Thursday, January 26, 2012

classic cinema : Year Of The Dragon

The news at the moment seems to comment on the fact that, within the world of the Chinese culture, we are in the Year of the Dragon. When I hear those words I cannot do anything but think “insane Mickey Rourke film”. As the time seems appropriate, and as it may get it out of my system, what better time to write an article on this somewhat controversial film?

It is perhaps best to start right at the beginning of how this film came to be. That would, if you will, mean Michael Cimino. That name tends, amongst film fans, to conjure certain images so let’s tackle that first.

By the time of Year Of The Dragon, Michael Cimino was a director best described as “a brilliant talent but responsible for a qualified disaster”. The brilliant talent was there in his directorial debut, the celebrated and often homaged Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, and then impossible to miss in the masterpiece that was The Deer Hunter. Qualified disaster, alas, came in the form of Heaven’s Gate.

No, I am not going to give all that much time to Heaven’s Gate, for the internet is full of all the information you need. Let it be said, though, that whereas the film is nowhere near as bad as people have made out over the years (it is a rather decent film), the nature and tone of the film was never likely to be a huge Box Office success in the form the director wanted to release it and then had no chance at all in the heavily abridged version that the studio released.

All of the above added together meant that it was not until about half a decade later that Michael Cimino got to make another film, when legendary film producer Dino De Laurentiis approached him with the Year Of The Dragon project.

In regards of the actual making of the film, there are a couple of points to note before discussing the finished product. Casting the then young and hugely promising talent of Mickey Rourke in the lead role was an interesting move, considering his part was intended for a much older actor. Cimino was, however, determined that he was the right man for the part, and opted to hire him and simply age him with make up.

The other interesting point from production would be the fact that they recreated Chinatown and various suburbs of New York in North Carolina, this presumably being cheaper than getting permission to film in New York itself. Just how well they did this, going on a comment from Michael Cimino, is summed up by the fact that after seeing the movie Stanley Kubrick was convinced the whole thing was shot in New York itself, and found it incredible to learn that it was not. Who knows, it might be this aspect which encouraged and assisted him in recreating Parris Island and Vietnam in downtown London for Full Metal Jacket.

Moving on to the film itself, and the plot deals with the rise of Joey Tai (played by the impressive John Lone) as he seeks to fulfil his ambition to be the head of all Triad gangs operating in New York and beyond. Stanley White (the equally impressive Mickey Rourke) is the most decorated officer in the New York Police Department and he is determined to stop him, something powered by his return from Vietnam with only one thing, a hatred for all things Asian. Both are prepared to use whatever means necessary to get their aim in life, with no sacrifice of anyone else’s life too high a price, no level of violence considered excessive.

People who went to see the film were given this onscreen warning before the credits rolled :

This film does not intend to demean or to ignore the many positive features of Asian Americans and specifically Chinese American communities. Any similarity between the depiction in this film and any association, organization, individual or Chinatown that exists in real life is accidental.

This was done to appease the uproar from the Chinese community in general and the population of New York’s Chinatown in particular, who were fearful of the damage to trade and tourism with the world presented in the film. This did little to appease the critics, though, who derided the film as one of the most violent, sexist, misogynistic, racist and xenophobic films ever to be unleashed. This approach to the film somewhat missed the point, I think.

All of the allegations made by the critics are true, if we are honest. However, the intention of the film was to a certain extent to illustrate this. It did not try and show all Chinese citizens of New York (or anywhere else) as being in Triad gangs, just as it did not try and show that all NY police officers carried with them the prejudices which Stanley White does not hesitate to show off. It does, however, show off that such things exist. The characters would neither develop nor be plausible if they were not guilty of the things listed above and the film would have been ineffective and unwatchable if either of the two in conflict were really, really nice chaps.

It has been years since I read the Robert Daley book on which the film was based, but full credit to Oliver Stone for the screenplay he delivered to this extent. Despite some dialogue clangers, Stone built a gritty, murky world in words which unfolded superbly onscreen. Much as was the case with his celebrated screenplays for Midnight Express and Scarface, there was little point in making any of the films if he wasn’t able to present the reality, warts and all, of the world all of the films explored.

If the above makes me some sort of apologist for Cimino, Stone or the film entire itself then so be it. I just don’t get why when you know a film is about an exceptionally violent, ruthless criminal against an equally violent, prejudiced police officer one would be surprised when it turns out they are like that. As shocking and offensive as the behaviour in the film is, in particular Stanley White’s reaction to an assault on Ariane, an Asian reporter who seems to be making White warm to Asians, if you know what I mean, in the context of the characters and the film it all makes sense. If Cimino, Stone or anyone else was standing up and saying “how White and Tai behave in this film is the way the world should be” then I could understand the criticism. As it is, the film seeks to expose the good and the bad in both sides of the law, and in doing so exposes why the world we created is the way it is, for better or perhaps worse.

As far as the onscreen violence goes, well, the term “unprecedented” gets thrown about a bit too much, really. Yes the film is graphically violent, but as the intended audience was those who had seen things like, off the top of my head, Scarface, The French Connection or practially any Sam Peckinpah film, it was hardly pushing the boundaries. I suspect it just seemed a good deal worse and stronger due to the rather horrid and vile nature of pretty much every central character in the film, bar Ariane (Tracy Tzu) and Louis Bukowski (Ray Barry), the two people in the world who for reasons best known to themselves are trying to save Stanley White from total self destruction. It’s not a film you should ever consider sitting down and watching with the whole family, mind.

The four actors I have mentioned give superb performances, full worthy of more praise than they got at the time. What one has to remember is that for the most part the actors probably considered the characters they were playing as loathsome and repulsive as anyone who saw the film did. Add to this the intriguing story and the previously mentioned superbly crafted look of the film and you have something close to a masterpiece of a movie that’s been more or less neglected over the years.

The box office on release was dismal. The negative reviews did not help, and the word of mouth was “oh it’s the guy who made Heaven’s Gate so it must be bad”. Such things tended to be spoken by people who had not even seen Heaven’s Gate (few did) and overlook the fact that other than that film, Mr Cimino had given the world the two cinema classics mentioned previously. If directors were not allowed to make good films after making a poor one, how do you explain the fine films made by, say, Spielberg after Hook or even Scorsese after Bringing Out The Dead?

The aftermath of the film was pretty much to signal the end of the career of the director, and the start of something of a lull in the career of its star. Michael Cimino went on to make The Sicilian, with a low budget and little interest shown, and from then on barely appeared in the movie making world. Mickey Rourke seemed intent on taking roles that would court controversy, in particular in the brilliant but reviled Angel Heart and the average A Prayer For The Dying, a film widely seen as being Mickey Rourke openly proclaiming sympathy if not support for the IRA. I seem to recall that bastion of good taste, The Sun “newspaper”, running a picture of Rourke with an IRA Provo tattoo, something that contributed to sinking his career for a fair while.

So, is the film worth seeking out or revisiting? If you have the will and the disposition to witness a genuinely gritty, nothing spared presentation of the down and dirty of police vs gangs, absolutely. On top of being a damned good story, it’s a ruthless, brutal portrayal of cultural, institutional and personal prejudices, exposing where they can and cannot be broken. One gets the feeling that if practically anyone else had directed the film it would have been celebrated as a “hard masterpiece” and make articles like this obsolete.

A reminder, though – Year Of The Dragon is not a film to sit and watch with the family!

Be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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