I used to write movie reviews until I started the Silver Spleen. Nowadays, the written versions are essentially transcripts of the videos, though they often have stuff I end up editing out of the videos. There’s a reason for that. As much as I enjoy acting the fool (and as much as many people say I’m not acting), I do actually have a PhD in intercultural communication, and I’ve published academic research. That sort of thing is not really entertaining, however, in a spoken format, so my reviews tend to have little or none of it. Some things that read well don’t sound very good spoken. And some things need to be discussed seriously, and for me writing is the best way to do that.
I was lucky enough to go to the Hong Kong premiere of Revenge of the Green Dragons, the Andrew Lau/Andrew Loo co-directed, Martin Scorsese-produced movie about Chinese street gangs in 1980s New York.
I’m not going to offer a synopsis, or to really review the film itself. I want instead to talk about the movie within several contexts. Before watching the movie, I read some reviews. And very few of them had a kind word to say. Having watched the movie, I can partially understand why.
I struggled with trying to reconcile two very different aspects of the film. On the one hand, you have Scorcese-esque grittiness and cruelty. On the other, you have a very overt stylistic nod to Andrew Lau’s Young & Dangerous films. The problem for me is that these two things are antagonistic: the Y&D cartoonishness can induce a certain levity into the film.
There’s nothing wrong with wink-wink-nudge-nudge in films, and I often enjoy it. But such aesthetic choices inherently celebrate their subjects, and that is problematic in Revenge of the Green Dragons.
It makes it much more difficult to reconcile the savage cruelty and violence that also happens, because we’re supposed to take that seriously without some prurient enjoyment of bad-boy naughtiness. The Belgian film Man Bites Dog handled this brilliantly, so it can be done, but I didn’t see it happening here.
It could be argued that like many Hong Kong films, Revenge of the Green Dragons’ tonal roller-coaster is very normal to a local Hong Kong audience, who gleefully careen between things like romantic melodrama and toilet humor. Unfortunately, Revenge of the Green Dragons is intended for other audiences who may prefer a more singular tonality.
But that’s not really the major issue for me. A lot of reviewers panned the cast for their performances, some of which were worthy of the criticism. Even so, I think it’s unfair to put all the blame on them.
I’d rather place it into context. You could argue that the actors themselves aren’t convincing, but you could also argue that there’s not a whole lot of Hollywood tradition to call on for background. Audiences may struggle with seeing ABAs (American Born Asians) as either protagonists or badasses (as opposed to sidekicks or comic relief).
The actors themselves may struggle with having to create a trope that is still in its earliest infancy. Is it the fault of the actors that they don’t have much experience? Or can some of the responsibility be laid at the feet of the cyclical nature of Hollywood, wherein Asians are so brutally pigeonholed?
The audience struggling with seeing them in new roles is not only a result of cinematic history but a rationalization for continuing the trope. Imagine if African Americans were still only playing domestic helpers. It may be that the ‘oddity’ of seeing ABAs in new roles isn’t really the fault of the audience or the actors as much as the industry.
I’m not saying the cast was stellar. I’m saying that just maybe we can cut them some slack because if you want to make an omelet you have to break a few stereotypes. As much as the audience is new to Asian gangsters, so too is the acting pool.
Let’s take a moment to talk about one member of the cast and her experience with stereotypes. Eugenia Yuan plays Snake Head, or, let’s face it, the Dragon Lady. Which is Role #3 for Asian women, nos. 1 and 2 being prostitute and mail-order bride, respectively. Some of Eugenia’s other roles in Hollywood include Mail Order Wife and Memoirs of a Geisha. Imagine if Scarlett Johannsen had to constantly choose between playing only Meth Whore, Russian Stripper, or Ilsa, She-Wolf of the CIA.
The entire cast of The View would self-immolate in outraged protest.
I don’t blame the actors for taking the roles. It would be nice in some way if they refused on principle to be a part of the ongoing problem, but that means they wouldn’t get any roles. And someone would always take the role.
So yes, the cast has to take responsibility for their acting. But so do we, the audience. Because we buy into and support an industry which created and continues to create these seemingly anomalous situations. One reason Hollywood behaves this way is because it’s easier and more lucrative to perpetuate certain ideas than to erase them.
Especially after you’ve conditioned an audience so heavily.
The use or function of difference in film is important not just because of its explicit use but its implicit effects on the audience as well as actors. Because characters must be distinct from one another for the sake of narrative clarity, markers of difference are amplified and, more troublingly, preserved. The basic principle has to do with setting things/ideas/people apart, and doing so through dissimilarities.
In order to delineate or make people and/or things different from one another, it is useful (in film and/or other narrative structures) to display or otherwise communicate difference, if for no other reason than to tell things/people apart.
No one makes (successful) movies about a guy going to work every day and paying his bills, because we all do that and it’s boring.
So stories are about different, exciting circumstances. This explains why ‘different’ people must be DIFFERENT, and if someone is different their difference almost always has to mean something for the story or film. If there’s one Asian in a movie, the audience expects his Asian-ness to have some kind of function in the plot. Why is he Asian unless it means something?
Oddly, they don’t have the same Pavlovian expectations of whiteness, but that’s another story for another time.
I think the simplest litmus test of ‘progress’ in Hollywood is if/when a person’s ethnicity has nothing to do with their role or the story. At the moment, that’s only a privilege for white people. A corollary, however, is the way that the glaring whiteness of many roles/stories/films genuinely is invisible to (my) people. One of the whitest films I’ve ever seen is Safe, starring Julianne Moore. That woman’s not sick or crazy, she’s just white.
Because film is a visual medium, and because people look differently depending on morphology (I try to avoid terms like race or ethnicity, but I assume you know what I mean), that difference is often manipulated. Asian beauty standards tend to parallel Western standards, thus rendering ‘difference’ in Western eyes as ‘ugly’ in Asian eyes. On a lighter, more localized note, this also explains why Hong Kongers constantly ask me why white people think Lucy Liu is pretty or why gweilo date/marry ‘ugly’ Chinese women.
I tell them to see it as a public service, leaving the pretty ones for local men.
The reason Lucy Liu gets work is because she looks so different from Westerners. If Hollywood uses Others who look like Westerners, difference becomes much more difficult not only to represent but to MAINTAIN. Compare Lucy Liu to Koyuki, the woman in The Last Samurai. Pretty? Of course. But why haven’t we seen her in more movies? Maybe because she’s not ‘Japanese’ enough.
You’d think Hollywood would jump on the similarity, thus being able to crow about how White Beauty is the global norm. But doing so deprives them of a narrative/visual tool that they use. Hollywood needs Otherness as a tool. They can’t risk making the Other not so otherly. It also puts them at risk of ‘giving away’ the Most Beautiful title to… gasp… a non-white! If non-whites are shown to be not-different, they become boring, but more terrifyingly, they become equal.
Let’s not fool ourselves, difference never exists in a completely horizontal way. By constantly re-inscribing the ‘difference’ and ‘exoticism’ of the Other, Hollywood implicitly attempts to preserve the center for its white self. Not once but twice has Luc Besson made the ‘most advanced creature in the universe’ a white woman (5th Element, Lucy).
Va te faire foutre.
Hollywood needs to make sure ‘We’ know who ‘They’ are, and that ‘They’ are clearly different from ‘Us.’ This is one way Hollywood essentially sublimates the Other to nothing more than a tool of White narrative. It explains remakes; there’s no Godd@mn reason for them. Subtitles are now a non-issue thanks to social media habits. But white viewers can’t relate to Them. So white people need to see themselves onscreen in order to buy into the emotion of the film.
That’s some sad sh*t, isn’t it? But so was the Oldboy remake.
What’s even sadder is the way that ‘They’ aren’t allowed to be like ‘Us’ even when they are. A good friend whose parents are from Hong Kong often gets asked where she’s from. “Denver,” she always says. Because that’s where she was born. She doesn’t even speak Chinese.
She just looks like she ‘should.’
I’ve heard that ABAs playing roles in Hollywood have had to speak in pronounced ‘Asian’ accents they don’t have. Well, Hollywood, which do you want? Asians with good English or Asians with bad English? Hollywood said that Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan and Jet Li couldn’t speak English well. But neither could Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme.
I guess there’s something different about those two.
I wish Hollywood would make up its mind. Because it seems like there’s no way for Asians to win. That kind of linguistic nonsense is on display in Revenge of the Green Dragons; one of the main characters, having spent the whole film speaking very normal English, suddenly reverts to Chinglish, apparently because he’s telling a story of his youth in China.
Maybe it was in New Jersey, I don’t know.
But it’s a good example of how difference gets operationalized through ethnicity, via exoticism. You could say that about the whole script, though.
Revenge of the Green Dragons was written by Andrew Loo and Michael Di Jiacomo. It’s important to know who wrote it because no one could have delivered some of the frankly awful dialogue in the film. It would have been nice to assume that people for whom this story was obviously important would have tried a little harder not to write dialogue that would make 1970s kung Fu Theater dubbers blush.
It would also have been nice not to have a twist at the end which was was not only unnecessary and cringe-inducingly self-referential but more dangerously perpetuated the Yellow Peril you-can’t-trust-those-people archetype. I’d expect such adolescent, reductionistic garbage from Quentin Tarantino. I was hoping for better here.
I sincerely don’t envy Asian actors in America. They’re unfortunately stuck at a certain point in the development of portrayals and narratives, and they’re unfairly tasked with re-training the American audience. But at least they’re getting the chance to make the change. Which, I admit, is scarce reward. Still, I appreciate their efforts and I look forward to more films.
I can’t say I enjoyed Revenge of the Green Dragons, but I can say I am glad it got made and I am very happy it exists. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start to bringing a new facet to American cinema.