Asian American Studies • Art History • Ethnic Studies
American History • Animation • Popular Culture Studies
2017. Director Pamela Tom.
77 Minutes. Transcript Available.

 

TYRUS is Pamela Tom's tour-de-force documentary about 105-year old Guangzhou-born, L.A. based visual artist, Tyrus Wong and his breathtaking scope of work across multiple artistic mediums and his personal and professional journey navigating racial bigotry in 20th century America. Tom's film makes meticulous use of Tyrus Wong's exquisite art, archival footage, illuminating interviews and commentary from Wong himself to document how his unique style, melding Chinese calligraphic and landscape influences with contemporary Western art, helped the Disney animated film, Bambi (1942) specifically, and early Hollywood in general establish their signature visual styles. The film, makes a critical contribution to the documentary tradition and to American society in correcting a historical wrong by spotlighting this seminal, but heretofore under-credited figure.

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TYRUS

His art inspired Bambi, his life will inspire you

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Wong’s story reminds us that one can be excluded from the national terrain of culture even while being the literal hand in its very production. As much of the emphasis in Asian American cultural studies is on more contemporary popular culture, scholars who are interested in early twentieth-century Asian American popular culture will find this film to be an invaluable contribution to fields related to historic Asian American visual cultures.

"A fascinating and well-made documentary of interest to artists, art and film history enthusiasts, and students of Asian American and popular culture studies."

[...] All of this context enables the viewer to evaluate not just what they think about the works themselves, but to form their own opinion about their larger significance. This elevates Tyrus above other biographical documentaries in two key ways, both of which are exemplified by the film’s treatment of Wong’s time in Hollywood. First, by showing examples of artworks Wong produced as an inspirational sketch artist, first on Walt Disney’s Bambi and later as a member of the art department at Warner Brothers, side-by-side with scenes from the films for which they were made clearly shows the impact he had on them. In addition to celebrating Wong’s personal contribution, this also shines a light on an important part of the movie-making process that many people don’t even know exists and trains the viewer to look for distinctive artistic elements in films to determine who contributed what, making Tyrus an incredibly useful tool for film studies teachers.

 

Second, by detailing the specific consequences of the institutional and personal racism that Wong faced throughout his career and life, Tyrus reveals just how far-reaching the costs of such behavior can be to an entire society. To again focus on Wong’s career in the movies, the film conclusively establishes that racism was responsible for his being fired from Disney with a year to go in the production of Bambi and subsequently improperly credited as being merely one of many “background artists” who worked on it. In addition to resulting in many decades passing before his true role was acknowledged (and therefore understood), this incident also presumably figured prominently in Wong’s decision to decline an invitation to work on the 1998 Disney production Mulan more than 50 years later. This story and others told by Wong, such as one about a Japanese-American contemporary who never painted again after being interned during World War II, helps the viewer realize how hard it is to measure what is lost when an entire group of people is denied the right to participate fully in the life of a country just because of what they look like or where they’re from. It’s not just the art that Wong or his contemporaries didn’t produce that you have to account for, it’s also the work of the countless other artists they never got a chance to inspire or mentor. [...]

Pamela Tom’s TYRUS is a superb, illuminating documentary about the great artist, Tyrus Wong and the triumph of his creative spirit.  The film will surely find a wide audience in school and community classrooms, for it touches on many political and artistic topics and issues -- historical and contemporary -- including xenophobia, racism, Chinese art, Disney animation, pop culture, the Depression, and immigration.

​Chinese American painter Tyrus Wong (1910–2016) knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist. There was strong prejudice against Chinese immigrants in California, where Wong and his father settled after fleeing their homeland. Archival photos of Wong’s early work show artistic promise, and in interviews, the elderly but still vibrant artist describes his evolving career. Author Lisa See, whose grandfather was an early supporter of the Asian American art community, shares memories of Wong’s murals that covered her grandfather’s restaurant. Wong recalls his three-year stint at Disney Studios, where his artwork is featured in the classic animated film Bambi. He then moved to Warner Bros., where he painted storyboards and sets for such blockbusters as Rebel without a Cause and Sands of Iwo Jima. Wong’s daughters remember their parent’s happy marriage and their father’s work, which included designing and making greeting cards, kites, dishware, and other art. Historians, art critics, animation experts, and others discuss Wong’s film career, with one expert asserting that “Wong was treated differently because he was Chinese.” Wong is honored for being a pioneer in the Chinese American community in Los Angeles and an influential artist whose work bridged Chinese traditions and modern art. 

Sheridan College

This incredible film not only describes the remarkable life and career of a master designer of animation, film --and kites-- it also provides a glimpse into a little-publicized yet fascinating school of West Coast Asian-American Art. Tyrus Wong was a legend at Disney long before he became a 'legend'. ​ Watch this film and see why.

Tyrus is a fascinating, eloquent film about the life and work of a true master of 20th-century American art, Tyrus Wong. Perhaps best known in some circles as a hugely-important part of Bambi's production team, this wonderful documentary shows the scope of his contributions to American art, cinema, and even the ephemera of everyday life in his designs for table ware and Christmas cards! But more than this, Tyrus weaves the story of Wong's career into the story of his life, from the hardships and prejudices he faced as a Chinese immigrant in a pre-civil rights era America, to the story of his meeting and marrying the love of his life and raising a family. As with any artist (and most gifted people), Wong's personal and artistic life cannot be separated, and Tyrus brings these together with deftness and sensitivity. This film comes across as a true labour of love, telling the story of a warm, wonderful, charming, and immensely-talented man. The story of Tyrus Wong's life is one that all will find captivating, fascinating, and genuinely moving.

I think students would get a lot out of the film and it would make a great interdisciplinary event on campus.

He is such a magnificent artist. I lack the vocabulary to capture how much Mr. Wong's work moves me. His art, all of it, even the Hallmark cards, are so beautiful and powerful and profound. I just see this powerful artist trained in the Chinese brush coming to see and draw the world through the eyes of numerous great artists and traditions and then synthesizing them all in new and magnetic ways that are true to his own individual vision, life experience and personal inspiration. The film is a visual delight.

Tyrus is not only an inspiring celebration of artist Tyrus Wong and his body of work, but it also is an important reminder of the obstacles facing immigrants–past and present–as they attempt to study, work, raise a family and realize their dreams in America. The film will be an evergreen addition to school, library, university and museum programs focusing on the immigrant experience in America, Disney animation, ethnic art and mid-20th century film history.

Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)

While TYRUS is a film that puts a human face to our nation of immigrants, it is also a love story about family and art, from his father’s early encouragement to Wong’s own paternal instinct.

Otis College of Art and Design

Joan Takayama-Ogawa, Professor

Tyrus is a beautiful film about resilience over racism, working hard, pursuing a dream, learning that we can't fix all things but can learn to carry them with us. Pam Tom and everyone related to the film did a wonderful job. I was completely engaged and transported. I am reminded that I need to bring more Asian American role models to Otis, as my Chinese and Korean students were deeply touched.

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