Kurt Vincent’s The Lost Arcade is a tender and moving documentary about Chinatown Fair, a small novelty museum in the 1940s that gradually evolved over the ensuing decades into a video arcade. Located in Manhattan’s Chinatown, below the Port Arthur Chinese restaurant, Chinatown Fair was often eclipsed in the ’80s and ’90s by the arcades in Times Square, which had considerably better foot traffic and a greater selection of titles, though it gradually gained luster as one of the last hold-outs for a dying craze. Public video games were losing out to home-entertainment units, driving arcades out of business, though Chinatown Fair survived for a while by pinching pennies and encouraging the patronage of the die-hards who stay up all night engaging in communal competitions, usually playing fighter games like Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, Marvel vs. Capcom, Tekken, and others.
Vincent captured footage inside the Chinatown Fair before it closed (though it reopened as a Dave & Buster’s clone that inevitably alienated the original “CF” crew), offering us an evocative glimpse of a small city business run by Sam Palmer, a Pakistani immigrant who often recruited his most devoted adolescent customers as managers and clerks. The Lost Arcade poignantly reminds us of things that now seem quaint, such as quarters perched on arcade consoles and crowds surrounding players as they manipulate joysticks with frenetic and symphonic precision. It doesn’t take long for a tourist to discern why the Chinatown Fair was so beloved by its cult, as the place had a seedy, homey vitality that thrived on the exhilaration and danger of human interaction. (The domestication of video games is no different from that of film-going or shopping: Spontaneous externality is eliminated for the sake of efficiency, walling us off in our own little myopic, media-enabled cocoons that leave us feeling lonely and interchangeably special.)
A literary feeling of emptiness haunts The Lost Arcade. The former patrons and employees of Chinatown Fair pine for it the way that Jay Gatsby longed for Daisy Buchanan. Vincent interviews Palmer, who still serves as a paternal figure to many of his wayward admirers, whom the filmmaker also captures in revealingly vulnerable and self-justifying states. Most commanding is Akuma Hokura, a big and sad bear of a man with a lazy eye and a gentle demeanor who recalls a childhood spent sleeping on subways during the day to avoid truancy charges, while heading to arcades at nights to look for quarters. Originally, the change that Hokura found in the machine’s coin slots would pay for food and games in roughly equal measure, until the games came to command his priorities. One of the arcades in Times Square offered a young Hokura a couch in the basement, until he eventually wound up at Chinatown Fair, a lost teenager in search of stability and infrastructure. Palmer, who presumably knows quite a bit about the struggle to fit into society, empathized with Hokura without condescending to him.
Vincent exhibits a masterfully light touch throughout the film. The images have a loose, rough, textured liveliness that honors the spirit of Chinatown Fair, and there are dozens of wonderful moments, such as the sight of Hokura behind the gift shop of a new arcade, joking with a customer, punctuating a story with a flourish in which he spreads his arms wide along the length of the counter. Such a moment epitomizes the nourishment that a damaged man draws from a community that accords him respect and honor. The Lost Arcade isn’t overtly political, but it has a political nuance nonetheless. The film offers a vision of an explicitly multiracial society that people either fear or feel to have been increasingly robbed from them in their modern isolation—a bereavement that can lead to acts as desperate and consequential as the Republican Party’s current choice for president of the United States.