Friday, March 22, 2013

Dark Nights in Chinatown

I'm spending a few days on business in San Francisco, which explains the brief lull in my blog. Having dinner tonight in Chinatown gave me a thought -- while tourists to both New York and San Francisco flock to Chinatown, the movies have not already been as kind to this hangout spot.

And after having spent a night there, I can see the movie's fascination with Chinatown's dark side. After sitting at a Chinatown restaurant bar watching a TV tuned to March Madness, my night was made no more exciting by walking the mostly deserted streets afterwards. The worn, neon signs were half-lit, the shuttered gift shops offered menancing Buddhas and toothy dragons in ceramic, the dingy apartments overlooking the gift shops advertised no invitation to glamorous city living. Resonant was the last line from Roman Polanski's classic, "Chinatown," where Jack Nicholson has found his future mainly ruined by the corruption of the place: "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."

Other movies have shared the ominous nature of the place, at least as filmmakers attempting to portray the dark side of humanity have chosen to show it. Stay far, far away from the Chinatown of the movies. For this example, we won't discriminate between the Chinatown of New York and San Francisco. Some examples:

Blade Runner (1991)

Harrison Ford takes a drink at a future-set but somehow-familiar Chinatown bar, a placid place with a phone that he uses. But outside, the Mayhem guy from the Alstate commercials seems to have struck again. And you can't call your insurance broker to resolve this apocolyptic catastrophe: acid rain falls, buildings have caught on fire, half-maimed people -- and Androids -- roam the streets. And you can't get a good order of peking duck anywhere.

Year of the Dragon (1985)

Mickey Roarke -- before he turned into a pock-marked wreck -- was once a flawed action hero, kids. In this Michael Cimino film criticized at the time for its racially questionable depiction of Asian-Americans, Roarke plays a cop with a grudge against Asian people after returning from Vietnam. His character battles a Chinese drug lord who loves violence, and most of the Asians in this film are treated as equally sketchy. An ultra-bloody thriller that's about as pointed as an acupuncture needle in its negative depiction of the Asian community.

Freaky Friday (2003)

OK, this identity-swap film with Lindsay Lohan (later, a young female version of Mickey Roarke) and Jamie Lee Curtis isn't exactly a forbidding film. But not so fast: Let's not forget the pivotal scene in the Chinatown restaurant, where a skulking Lohan and her perfectionist mother Curtis argue. This causes the mother of the restaurant proprietor to cast a spell on the pair so that they switch identities and learn to understand each other. She then forgets how to reverse the curse, causing that Mayhem guy to come out again, but leading to a mushy understanding of what makes each other tick and big hugs by movie's end. Yet, can we forego more Asian stereotypes, this time of the pigeon-Englished Chinese who can somehow bestow spells. The movie depiction of Asian women is about as dated in this film as a Charlie Chan serial.


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