Directed by Abel Ferrara
Produced by Michael Nozik
Written by Nicholas St. John
Here’s a bit of advice for all you aspiring directors: if you’re going to have scenes in your movies where the main characters dance it’s a good idea to make sure that they do indeed know how to dance. I bring this up for two reasons.
One: there’s two scenes in CHINA GIRL where our protagonists, the teenage lovers Tony (Richard Panebianco) and Tye (Sari Chang) fall in love while dancing and their absolutely horrible dance moves look more like they’re having grand mal seizures than anything else. Especially during the scene where they’re dancing to Run DMC/Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” That scene should be edited out of the movie as it’s flat out embarrassing to watch the two actors flailing away and stumbling around without even close to being in time with the beat.
Two: that’s the only complaint you’ll get from me about CHINA GIRL which in a lot of ways is my favorite of Abel Ferrara’s terrific films. Considering this is the director who gave us the magnificent “King of New York” and the utterly brilliant “Bad Lieutenant” that’s quite a statement, I know. But I have fond memories of seeing CHINA GIRL on 42end Street back in the 1980’s and when I learned it was on Netflix streaming I simply had to watch it again to see if it was as good as I remembered. I’m happy to say it was.
CHINA GIRL is basically a modern retelling of “Romeo And Juliet” with a heaping helping of “West Side Story” thrown in there for flavor. Tony is from Little Italy and Tye lives in Chinatown. Both of them have older siblings with connections to the organized crime groups of their respective nationalities. Tony’s brother Alby (James Russo) owns and runs a pizzeria but he has ties to the neighborhood Mafia boss Enrico Perito (Robert Miano) and has his own gang of small-time hoods. Tye’s brother Yung Gan (Russell Wong) is an up-and-comer in a Tong led by Gung Tu (James Hong) being groomed to move up higher in the organization.
The romance between Tony and Tye stirs up conflict between the two groups of young gangsters and leads to open warfare. Added to this is the activities of Yung’s cousin and second-in-command Tsu Shin (Joey Chin) Tsu is extorting money from Chinese restaurant owners located in Little Italy. This is a total violation of the agreement between the Mafia and the Tong to not encroach on each other’s territory. Tony and Tye are warned to stay away from each other but if they did that then we wouldn’t have much of a movie, would we? As the lovers make plans to have a future and life together, the fighting between Yung’s gang and Alby’s gang escalates to such a degree that Perito and Gung Tu join forces to put a stop to it. As Gung Tu puts it: “We must never allow ourselves to be divided by war… or to be interfered with by police investigations… all because a few reckless children cannot live within our tradition of our society. Our responsibility is to control our children.” And control them they do with hideously bloody disciplinary methods.
And that’s the thing about CHINA GIRL; the two leads are sweet and likable but their romance isn’t as compelling or as interesting as the war between the Mafia and Tong gangs, the relationship between Yung and Tsu and the efforts of the big bosses to control the young hotheads who are trying to carve out a bigger piece of the criminal pie for themselves.
It also doesn’t help that all the acting powerhouses are the supporting characters who effortlessly hold our attention anytime they’re on screen. James Russo, Russell Wong, David Caruso, Robert Miano and James Hong are all solid, dependable professionals. And for me, among all these terrific actors and performances, Russell Wong walks away with the acting honors in this one. He has a great scene with absolutely no dialog where he strolls around his sister’s room, looking at all the posters of white actors and pop stars on her walls and examining the evidence on her desk of how completely she’s assimilated American culture and he says more with his body language and facial expressions than he could have with five pages of dialog. There’s another great scene he has with Joey Chin as they discuss the situation they’re in and it’s got real heart and emotion.
What else? The terrific location shooting in New York’s Little Italy and Chinatown which gives the movie such an authentic look and feel. At times CHINA GIRL looks and feels like a Martin Scorsese movie, that’s how solid the Little Italy scenes are. David Caruso’s supporting role as Alby’s psychotically racist sidekick.
So should you see CHINA GIRL? Absolutely. The energy of the acting from the marvelous supporting cast alone makes this a Must See as far as I’m concerned. Abel Ferrara is an outstanding director who knows how to tell a story with no wasted scenes or unnecessary padding. CHINA GIRL wasn’t a hit when in played in theaters back in 1987 and it didn’t find a home on any cable station like HBO or Showtime where many other movies of the 80’s found new life and were rescued from obscurity. But now that it’s available, don’t let this one get by you. If you have Netflix streaming, set aside time for CHINA GIRL. You won’t be disappointed.
Rated R: And be warned that this is a movie made before Political Correctness so the racial slurs get thrown around freely. If you’re offended by that, then I suggest you give CHINA GIRL a pass.