Directors join forces for film based on real Asian-American gang
One afternoon in the autumn of 1985, the teenage Chan Ho-nam and his four best friends were roughed up on a public soccer ground in Lam Tin. Humiliated but unfazed, the group decided to join the Hung Hing gang for the protection it promised.
Thus began the original tale for Young and Dangerous (1996), the commercially successful first instalment of the triad film series directed by Andrew Lau Wai-keung. Based on the serialised comic, Teddy Boy, the movies depict the territorial disputes in Hong Kong and Macau's criminal underworld.
The same year that Young and Dangerous' fictional characters pursued a life of illegal activities, an actual Chinese-American youth gang - whose recruitment tactics consisted of abusing new immigrants into submission - was also taking form.
Founded in Queens, New York, in the mould of established gangs in lower Manhattan's Chinatown, the "Green Dragons" comprised of third-class citizens who were either in their teens or early 20s.
With crimes ranging from extortions and armed robberies to drug trafficking and murder, this gang would for years terrorise the growing Asian community, which shared little with these delinquents except a mistrust of US law enforcement.
When nine Green Dragons members - whose ages ranged from 18 to 23 - were eventually put on trial in early 1992, their murder-and-racketeering case was largely ignored by the mainstream media in favour of that of the mafia boss John Gotti, which was taking place in the same federal courthouse in Brooklyn Heights.
The Green Dragons was effectively consigned to history when, on April 9, 1992, the defendants were found guilty on almost every count of the 36-count federal indictment. That happened to be exactly one week before the publication of Teddy Boy's historic first issue in Hong Kong, on April 16.
"The times have changed. When I shot the first Young and Dangerous movie back in 1995, I had more fire in me," says Lau, who has dealt with both triad cultures in his movies.
Having directed all seven of the Young and Dangerous films in the franchise's main series (including the 1998 prequel and 2000's Born to Be King), Lau recently made Revenge of the Green Dragons, which is loosely based on Fredric Dannen's journalistic account of the gang's exploits in his 23-page article, which was published in The New Yorker magazine in November 1992.
"It felt a lot different when I made the new film because there's more than just the usual violence in this story," says the 54-year-old Hong Kong filmmaker. "After all, this is set in New York and not Wan Chai. The characters are immigrants living far away from home."
Lau co-directed Revenge of the Green Dragons with Andrew Loo, who also wrote the script with writer-producer Michael Di Jiacomo. An Asian-American filmmaker whose producing credits include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2011), the 45-year-old Loo relocated to Hong Kong from Los Angeles in 2003.
Lau and Loo first met through the latter's wife, Jessinta Liu Fung-ping, an executive producer on Lau's Young and Dangerous 5 (1998).
They previously worked together as director and producer respectively on the San Francisco-set Sausalito (2000).
Another of Loo and Lau's collaborations in the US, The Flock (2007), was less successful - it went straight to DVD despite a cast featuring Richard Gere and Claire Danes.
"Our hands were tied during that shoot," Lau says of his first English-language film. "Since it was a major investment, many studio producers wanted to have a say on the set. It felt completely different from Hong Kong, where the director is the king."
If The Flock was a chore, Revenge of the Green Dragons proved to be quite the opposite experience. Working with a modest budget of US$5 million, Lau and Loo were given free rein by their producers. They picked their own production team, and were given creative control during production.
"This wasn't an obvious project for investors, given that we didn't have Brad Pitt or any big star in our cast," says Loo.
But having Martin Scorsese on board as an executive producer probably made life easier. As Lau jokingly explains, the arrangement may be regarded as a case of "what goes around comes around". It is conceivably a token of gratitude from the Hollywood legend, who won his first best director Oscar for 2006's The Departed - a Boston-set remake of Infernal Affairs (2002), the Hong Kong crime classic co-directed by Lau and Alan Mak Siu-fai.
"To be very honest, he just lent us his name. It's not like we had Matt Damon or Leonardo DiCaprio on the set to warrant Martin's involvement," says Lau of Scorsese's participation.
Still, Scorsese attend the film's September premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Since then, Revenge of the Green Dragons has been released both on DirecTV and in cinemas in limited US cities as well as been screened at a number of other film festivals.
Reviews have been distinctly negative. At the time of press, the film is rated 5 per cent "fresh" on film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, which counts only one positive professional review out of the 20 aggregated.
"I've found that this is actually a real-audience film," counters Loo, who has travelled all over the US with the movie.
"In terms of audience reception, I don't think we've ever had a 'bad' screening. It's interesting that the critics hate the film because it's not an easy film to watch. It's a genre film dressed up as an art house film because you have Marty's [Scorsese's] name on it."
By contrast, Lau is more relaxed about the controversy - perhaps because his previous, much maligned adaptation of a gangster saga ended up doing just fine. The Young and Dangerous films, which were severely criticised for their glorification of criminal activities and graphic violence, only resulted in more profitable sequels, prequels and spin-offs.
He tries to make sense of the reception: "When it comes to those reviews, maybe the critics don't understand Chinese culture. Or maybe they're not interested in the subject matter. Or maybe they just prefer to watch The Godfather - you know, Chinese comprise only around 5 per cent of the US population," he says.
Then Lau remembers what matters most. "But anyway, our investors are very happy, so that's good enough," he says.
Revenge of the Green Dragons opens on December 11