The worlds of New York's Chinatown and Little Italy don't have much to do with each other, though there is a rivalry between the two districts' younger members that is not exactly discouraged by the older generations. However, tonight will spark a conflict that will have tragic and violent repercussions, simply because two teenagers fall in love. They are Tony (Richard Panebianco) from the Italian-American side and Tye (Sari Chang) from the Chinese-American side, and they happen to catch sight of each other across a crowded dancefloor: it's love at first sight...
This was yet another version of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet updated to appeal to a modern audience, though failed to do for the eighties what West Side Story did for the sixties, even if it sounds and looks just as dated. It was brought to the screen by cult director Abel Ferrara, returning to movies after a spell on television productions and supposedly making the film he was most proud of. You can certainly see that its heart was in the right place as an anti-racist theme was very prominent, but the prejudice displayed by most of the characters tended to swamp what was a rather anaemic romance.
Tony and Tye were a sweet couple, but theirs was not a love story for the ages, and the lack of passion conveyed made you think they would have got over each other pretty quickly had other events not intervened. With the less salubrious personalities dominating, therefore, China Girl did end up more of a gangster yarn than a plea for tolerance, and Ferrara employed much tough guy (and tough girl, to an extent) posturing to dress up what resembled a ticking time bomb of poor race relations. Actually what causes the trouble at first is the arrival in Little Italy of a Chinese restaurant which the Triads want protection money from and the Mafia want to turn into a pizza restaurant.
If you didn't recognise the two young lovers (both performers had shortlived careers in their briefly chosen field), then the actors around them might ring a few more bells. James Russo appeared as Tony's brother Alberto, and Russell Wong played his counterpart as Tye's older sibling, and they waver between trying to talk their own brand of sense to them, bascially stay away from their newfound love, and being set up as the reason the gang war escalates. Except you rarely get the feeling that things are truly spiralling out of control between the two factions as what we see are more unpleasant scuffles, though the bomb in the restaurant ups the ante somewhat.
The film benefited from Ferrara's insistence on having this look as authentic as possible, so genuine locations from around New York were employed, even if most of it looked to consist of back alleys and chain link fences, although the traditional balcony scene was included, which was nice. On the other hand, the synthesiser-based eighties soundtrack by Joe Delia now renders this a lot more cheesy that was originally intended, so even the most solemn scenes have been lent an air of artificiality, not through any fault of the film, but more the passage of time. That said, our starcrossed lovers were probably none too convincing even in 1987, but in their favour they had an innocence about them that contrasts their idealism with the hatred dragging the antagonists down. It's just that you don't learn much other than the obvious "racism is bad", and even that was thuddingly unsubtle. And where was the David Bowie song we were expecting?
1990's King of New York was a return to form, while the searing Bad Lieutenant quickly became the most notorious, and perhaps best, film of Ferrara's career. The nineties proved to be the director's busiest decade, as he dabbled in intense psycho-drama (Dangerous Game, The Blackout), gangster movies (The Funeral), sci-fi (Body Snatchers, New Rose Hotel) and horror (The Addiction). He continued to turn in little-seen but interesting work, such as the urban drug drama 'R Xmas and the religious allegory Mary until his higher profile returned with the likes of Welcome to New York and Pasolini.