Monday, November 29, 2010

YEAR OF THE DRAGON (1985): Aftermath of the Vietnam War

With dialogue that often seems like it was borrowed from a cheap detective novel and overdone violence, I still consider Year of the Dragon to be an extremely thought provoking movie.  The movie begins and ends with funerals of two consecutive Chinese Mafia chiefdoms (neither of whom died a natural death).  In between the funerals and intermixed with all of the violence, we have a character study of an obsessed and slightly crazed police captain and crusader by the name of Stanley White (Mickey Rourke).  Captain White, a former Vietnam vet and highly decorated police officer, is assigned the impossible task of cleaning up Chinatown in New York City.  The difference between White and all of his predecessors is that he is actually determined to make a change.  He begins his introduction to the Chinese community by barging into a meeting between various crime figures and insulting the rising star, Joey Tai (John Lone).  Joey Tai is impatient with the older syndicate heads and feels a more aggressive approach to making profits is in order.  His idea for raising revenue is to replace opium that first needs to be routed through Toronto by instead importing heroin directly into New York.  The New York police department, having become complacent and tolerant towards the goings on in the Chinese community (so long as it does not affect the white population), cannot comprehend that a Chinese crime leader would be bold enough to actually implement such a tactic.  Only Stanley White, waging his own private war (that has been going on since the fall of Saigon), is willing to give credence to the rumors and even do something about it.  Stanley enlists the help of a local media celebrity of Chinese descent by the name of Tracy Tzu (Ariane).  Stanley fills her with information concerning the next busts that are to take place and also informs her of the comings and goings of Joey Tai.  (Stanley also seduces her.)  He also enlists the aide of another Chinese descendent as an undercover cop, Herbert Wong, to infiltrate Joey Tai’s businesses. 
Now however good Stanley might be at being a cop, nothing much else goes well in his life.  His marriage to Connie (Caroline Kava) is in shambles because he is unable to concentrate on anything else but his job (and occasional nights in bed with Tracy).  In fact, for many years Connie and her brother Lou (Ray Barry), who also happens to be on the police force, have been the only ones who even have had any positive feelings for Stanley.  Stanley, if not an outright racist, is at least racially insensitive to the point that he even changes his last name to avoid being associated with his Polish ancestors.  He especially has a love-hate relationship with those of Oriental descent.  He knows their history and even the reasons for their plight.  He understands their resentment towards America beginning with the hard labor that the Chinese had to endure in the building of the railways.  Yet he cannot sympathize with them because in their culture everything remains unspoken.  For someone as brash as Stanley, there is nothing on earth that could be more alien to him than this particular type of behavior.  And Stanley is a bit too sure of himself – too certain that he does have all of the answers.
Joey Tai, by outward appearances, is the wise young man slowly coming into his own.  He is the immigrant who through hard work and ingenuity is rising to the top.  He always looks and talks the part of a professional (even when making a trip to Thailand to meet with the top Asian drug lords).  He contributes to charities and helps young Chinese immigrants attend college in America.  Behind the scenes, however, he orders the murders of whoever may get in his way.  (He is even willing to use the assistance of young Chinese gang members – the type of youth who would kill their own parents with glee.)  In one particular scene, Joey proves this point by producing the literal head of a rival drug dealer in Thailand.  And Joey Tai, though not understanding what he is up against, does what he can to stop Stanley.  In an attempt to murder Stanley at Joey’s bequest, Connie ends up getting killed.  Joey Tai, sensing that Herbert Wong is an infiltrator, has Herbert killed.  Joey even has a few of his young admirers rape Tracy in hopes of shutting her up.
Joey’s efforts are all for naught.  Stanley is especially hurt by the death of Connie.  He knows that he never gave her the happiness that she deserved.  Stanley also has great admiration for Herbert who lost his life by actually doing his job.  And Stanley does feel something for Tracy, who inexplicitly has fallen in love with him.  But rather than slow him down, Joey’s orders to injure or kill everyone around Stanley only make Stanley more determined to bring the Chinese mafia down.  After Herbert is killed, Stanley walks right into Joey’s restaurant and bar and pummels Joey in the restroom.   When Stanley finds out what boat the heroin shipment is to come in on, Stanley ends up meeting Joey in the boatyard and they have a gunfight that brings an end to Joey’s life.  In the final scene, Stanley almost breaks up the funeral of Joey by attempting to arrest various crime figures in the funeral procession.
Director Michael Cimino was criticized for the way he portrayed the Viet Cong in the Academy Award Winning movie, The Deer Hunter, which was released in 1978.  But criticism of The Deer Hunter was mild compared to what was said about Year of the Dragon, which was released in 1985 and was a companion piece to the earlier movie.  Whereas The Deer Hunter ends with the Vietnam War, Year of the Dragon begins in the postwar years with veterans blaming the politicians for America’s defeat.  The film has at times been labeled xenophobic and even racist in its conception because the protagonist in the film happens to be xenophobic and racist in a conflicted sort of way.  Cimino is somewhat responsible for the reception by disclaiming before the movie even begins that the movie was ever meant as a slur upon the honorable achievements of the Asian-American community.  Yet unnoted was Cimino’s implication that the crime wave in Chinatown was a result of the separation of the races, and that such segregation was merely a continuation of more than a century of discrimination against Chinese immigrants.  The immigrants were so thwarted in their desire to achieve the American Dream that the only solution seemed to be through resorting to violent crime.  Joe Tai, at least in appearance, did everything that was to be expected of a good executive.  He was polite in manner, dressed conventionally and conservatively, was a good family man, and tried to put an American face upon Chinatown.  Behind all of the silky smoothness, of course, he was a murderer and a thug.  The triads that he ran used the young and suggestible to do his killings and to ultimately be his “fall-guys.”
Stanley White was never intended to represent Cimino’s own opinions of the Chinese people, but Cimino does allow Stanley to see a more noble side of the Chinese culture than he’s used to experiencing while on the beat.  Stanley grows in his appreciation of the Chinese descendents as the movie progresses.  He admires the Chinese worker who risks his life to provide information to the police concerning the location of two dead bodies that were discovered at his work place.  He respects Herbert for his decency in taking on a dangerous mission to eliminate crime from Chinatown.  And Stanley allows a Chinese businessman to grieve beside him at Connie’s funeral. 
In many ways, Year of the Dragon is a parody of The Godfather.  We accept an Italian or Sicilian Mafioso in American Cinema as if by proxy, yet a Chinese Mafia in existence is not credible.  The crime figures in Year of the Dragon mimic the underworld figures in The Godfather.  As in The Godfather, gambling and prostitution are understood to be harmless vices whereas the drug trade was a true matter of concern.  Yet drugs were ultimately what built up the business and destroyed the personal lives of those pushing the substance.    The Corleone family lost its innocence and even turned upon its own members when the drug trafficking gave them great wealth.  And Joey Tai was forced to rely upon more brutal and less cultured individuals when converting from the age-old opium trade to an opium derivative called heroin.
Yet Year of the Dragon is not a movie about a crime syndicate or drug trafficking.  It is a movie about new practices achieving the same result as age old practices - when in either case a civilization is built upon the exploitation of others.  As Stanley White points out several times in the movie, the Chinese use of Triads to maintain power is a practice that goes back thousands of years.  The killings did not change with the coming of new regimes.  And, unfortunately, the killings did not stop with the arrival of Stanley White who understood culture and history more than any previous police chief.  His attempts at reform in crime control did not stop anything.  Nor could it ever have stopped anything so long as so many different groups of people were separated by nothing else than hatred for each other.
Unless Michael Cimino happened to be as doltish as some of his critics, Stanley White was never intended as a heroic figure.  Like others before and after him, Stanley believed that Vietnam could have been won given the right politicians in Washington.  It wasn’t as simple as Stanley wanted to believe.  In the Vietnam War, as in Year of the Dragon, the enemy was not so easy to locate or to eradicate.  If one leader fell, another came up to replace him.  In the jungles, gorilla troops blended in with the rest of society and made it impossible for American intelligence to infiltrate the enemies’ camps.  The same was true in Chinatown.  The youth, who followed the gang leadership, were so intent on changing the status quo that no methods to bring about the change in leadership went unheeded.  Yet white society’s ignorance of the Asian culture in both situations was so deep that even if one or two men like Stanley White could see somewhat more clearly than the rest, they could never garner the support behind them to accomplish their aims.  Thus in Vietnam, as in Year of the Dragon, all of the carnage accomplished nothing.  The war was lost even before it was begun.
So what do we make of this movie that takes the kind of chances that critics seldom appreciate?  The acting in the entire movie is uneven.  Mickey Rourke comes dangerously close to hamming it up a bit too much, yet he always seems real to me both in his actions and his emotions.  Caroline Kava is excellent as the lonely and frustrated ex-wife as is Ray Barry as the brother-in-law – a decent man who lacks Stanley’s passion for caring about his job.  John Lone comes close to being the stereotypical Chinese mobster, but redeems himself during his last scene in the movie where he understandably snaps under the pressure exerted by Stanley.  Unfortunately, Ariane as the reporter can’t act and only makes an impression in the movie by setting up Mickey Rourke for some of the movie's best lines.  So the movie has many faults, but none that ever make it less than one of the best movies filmed in the 1980s.
Rather than attack Asian culture as the movie is sometimes accused, Year of the Dragon was aimed at the complacency of Americans who do not take the time to understand the rest of the world.  The United States contains far too many people who take the Asian society, or any other society for that matter, for granted.  Yet while acknowledging the limitations of characters such as Stanley White, the director of this movie was not about to admit that those who spoke against Stanley were in anyway his superiors.  Stanley was not ashamed if he cared “too much” (as his brother-in-law ascertained).  Stanley understood that those who wanted him out of a job badly underestimated the problems in Chinatown - just as these same individuals probably also underestimated what would happen with the defeat of American troops in Southeast Asia.  (Many of those who called for a troop withdrawal in Vietnam did not then, and still do not, have a conception of how bad Southeast Asia would become under Communist regimes.)  Stanley White’s critics did not have a clue what a time bomb they had on hand by looking askance at the growing crime problem in Chinatown.  The bloodshed continued in any case with or without the Stanley Whites of the world – in Chinatown and Southeast Asia in general.  While perhaps making a stretch in drawing a comparison between fighting crime in Chinatown and fighting Communism during the Vietnam War, Year of the Dragon is at least honest in emphasizing that the correct answer to what would have been appropriate action in either case has not yet been found.
September 10, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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