TYRUS is a feature-length documentary film that tells the unlikely story of 105-year old Chinese American artist Tyrus Wong, and how he overcame poverty and racism to become a celebrated modernist painter, Hollywood sketch artist, and 'Disney Legend' for his groundbreaking work on the classic animated film, Bambi.
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"When I first heard about Tyrus Wong, I was intrigued by the idea of a Chinese American artist working at Disney in the 1930s. How was this possible? Weren’t most Chinese immigrants toiling away as laundrymen, houseboys, or waiters? Wasn’t Walt Disney an alleged racist? When I met Tyrus over 15 years ago, I soon realized that his three and a half years at Disney were just a scratch on the surface of a fascinating, and unlikely journey through 20th century America a journey that began in the detention cells of the Angel Island Immigration Station and eventually led to the back lots of every major studio in Hollywood.
I wanted to know how this young boy from Southern China who spoke no English, had little money, and who once lived above a brothel in L.A.’s old Chinatown, became a rising star as a modernist painter and Disney Legend. I knew his story was unique, dramatic, and had the classic elements of a hero’s journey.
With its rich visual possibilities and universal themes of overcoming adversity, I also felt the story had strong potential to resonate with audiences of different generations and backgrounds. His was a Chinese American Horatio Alger tale whose success was measured not by material riches, but by his rich artistic legacy. By fulfilling his lifelong dream to “paint and draw,” Tyrus carved out his own unique vision of the American dream.
In TYRUS, I wanted to surprise and illuminate the audience in much the same way I was when I first met him. At first glance, Tyrus appears modest and unassuming. Never would you imagine that he helped Sam Peckinpah visualize the iconic Western film The Wild Bunch, or created the breathtakingly beautiful and highly influential look of Bambi, or exhibited with Picasso and Matisse in a 1939 show at the Art Institute in Chicago. When I realized that he did all this during a time when the Chinese couldn’t own property or testify in court against a Caucasian, his accomplishments seemed nothing less than astonishing.
As a director, I was fortunate to draw from a rich, diverse, and voluminous collection of art, and was excited about the aesthetic possibilities of telling his story through the visual arts.
The art of Tyrus Wong is distinguished by its beauty, power, and ability to evoke strong feelings using the simplest of forms. Cinematically, I wanted to capture these same qualities by maintaining a style that was simple, elegant, and which allowed Tyrus and his art to tell his story. I purposefully avoided a lot of visual effects, and only used them for the purpose of bringing out the beauty of Tyrus's work. The music is evocative, yet nonintrusive.
I also wanted to examine the social, cultural, and political context within which Tyrus worked, particularly America’s contradictory attitudes towards Asians. Despite Americans’ mistreatment of Asian people, they were ironically, very receptive to their art. The fascination with all things “Oriental” during the 1930s and the postwar embrace of modernism and a more global aesthetic, made Tyrus’’s work resonate with the American public. Few artists better exemplified this synthesis of Eastern and Western sensibilities than Tyrus Wong. His 1950s holiday card design of a bonsailike tree with pink blossoms was a national bestseller and his handpainted calligraphic dinnerware graced highend department stores.
As a centenarian, Tyrus’s life story gave me incredible opportunities to introduce audiences to subjects ranging from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to the “The California Orientalists,” the young pioneering West coast Japanese and Chinese American artists who created and exhibited new forms of modern art in the 1930s, from Roosevelt’s depressionera WPA arts program to Disney’s golden age of animation and the art of the motion picture illustrator, and from midcentury modern design to the fanciful world of kite flying.
At the heart of the film, however, are Tyrus’s personal struggles and triumphs, including the permanent separation from his mother at age nine, his detention at Angel Island, the relationship with his father who mentored and encouraged his art, his formative years at art school, his marriage and family life, and the heartbreaking illness and death of his wife.
Though I was first drawn to Tyrus’s art, it was his resilience, humility and humor that deepened my appreciation for him, and which I believe will have the greatest impact on the audience. There will never be another Tyrus Wong. His story is born out of a time and place that no longer exists. Each era has its pioneers and at 105, Tyrus is a living legend. He is an artist who forged his own path, and whose passion and dedication led to a rich and extraordinary life. It is this life that I sought to capture on film, and which I hope will enlighten, inspire, and entertain audiences of today and of future generations.” [Source: Pamela Tom, TYRUS]
“An extraordinary film about an extraordinary man, whose life embodies the best of American and human values. I found myself wishing that the entire nation could absorb the message of TYRUS, which would be a total cure for the cancer that is ravaging our body politic.” – Ravi Chandra, Memoirs of a SuperFan
“Tom's appealing, emotionally gripping tribute to Wong traces the eventful life of the artist who arrived at Angel Island (the West Coast's Ellis Island) as a penniless immigrant child almost a century ago, with the Chinese Exclusion Act still the law (not repealed until 1943). Determination, hard work, and - according to Wong - luck helped him prevail against prejudice and discrimination... but Tom doesn't gloss over Wong's personality and idiosyncrasies. For Wong, art was the overwhelming, almost all-exclusive priority, and the same is true of "Tyrus."” – Jano Gereben, SF Examiner
“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.” – CAAM
“Tyrus, which chronicles the life of the now-105-year-old (!), surprisingly spry painter who immigrated to the U.S. at age nine and became one of the most successful Asian American artists of our era — and a main illustrator for the Disney classic Bambi — was a prime example of HIFF audiences embracing a film that had little international “buzz” or red-carpet pizzazz, and turning it into an award-winner.” – Filmmaker Magazine