Saturday, February 5, 2011

Cinemasochism: AMERICAN CHINATOWN (1996)


I’ll give you a little peek into the behind-the-scenes machinations here at Video Junkie. Just how do we select the cinemasochistic classics we review? Sometimes it is a grand plan intricately thought out months in advance, like our theme week(s). Other times it is pure fate. For example, Tom decides to review MANCHURIAN AVENGER and I send him a quick e-mail expressing my admiration and condolences for jumping on that cinematic hand grenade.  A quick exchange occurs as follows:

Will: “I totally expect you to review Bobby Kim’s entire filmography.”
Thomas: “Whoa! Check out AMERICAN CHINATOWN, which he did with the director of NINJA TURF!”
Will: “I have that DVD sitting right here.”
Thomas: “Oh man! You should totally write that one up!”
Will: “Dammit!”

So it is like the fabled VJ Video Roulette with Tom playing the part of the Vietnamese guy yelling, “Mao! Mao!” as I push the DVD closer to my player.

AMERICAN CHINATOWN opens – I’m not kidding – with three cholos trying to rape Lily (Liat Goodson) in the back of their car by a well-lit graffiti wall (“The bitch liked it. She should be paying us!”).  No set up, we jump right into the scene.  Heroic Yong (Henry Lee) walks up out of nowhere, stops it and humiliates the gang by stripping them down to their underwear.  He tells Lily that she shouldn’t hang out in this area and he takes her to L.A.’s Chinatown to spend the money he secured off the would-be rapists. They hit up a burger stand run by Jim (Bobby Kim), Yong’s father figure and reformed gangster. Yes, you read that right.  They went to Chinatown and ordered burgers and a Pepsi.  Lily fancies Yong but he is a loner…a rebel…with a secret. Ah, such drama.

Yeah, seems Yong is some sort of 125-lb Korean enforcer for the local mob.  This is established in the next scene where he walks into the gang headquarters of Wong and beats everyone up.  After taking care of enemies, Yong screams, “Don’t fuck with Eric!”  Wait, who the hell is Eric?  We find out after the fight that Eric (Robert Z’Dar) is the head of a bunch of criminals and Yong’s boss.  Yes, a white dude runs the biggest gang in Chinatown.  Oh, did I forget to mention that Eric is also Lily’s older brother? Damn, Mr. Shakespeare, you sure can write up some scenarios.  So, as you can guess, overprotective Eric doesn’t take kindly to Yong liking his sister and kicks him out of the gang and stabs him.  But true love knows no bounds and Lily tracks down Yong, now working on a boat, and declares her love for him. They decide to move to Korea, but the very same night they plan on leaving they find out that Eric is in trouble with Wong’s men once again.  What’s a Yong to do?

So, yeah, this movie is called AMERICAN CHINATOWN and is about Koreans.  I guess AMERICAN KOREATOWN just didn’t have that ring to it?  They do cut away to shots of Chinatown every few minutes though.  Maybe they were betting on the viewing public utilizing the “they all look alike” theory and not giving a damn?  This movie almost seems like a collection of random scenes thrown together.  For example, after Yong takes Lily to the burger stand, the movie randomly cuts back to the area of the opening rape and two gangs are going at it.  We have no idea who these guys throwing down are and the end declaration of “you stay out of here or I’ll kill your mother, your sister and your dog” still leaves you with no answers.  Even funnier is the relationship between Eric and Lily. At one point she says to him, “How’s the search going for my real mother?”  Later Eric tells her that he found someone with the same name as her mother and Lily is so excited.  Then it is completely dropped and never mentioned again! Then again, this is the kind of movie where a villain attacks the hero with a knife, the hero spins the villain around and holds the villain’s hand with the knife to the villain’s throat and the guy continues to hold onto the knife as if he has no choice.  Open…your…hand…dumbass!

Of course, all of this would be forgivable had the film delivered good fights.  I mean, hell, director Richard Park made me accept 40-year-old Jun Chong was a high school student in NINJA TURF because he delivered in the fight department.  Not the case here. Just like there are no Chinese in this Chinatown, there are no good fights on display.  Lead Henry Lee seems to have sufficient moves but Park can’t be bothered to stage anything too complex.  You have to laugh when he does stuff like jump onto a wobbly table and tries to hold his balance. In fact, the film’s best performer is an eye-patch wearing villain at the end who looks like Al Leong’s ugly brother.  He does some great flips and stuff.  I guess I am easily entertained. Matching the poor choreography is some wretched acting.  Lee, looking like a 80s HK boy band reject, is awful and Goodson, who has a strange British accent, matches him move for move in terms of bad acting.

And I have to touch on the whole darn reason I watched this thing – Bobby Kim. Seemingly aged 50 years in the decade between this and 1985’s MANCHURIAN AVENGER, Kim is given little to do except limp around and spout off half his dialog in Korean (with no subtitles!). He does get to throw one of his trademark high kicks during the final battle but it is too little, too late.  If the film has any positive quality, it is in granite chinned Robert Z’Dar.  It is refreshing to see him not cast as the bad guy (although he is a criminal).  And I have to smile when he is the only genius to show up to a karate brawl with a shotgun.  Now when I am saying that Z’Dar is a film’s lone bright spot, you know something is definitely wrong.

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