which feels fun and playful, walking that line of showing the importance and positivity of the journey.

It’s extremely enjoyable to explore the legacy of Chinese American actresses in Hollywood, their determination is unbeatable. You don’t even like to imagine the sheer prejudice they must have faced but their work blazed the way for generations of other actors. Anna May Wong in particular is a name that doesn’t get talked about enough for the contributions that she made so it’s lovely to see them diving into her legacy. Set alongside that of Lisa Lu it feels like a passing of the baton, showing the line of progress that may be slow but is very much present. It’s also interesting to dive into the behind the camera elements but at times they can feel like a tangent, Zhang is trying to fit a lot of information into a relatively short amount of time. It almost feels like it would have made for a great mini-series to give it the space to explore even further, having each actress or filmmaker given their own episode.

There’s also a frequent use of recreations which have their advantages and disadvantages, they don’t feel entirely necessary but do feel like a great homage to the style of classic Chinese cinema. Meaning it’s difficult to come down on whether they work or not, you can see why they’re there but it might have been enough just to have each person recounting the tale alone. It’s due to the fact that there’s a great personable nature to the ensemble featured in In Pursuit of Light, their commitment and love for Chinese cinema is clear. However, it can at times feel as though the tone is overly softened, merging things together rather than creating different energies. It’s hitting a lot of the same notes throughout and may have benefited from a bit more variety to push the pacing and presence.

In Pursuit of Light is a loving homage to Chinese cinema and the journey of Chinese American actresses breaking into Hollywood. It’s sweet and interesting, exploring a number of different elements of the subject, although there’s perhaps a bit more than it has the time to do justice to. It can move at a fairly simple pace but it’s enjoyable and Lisa Lu was a terrific choice to guide the audience through this journey, she’s utterly endearing and immediately makes you want to jump back into her filmography, and that of everyone mentioned.

Verdict: ✯✯✯½ | 7/10

Available now on VOD courtesy of Odyssey Chinese Cinema

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