Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Gweilo Dojo: GANG JUSTICE (1991)

Director Richard Park (aka Woo-sang Park) has been one of our favorite discoveries in the past couple of years here at Video Junkie.  While he apparently began his action filmmaking career in the 1970s in South Korea, it wasn’t until Park came to the United States in the 1980s that he really hit his stride.  Starting with NINJA TURF (1985), Park traveled the U.S. like a circus, rolling into random towns to make movies and (most likely) exploit the generosity of the Korean community.  TURF found him in Los Angeles; he ran all the way across the country to Florida to make MIAMI CONNECTION (1987); and somehow after that he found himself in Wisconsin (!) to make this hilarious “gang” film.

Asian high school student Paul (Joon Kim) is constantly being harassed by thug Billy (Johnathan Gorman) and his cohort Johnny (Shannon Gross).  You can tell Billy really hates Paul because he calls him “chink” all the time.  In order to squash the various beefs that come up, Paul must fight guys of Billy’s choice in amateur combat bouts in a cold warehouse (“You know where the old, vacant building is?”). Cornered by his only friend Charlie (Ho Sik Pak), Paul always seems to win though and this really pisses Billy off.  Also, Billy’s chick Judy thinks Paul is hot stuff after seeing his kung fu moves.  Of course, none of this can settle the internal inferno in Paul’s life as he has to deal with his drunken father who yells at him in Korean (with no subtitles!).  Apparently what dad says is pretty harsh because it causes Paul to hop trains and ride around in this cold, barren town. You know you are real bastard when your son forgoes sitting in his nice warm room for the blistering Wisconsin winter wasteland.

Somehow Paul actually had a destination when he hopped on a train in the ghetto and he ends up in the more affluent suburbs.  He stands looking forlorn outside a house where a Korean woman lives with a rich(er) dude (Erik Estrada).  You can tell Estrada’s character is rich by his wild 80s sweaters he sports in each scene (I suspect these are from his personal wardrobe).  Suddenly, bully Billy shows up on his motorcycle.  Jeez, he have bully E.S.P. or something?  He warns Paul, “When you least expect it, expect it!”  And then the dramatic bomb drops – Billy heads into the aforementioned house. Oh damn, Billy is Erik Estrada's son and the Korean woman is Paul’s mom.  Now it all makes sense – Billy harbors some deep anger at his dad for re-marrying and takes it out on his stepbrother.  Of course, Paul’s world is about to open up when he meets Jenny (Angel Dashek).  Looking a bit like Lady Gaga, this young high school hottie takes an interest in our young Korean stud, even if he is the brooding type who kicks people's faces in.

Of course, Paul always attracts drama and Jenny’s dad (Ken Bowman, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, with his real wife playing his wife) just happens to be the Governor. So when Jenny brings home an Asian kid, her parents are aghast and we get this amazing dialogue exchange.

Jenny’s dad: “What do you think my constituents would think if they knew that my daughter was dating some Oriental kid?”
Jenny: “But dad, not only are your constituents Caucasian, they’re niggers and hisp…”
Jenny’s dad (cutting her off): “Still, there are more Caucasians than any others.”

*insert record scratch* WHAT!?!  First off, do we really have a politician in the 1990s acting like his voters are from the 1940s? Second, did the daughter really use the N-word in order to make her point?  Even more hilarious is her delivery. I mean, I get what the screenwriter was trying to prove, but Dashek just puts the word out there with no emotion or emphasis at all.  So it ends up dropping your jaw when you hear it.  Anyway, all this drama weighs heavily on Paul.  So much so that he wanders the city streets at night alone, works at a gas station (where Billy shows up wearing a mocking Asian Coolie hat), shows up randomly while Charlie is playing his flute and then walks past a liquor store just as his father is receiving a beat down for trying to steal a bottle of liquor. Like Estrada said to Paul’s mom (she isn't really given a proper name) earlier – “He’s an Oriental boy having to grow up and adjust in a predominantly white society.”  Livin' in a lonely woooooorld, he took the midnight train going anywhere!

So you like all that gang justice on display?  Behind the misleading GANG JUSTICE re-titling is probably one of the wackiest race dramas I’ve ever seen. Park makes no bones about it being a tough life for Asians in America and, as Tom said after watching it, “I love how it totally embodies the classic Asian racist view of the world everybody else is a racist stereotype, except them and hot chicks.”  Literally the only nice white character is Jenny.  Well, I take that back. Two white cops show up and somehow know to arrest Billy right away during a warehouse fight.  Shouldn’t Park have had them immediately grab the Asian guy and throw him in jail? There is even a great part where Paul goes off on his mom for abandoning their family and marrying “a rich, white man.” What kind of distorted worldview does one have where they see Erik Estrada as white?  And poor Estrada – he was willing to work in anything at the time this came out, but the filmmakers don’t even have the decency to give his character a name.  Same goes for the Governor, who is merely billed as Jenny’s dad.  Ha! Although I’m sure if they were given names it would be something like Archibald P. McManis or Logan Maxwell Bradley, Esquire, respectively.  You know – real white devil sounding names.

Confused racial politics aside, this continues Park’s fine efforts of establishing him as a true bad film auteur as you can totally tell the film was made by him.  Sure, you don’t get a black guy crying about his father like NINJA TURF or MIAMI CONNECTION (will white kid Billy crying about his mother suffice), but we do get the same level of wooden line delivery from most of the players.  Also, we get the standard line screw up this time when Billy’s stepmom welcomes him home from being bailed out.  Hoping for a fresh start, she says, “I’ll cook you some chicken for you.”  Ha!  I also love that she thinks a chicken dish will smooth over the fact that he kidnapped a girl.  This is, of course, when the characters speak English.  Just like Park’s AMERICAN CHINATOWN (1996) we get extended portions all in Korean with no subtitles where people give out plot points.  Since this is a drama, the fights definitely aren’t on the level of his earlier films either and that does diminish the fun factor.  And, of course, we get the ridiculous depiction of American gang tough guys which Asian filmmakers always seem to get so wrong.  For example, Billy is attempting rape in one scene and a few scenes later holed up in his room crying and hugging his cat.

Even funnier are the budget DVD labels trying to push it as a Latino gang film, complete with a still of Estrada from TRACKDOWN (1976) from the 1970s on the front.  This actually got several releases on DVD and you can also find it under the original, head scratching title LOOK AT ME AMERICA.  That DVD promises Troy Donahue in the film but he is nowhere to be seen.  Seriously, I don’t want to read too much into stuff, but when I opened the used DVD I bought of this, there was a live cockroach inside.  Really!  Finer symbolism for such a misguided film cannot be obtained.

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