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Thursday, 4 May 2017

Retro Review: China Girl (1987)

China Girl
Cast: James Russo, David Caruso, Sari Chang, Russell Wong, James Wong, Richard Panebianco
Genre: Drama
U.S Box Office Gross: over $1, 262 million

Plot: A modern-day Romeo & Juliet story is told in New York when an Italian boy and a Chinese girl become lovers, causing a tragic conflict between ethnic gangs 

'Romeo & Juliet With A Much Darker Twist That Is Very Welcoming

A tale of interracial love in a Romeo and Juliet- style framework set in Manhattan, Lower East Side of Little Italy and Chinatown, China Girl is one of the most extraordinary films I've seen and a film that delves into interracial love in a darker context, which is also the rawest that I have come across in any film that contains Asian American characters. 

The girl's brother who is a gangster named Yung just doesn't like the Italians and doesn't want her to have anything to do with them, with Tony receiving the same warning from her older brother, Alby.   

Ferrera certainly doesn't beat around the bush when it becomes violent and bloody, as he certainly knows how to create that type of ambience and that gritty, urban feel as exemplified through his other efforts, Bad Lieutenant and Fear City. His brand of lurid, high-style often vibrant visuals dovetails perfectly with the story he chooses to build it around. The performances are great, the film is well-written, but for the underdeveloped main protagonist characters. & on the face of it, this is another gang-based film, - yet beyond that, there is that racial divide and where racism and the complexity of the issues surrounding it, collide with regards to various scenes within the film.

Interracial love and relationships have come a long way since the 1980s and like homosexual relationships, more people and society itself is a lot more open and accepting of it. Back then seeing a white person with an Asian or Black person was frowned and looked down upon as being something to be ashamed of. But of course, attitudes change and the younger generation, more so than the older generation, is more open-minded and tolerant of it. Love is universal: man and woman (both of the same ethnicity, different genders), man and man, woman and woman (homosexual relationships), bisexual relationships, White person with a Black, Latino or Asian, Black with Asian, the list goes on. 

The young boy, Tony who having fallen in love with the Chinese girl, Tye is sick of the Italian gang taking the mick out of the Chinese. The ill-fated lovers' relationship blossoms unknownst to their relatives and family and yet when word gets around about their relationship, things only get more dangerous. I do feel though that the most interesting characters are not the two leads, Tony and Tye but rather the supporting characters, mostly in the shape of the rival gang members. There are fights, break-outs, two stabbings and one penultimate shooting in Chinatown with either gangs not willing to back down, whilst at the same time, the two youngest individuals find themselves as the victims of this ongoing war, through no fault of their own. It was easy to understand the struggles and conflicts, but at the same time, all the gangs felt was hurt, pain, grief and anger, rather than to set aside their differences and come together.

And yet alas, as this is an Abel Ferrera film, we can't have that here. 

I actually felt the love scene could have been a lot more sordid and thus forth, I was a tad disappointed in how it was conceived. The love story certainly is an afterthought in this film and whilst that does take away from the whole Romeo & Juliet star-crossed lovers thing, thankfully the film doesn't descend into lovey-dovey schmaltz, for the sake of it. But otherwise, the film is beautifully shot and Ferrera's direction is so well crafted. 

The scene where the older brother tells his sister she is no longer Chinese because she loves the White Italian boy - only to end in tragedy, that ending scene was unexpected but when it flashed on the screen, my reaction to it is just, wow. But also was sad, touching yet a great way to end the film. 

This is a romantic drama thriller and features both spoken English and Chinese Cantonese which featured in many Asian-American based movies of the 1980s and early 1990s. One of the most invigorating takes on the romance subplot, China Girl is a gem of a film and by giving it a modern slant, it brings that traditional Romeo & Juliet story to new and younger generations.  

It is a tale that has been told millions of times (Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, as well as Romeo Must Die) and yet Ferrera's version doesn't rely on flashy scenes or Jet Li or Leonardo Di Caprio, but on a well told tragi-story, along with sharp bursts of violence.


Final Verdict:

At times a violent tale between two cultures, China Girl is one of interracial love that also doesn't descend into cartoon caricatures, nor does it water down the film, completely. This is also one of Abel Ferrera's most conventional and commercial offerings to date and as much as I enjoyed Fear City, having now watched China Girl, this film goes to lengths and beyond and is a huge improvement over that 1984 effort. 

It certainly has a lot more depth to the plot and story and there are so many layers in it; whilst it is not as flamboyant and in-yer-face as say Bad Lieutenant, this film deserves a much broader appeal and wider attention. 

This is the most interesting and stylish take on Romeo and Juliet that I have seen that is further elevated by Ferrera's trademark raw and brutal touch that is unique in filmmaking and at one point, it had almost zero chance of getting released in 1987. 

China Girl is Romeo & Juliet as you've never seen it before, and before you say, Baz Luhrmann, I'd take Abel Ferrera's version of this tragic love story over that Hollywood multi-million dollar effort, as well as Romeo Must Die.

*as recommended by James Curtiss of At The Cheap Seats* - credit to Rupert Pupkin Speaks Underrated '87 


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