REVENGE of the GREEN DRAGONS [Review/Q&A]: Sleeping Dogs.
Tuesday, October 21 saw Astoria, Queens’ famous Museum of the Moving Image host Revenge of the Green Dragons. Directed by newcomer New York native Andrew Loo, and legendary Hong Kong director Andrew Lau, whose Infernal Affairs was remade as The Departed (Martin Scorsese acts as executive producer on this film), this is a clumsily paced, rote crime thriller.
Set mainly in 1989 Flushing, Queens’ Chinatown, the film follows illegal Chinese immigrant brothers Sonny and Steven, and their rise and eventual, inevitable fall from the Green Dragons, just one of the six or so prominent Chinese gangs in the area at the time. It is such a shame that the great Andrew Lau (and, by extension, Scorsese) has his named attached to this misanthropic and baseless piece, as both have excelled at both humanizing and dramatizing the criminal world, as well as providing sympathetic characters, if not out-and-out protagonists.
Here, it’s difficult to find any redeeming qualities in any single character.
Based on a true story, Revenge of the Green Dragons attempts to dramatize the brotherly relationship between Sonny (Justin Chon) and Steven (Kevin Wu), but neither character has any real development, nor any real redeeming qualities. Steven is angry, violent, quick tempered, and misanthropic, and has little qualms with ripping off his own family. Sonny is equally prone to emotional outbursts and violence, and values his relationship to the gang over and all family bonds, and seems singularly selfish, although the film tries to paint it in an altruistic light.
The actors, while presumably channeling the real-life counterparts on which their characters are based, sadly feel not too far removed from the short films in which they previously featured. Additionally, the central romance between Sonny and Tina (Shuya Chang) — the daughter of a well-connected patsy pop icon from Hong Kong the Green Dragons use to smuggle narcotics into the States — feels too rushed, forced, and insincere, a mere move to simply push the film to its inevitable conclusion.
This “rise-and-fall” tale has been told many times before, and nothing featured here — from the excessive violence, to the setting, to the characters, to the dated, almost annoying soundtrack, to the slow motion and fade-to-black transitions — rings true, or memorable or original. The pacing and editing are off, creating a feeling of malaise, and although the film clocks in at just over an hour-and-a-half, it feels twice that length.
There is no ebb or flow to the story. To add to the lack of cohesion, a character reveal at the climax is so clumsily handled that until the character literally spoke out his role and relation to Sonny and to the plot, I had no idea how or why he was important, and had completely forgotten about him, and even his revelation makes little narrative sense. It felt like a twist thrown into a cliché movie for the sake of having a twist, especially considering how the real-life story played out.
Anachronisms abound: while cell phones were available (if massive, and rare) in 1992, I find it unlikely that the kingpin of a crime syndicate would allow his cell number to be readily available to his underlings. And I was surprised by the sheer number of circa 2001 $100 bills being circulated in 1989. Perhaps if this film were released 20-years ago it would seem a bit fresher and original, but released today…it seems a bit old hat. And that’s a shame, because for Lau’s English language debut, he deserved a bit more.
- At the showing itself, Lau (in a relaxed, dark suit) seemed a bit tired (and would later admit to being so later on). The Q&A, interestingly, proved much more entertaining than the film itself, and proved a great insight to NYC filmmaking. The cast, in part, was comprised of former Chinese gang members. One former gang member, who played a member of the film’s White Tiger gang, admitted that this was his first acting gig, having just served 8 years in federal prison in Ohio. “I just got out of federal prison in Ohio. It’s real life [the movie]. It’s real stuff.” he said, wearing a white winter vest and white slacks, his eyes hidden behind oversized aviator sunglasses. “I was there for eight years. Actual White Tiger.” His broken English said a lot more than his words ever did.
- Another actor, with a soft-spoken, crisp, New York English accent, spoke of his on experience with the Chinatown gangs: “I taught craft classes [in Chinatown]. One week, he’d [a student] be in class, and the next week, he’d be in the river. I have family over one hundred years in Chinatown. I am chook-sing, America-born Chinese. I learn not to ask too much questions.”
- For Lau, shooting in New York meant dealing with labor unions and bureaucracies, although he insists his shooting style has not been affected all by the change in location. What attracted him to the story, you might ask? “The civilization is different. Chinese immigration story is not far from here [in Queens]. We insist [we] shoot in New York; the location, the crew, so different from Hong Kong. Here, we have union…It’s hard for me. I feel, not that freedom. I have to have committee for everything. Meeting for every change. Every change, I have meeting with department. Every department have meeting with union.”
- Hopefully the New York film community did not prove too discouraging to Mr. Lau, nor Mr. Loo. But the night offered promise: after a polite but firm dismissal from MOMI host Warrington Hutton, Mr. Lau and Mr. Loo invited the remaining cast and crew at the screening to hang out and talk at a bar not far from the Queens venue. If only duty did not call for the morning…