When I lived in Philadelphia, my roommate and I were heavily into Hong Kong cinema (or, at least, we thought we were; there were enthusiasts who eclipsed us, then and now). The Western world was just getting on the Woo, Lam, etcetera bandwagon, and we were no different. Of course, we had both seen plenty of martial arts films when we were young (giving us an appreciation and a love for the works of filmmakers like Chang Cheh, Lau Kar-leung, and so on), but these new(er) films were something altogether different. Sure, the plots and characters were relatively the same. The difference lay in the technical aspects. The camerawork was kinetic and inventive, while still clearly telling a story, and the stunt work was on another level. They felt insane and viscerally real at the same time.
Now, I had heard of Keith Li’s Centipede Horror from one of the grey market VHS catalogs I had sent away for (remember those?), and it seemed right up my alley. After all, it was a horror movie, no? It’s right there in the title. My roommate and I went on down to Chinatown and opened an account at a small, Chinese video/grocery store (around the area of the Trocadero on Arch Street, but I’m not totally clear on the exact location, not that it matters all that much). The first two tapes we rented that day were Stanley Tong’s Swordsman 2 and Centipede Horror. We both loved Swordsman 2 (despite those weird scenes of the characters singing like they were doing whip-its all day long), but I don’t think we made it more than thirty minutes (if that) through Centipede Horror before we popped the tape out. The film was grotty and dumb and made little to no sense. See, we were used to only a portion of Asian cinema, and this was everything that was not. Having now immersed myself a bit more in the multitude of Asian cinema offerings, I’ve always meant to revisit Centipede Horror to see if there’s anything redeeming about it. I do not, however, need to ever rewatch Richard Park’s (aka Woo-sang Park) American Chinatown because I now know how little redemptive value it has.
Lily (Liat Goodson) is the victim of an attempted gang rape, but the cholos attempting it are thwarted and roughed up by Yong (Tae-joon Lee, billed here as simply Taejoon, as if he were Taimak or Gerardo [both apt descriptors]). As their love sort of blossoms, Yong goes about his gang business under the leadership of fellow one-time orphan (what is with Park and orphans, anyway?) Eric (Robert Z’Dar). But Yong’s twin paths come into direct conflict with each other, and only one can be followed to happiness (or something, in theory).
Park’s Miami Connection is a film which has recently been rediscovered, resurrected, and regaled by hipsters, cult cinema lovers, and trash junkies the world over. It’s fun because, even when it’s being serious, there’s a level of naïve optimism (sure, the members of Dragon Sound were all “orpans,” but they were also the members of Dragon Sound, a band whose enthusiasm and subject matter make The Wiggles look like G.G. Allin) that’s infectious. The same cannot be said for American Chinatown. This film is self-serious and cloyingly melodramatic while toying with the tropes of badass cinema (most particularly Heroic Bloodshed films) which it doesn’t completely understand. Yes, there are plenty of fights, and these, at least, are handled well enough in the choreography department. Park, thankfully, also shoots many of these scenes wide enough to see what’s going on and to appreciate the physical talents of the performers. Where Park fails is in creating empathy for his characters and in crafting believable (even for a film like this) interpersonal moments and relationships between said characters (not good in a movie which relies upon them so heavily). Some examples of the choice dialogue. “You don’t want a guy like me!” “College frat boys don’t turn you on anymore?” “Why are you doing this to me?” “You’re my only hope and dream.” All of this is delivered with the conviction of a dish rag (though Z’Dar does an admirable job working with nothing, as usual). I should stop there. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea and want to see this movie (I suspect there are those who would want to, regardless).
Nearly every scene in American Chinatown could (and maybe should) start with a title card reading, “Suddenly…!” The movie opens like a case of whiplash with the three cholos (I kept thinking of Mike Muir from Suicidal Tendencies; Sorry, Mike) already well into their assault on Lily. Suddenly…! Yong appears out of nowhere to save the day. Suddenly…! Yong battles two urban samurai types and a kabuki guy. For no reason I could discern and with no impetus for this encounter. Yong is stabbed in the guts. Suddenly…! He’s living on a boat somewhere, and God only knows how much time has passed. Yong beats villain Wong (Sung-Ki Jun). Suddenly…! He’s attacked by two other henchmen (this is not the order in which things are done, Mr. Park), who may be the samurai guys he fought before, maybe not. The entirety of this film is just pieces thrown together like this. But if I want to watch random stuff for a couple of hours, I can go on Youtube. At least there I could get suggestions for other videos that might be of interest.
The males in this film are very, very male, indeed. Yong always kicks first, asks questions later. He always wears sunglasses, indoors and out, day or night. He’s meant to be a real cool cat, but he comes off like a flipping jerk. Eric talks and acts like a kid playing at tough guy. He’s also wishy-washy, though this isn’t because he’s volatile; the writing is just bad. Wong and his goons are as unmemorable as you can get. They show up every few minutes for a fight scene, and that’s it. Jim (Bobby Kim) comes close to having something to do as a mentor to Yong and a foil for Eric, but he, too, ultimately plays like just another sad sack. And then there’s poor Lily. Jane (Kathy Collier) in Miami Connection was an ancillary character (think the Daphne to Dragon Sound’s Scooby Gang), but she was still a more active part of that film than Lily is here. Lily exists solely to look good, be sexually assaulted by men, and be saved by Yong. There’s one excruciatingly implausible “subplot” involving her “sisterly” relationship with Eric (and how in the hell do Yong and Lily not realize that they both know Eric if they’re both supposed to be so goddamned close to him?), but it blows in the wind like everything else interesting in this film might have done but didn’t. It’s tough for me to decide what’s worse, watching American Chinatown or watching a mouthful of centipedes spew out of people’s mouths. But I definitely know which way I’m leaning.
MVT: The fight scenes are okay. And plentiful.
Make or Break: The opening scene is jarring, confusing (at first), and surreal in the suddenness with which everything happens.