‘Revenge of the Green Dragons’: Toronto Review
Martin Scorsese is executive producer on a violent Chinese-American gangster drama set in New York
What Infernal Affairs did for the Hong Kong triads and The Godfather for the Italian mafia, Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo attempt to do for New York’s vicious Chinese American street gangs in Revenge of the Green Dragons, set in Queens in the 1980s. Against a backdrop of over-crowded apartments, steamy restaurant kitchens and Mah Jong dens, the bullets and knives fly thick and fast in a way bound to push the buttons of fans of mindless violence, but there’s something missing here that keep these gangsters from blasting their way into great tradition of anti-heroes. Still, the filmmakers know their genre and have obviously worked hard to blend the Hong Kong actioner with an American police thriller, and with Martin Scorsese on board as an executive producer, there are all kinds of reasons to be curious. Using a formula that has produced results with other high-profile festival films, DirecTV is opening a 30-day window immediately after the film’s premiere in Toronto, followed by theatrical release in October from A24 Films.
Scorsese’s creative ghost hovers heavily over the story and its setting on the mean streets of New York in the Eighties; the appearance of Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta in the role of an FBI agent and the two main Chinese characters going by the unlikely names of Sonny and Tina are more tips of the hat. The attraction must be mutual, considering that Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed was a remake of Lau’s Infernal Affairs. But in the end the taste of H.K. filmmaking dominates in the film's deliberately chaotic visual style, a circular narrative that heads nowhere, and lyrical song interludes that abruptly interrupt the non-stop action and camera movement.
Though it unfolds like hyperbolic fiction, amazingly enough this is a true crime story, based on a New Yorker article by Frederic Dannen about New York’s Asian American gangs who made a lucrative business out of racketeering, human traffic and heroin smuggling in the 1980s and ‘90s. Screenwriters Loo and Michael Di Jiacomo frame the tale with musings on the “American dream” by immigrants coming to seek a better life, and how this dream has been betrayed. Or as the narrator Sonny (Justin Chon, who plays Eric Yorkie in The Twilight Saga) simplistically puts it, the choice is to be forever a fisherman in China, or to dream of something better in America. This sounds a bit ironic, though, coming from criminals who have made all their dreamy choices out of greed and lust for power.
The scene is set when Sonny and Steven arrive in the U.S. as boys with their bundle of hopes and expectations that are soon dashed by the poverty of slum life. TV footage of George Bush Sr. and Ronald Reagan pontificating on America as the world’s greatest home of freedom is contrasted to statistics that say half of Americans are against immigration. Certainly the boys are underprivileged kids whose future is a big question mark.
The directors work this social theme into the story through a racist FBI agent (Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta) obsessed with the threat illegal immigrants pose to the country. He’s determined to get the Feds involved in cracking down on the Chinese crime syndicates who are sneaking them in. Liotta’s earnest, thankless role is fairly marginal to the story, except to underline the authorities’ indifference or outright hostility to the Asian community.
Sonny’s eyewitness account of events, on the other hand, is a graphic chronicle of horror that begins when he reaches America illegally as a 10-year-old boy and watches his mother die in the crossing. He becomes fast friends with Steven (Kevin Wu), whose mom works as a kitchen slave in a Chinese restaurant. The turning point in their young lives comes one day at school when Steven goes to the toilet and is beaten up by older kids belonging to the Green Dragons gang. Lau and Loo don’t skimp on the horror when they hang him upside down and use him as a human punching bag. The feral pack is about to mutilate the boy when they’re stopped by a word from the clean-shaven, soft-spoken Paul Wong (Harry Shum Jr. of Glee). Along with a low-profile dragon lady referred to in the credits as “Snakehead,” Paul is the boss. So the good news is that instead of killing Steven they make him a member of the gang, along with Sonny. The kids are soon initiated into guns and weaponry and sent out to kill under the guidance of a shaggy, blood-thirsty young gangster (Leonard Wu).
A gang war with the rival White Tigers begins, for no particular reason, leaving mutilated corpses lying on the street. The NYC police get reluctantly involved, but the point is made that as long as no white people die, dead Asians are of little interest. As the murder and mayhem increase exponentially, Sonny starts seeing Tina (Shuya Chang), the daughter of Paul’s live-in house guest Teddy. Their great romance is never very credible, though, which is a pity because it plays such an important narrative role in the final act.
This is only the beginning of the underworld mayhem. The story jumps forward to 1989; Tiananmen Square is on the TV news. Paul watches a man blocking the path of a huge tank and comments sagely, “In every crisis there is opportunity.” One opportunity that presents itself for the Chinese is that the big police sweep against the Italian mafia in 1992 leaves the heroin market wide open. Paul makes a surprise alliance with the White Tigers and jumps in with a complicated double-cross that’s nearly impossible to follow, but obviously very nasty.
By this point the action is flashing by like a fire engine without any clear end in sight, other than more and more violence, and the film feels as if it could go on indefinitely, or at least until the whole of Queens lies dead on the restaurant floor. It’s a relief when the story shifts to Hong Kong for a final, ironic, pointless twist that is very Chinese.
D.P. Martin Ahlgren’s closely lensed cinematography creates a dark, claustrophobic world with little respite, a sort of living hell emphasized by Mark Kilian’s screaming electric guitar soundtrack.
An IM Global and Martin Scorsese presentation of an A24 Films release, produced by The 7th Floor, Initial A Entertainment
Cast: Justin Chon, Kevin Wu, Harry Shum Jr., Shuya Chang, Leonard Wu, Geoff Pierson, Ray Liotta
Directors: Andrew Lau, Andrew Loo
Screenwriters: Michael Di Jiacomo, Andrew Loobased on an article by Frederic Dannen
Producers: Stuart Ford, Andrew Lau, Allen Bain, Jesse Scolaro, Ara Katz
Executive Producers: Martin Scorsese, Steve Squillante, Deepak Nayar, Claudie Chung, Alan Pao, Michael Bassick, Art Spigel, Steven Chao
Coproducers: Derrick Tseng, Michael Di Jiacomo
Director of Photography: Martin Ahlgren
Production Designer: Wing Lee
Costume Designer: Elisabeth Vastola
Editor: Michelle Tesoro
Music: Mark Kilian
Sales: IM Global
No rating, 94 minutes