Saturday, October 25, 2014

Revenge of the Green Dragons

Very glad I got to see this in a theater - as I think I mentioned before, this was originally scheduled to play the Boston Film Festival about a month ago, but during a slot when I was flying back from Austin. So, when it got pulled at the last minute and later announced as the opening night film of the Boston Asian American Film Festival, I was a happy camper.

And, hey - guests!

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(For as often as I'm forced to use the "horrible photography" tag, that is some accidentally awesome composition, no?)

From left to right, that's executive producer Alan Pao, co-stars Geoff Lee, Celia Au, and Carl Li, directors Andrew Loo & Andrew Lau, co-star Shing Ka, and Devon Diep, who performed the title song. Pretty good turn-out, probably in part because the film is getting a limited theatrical release starting this weekend (it's also available on demand via DirecTV).

It's a pretty great get for BAAFF, because it's probably one of the highest-profile movies made with a primarily Asian-American cast in some time, at least since the last Harold & Kumar entry. It's pulp, but it's pretty good as pulp goes. And as much of the cast attested, that's something they don't necessarily often get the chance to do, as opposed to playing a lot of restaurant workers or grad students.

They also all mentioned that director "Andrew" Lau Wai-keung worked fast, getting one or two takes and then moving on. Lau was kind of the big draw for me; he co-directed Infernal Affairs, which got remade as The Departed, making it only fair for Martin Scorsese to executive produce this movie. It's not his first American movie - he did something called The Flock a few years back, although the American version had reshoots directed by someone else - but what I like about it is how much it feels like something from both America and Hong Kong, which is as it should be.

Also cool: He seemed to dig the Brattle Theatre; apparently the tour has had them screening Dragons in a lot of slick new venues, and he really seemed to dig playing it in a theater that was actually around during the time when this film took place. He seemed to stumble on getting it out in just that way - he seemed to be telling Creative Director Ned Hinkle that he liked the place because it's kind of old and run-down, but we can see it as him being glad the Brattle isn't trying to be something it's not and losing its personality, right?

The other interesting thing that came up was that they did a lot of open auditions in New York, and a lot of the older immigrants they talked to said that if they had it to do over again, they probably wouldn't have come to America, what with the danger, near-slavery, and prejudice they face. Something you hate to hear, but given some of what you see in the movie and can learn about elsewhere, not exactly surprising. It ties in with the short film that played before the feature (and similar ones which played during Films at the Gate), which talk about a real feeling of isolation until people find specifically Asian-American groups to connect with.

Revenge of the Green Dragons

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Asian American Film Festival, DCP)

Don't let some of the pedigree that Revenge of the Green Dragons can whip out fool you - executive producer/"presenter" Martin Scorsese and co-director Andrew Lau have made some transcendent gangster movies, but this one is more or less the sort of lurid fare its name suggests. This is not an argument against it, mind you; what better way is there to tell the story of an Asian-American street gang than by bringing some Hong Kong style to old-school grindhouse?

The Green Dragons recruited Steven Wong and his foster brother Sonny early, when they were middle-schoolers fairly fresh off the boat in 1982. Seven years later, they've moved up; Sonny (Justin Chon) is handling collections, while the more fiery Steven (Kevin Wu) brandishes a knife. It roughly parallels the gang's leaders, clean-cut Paul Wrong (Harry Shum Jr.) and his right-hand-man Chen Chung (Leonard Wu), who know that if they keep things relatively clean, the NYPD will mostly assign rookie cops, even if one guy at the FBI (Ray Liotta) is starting to sniff around due to a general belief that immigration is a ticking time bomb.

The film is based upon actual people and events, but it doesn't really need to be; while it may not follow the gangster-movie template exactly, there is not a lot to the movie that audiences have not seen before. If anything, the screenplay by Michael Di Jiacomo and co-director Andrew Loo primarily distinguishes itself via exceptional cynicism: There is never much effort made to build the Green Dragons or other gangs up as social structures offering some sort of honor, unity, or camaraderie; they are assemblies of thugs from minute one, appealing mainly because the alternative seems to be exploitation that is tantamount to slavery.

Full review at EFC.

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