DIRECTOR: Michael Cimino
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Alex Thomson
EDITOR: Francoise Bonnot
MUSIC: David Mansfield
SCREENPLAY: Michael Cimino
Robert Daley (novelist)
Mickey Rourke – Stanley White
Caroline Kava – Connie White
Ariane – Tracy Tzu
John Lone – Joey Tai
Dennis Dun – Herbert Kwong
Ray Barry – Lou Bukowski
Victor Wong – Harry Yung
Mark Hammer – Commissioner Sullivan
Fan Mui Sang – White Powder Ma
Yukio Yamamoto – Ban Sung
“Year of the Dragon” (1985) is “High Noon” (1952) in Chinese drag – sort of. The town is located not out West of the Mississippi somewhere on the nineteenth-century American frontier but in Manhattan’s Chinatown East of the Hudson in the nineteen-eighties. The new marshal in town (as Stanley calls himself) is a maverick captain of detectives who’s been assigned to ‘clean up’ (yet again) the rot in Chinatown: the gambling, the prostitution, the tongs, the illegal immigration rackets, the sweatshops.
Stan is that traditional stranger who rides into town to attempt to impose some kind of order on the social chaos that reigns. The template was immortalized in American cinema as famously laid down by Gary Cooper, and it has spawned a huge progeny of epigones, perhaps most notably in the lucrative Eastwood-Leone franchise cycle of so-called spaghetti Westerns. Thus, for example, “High Plains Drifter” (1973) has become its own cult contribution to the genre. But the type is restricted neither to American cinema nor, within it, to the Western. Stanley, the incorruptible ‘dumb Polack’, is a more recent phenotype of that genotypical narrative of the avenging nemesis that has its most remote ancestor, in an ultimate kind of way, in the great-grand-daddy of the stranger who rides into town and cleans up the mess, Odysseus in Book 22 of Homer’s Odyssey.
Where Homer liked to work in balanced linguistic and narrative antitheses, “Year of the Dragon” operates on a kind of yin-yang principle of universally underlying patterns of polarity, man-woman being only one of these.
Chinatown, as Jake Giddes was told in “Chinatown” (1974), is ‘different’. That’s what people try to tell Stanley White, too. But he’s having none of it. The Chinese, he explains to the Hong Kong mob, are no different from the Puerto Ricans or the Italians or the Polish; they’re all in America now, and the law that holds is not of “a thousand years of Chinese history” but of “two hundred years of America”. And he’s the sheriff, and he’s not for sale. There is a brief but highly telling sequence in the office of the top brass in which Stan is looking stone-facedly out the window, the view from which is a three-second shot of the American flag waving in the breeze.
Depending on your stance in the furious debates on immigrants and immigration that rage in our society today, you will commend or condemn the assimilationist point of view of this film. Though born in Africa an American citizen, I am myself an immigrant to this country and did not set foot in it until I was nine, at that time totally ignorant of English, and I rather love Stan’s staunch defense of the melting pot theory, the offended rejection of foolish centrifugal theories that would spin us all off into non-communicating little enclaves of specialness and ghettoes organized along the narcissistic lines of our minor different uniquenesses. As I say, that’s just my opinion, and I am aware that many will find it incorrect and perhaps even a form of hegemonic oppression.
Be my welcome guest!
It’s clear that Stan is not objecting to the preservation of ethnic identity and racial pride (he himself lives in a Polish neighborhood and speaks Polish at home) but in public as it were we are first and foremost Americans, and we follow American laws, American customs.
Other structural contrasts underscore the sense of polarization that infects this narrative; they segment the polyglot, multicultural realities that are the core of “Year of the Dragon”. Thus, we have the antitheses of male-female, as in Stan and his wife and Stan and Tracy Tzu; of old and young, as in the competition between young and ruthless Joey Tai on the one hand and, on the other, the old Italian families and the overly cautious elders running Chinatown; of racial animosities between Blacks and Chinese, Chinese and Vietnamese, and, not least, the racist police establishment of New York City and its ethnic inhabitants; of wealth and poverty; of love and hate.
As Stan’s marriage falls apart he falls in love with Tracy Tzu, played by new-comer Ariane, a very beautiful actress who turns in a classy performance as an investigative television reporter dealing with organized crime in Chinatown. They are initially drawn together for what they can do for each other professionally, and soon enough the embers of passion catch fire and blaze forth into a tempestuous on-again off-again affair. The Caucasian and the Oriental (IMPORTANT NOTE: many Orientals have told me they find the p.c. distinction between Oriental and Asian ridiculous) become a central emblem of the attempt at reconciliation of racial differences. For example, at one point they are making love in her apartment, which has huge bay windows, and on all sides the glittering lights of New York’s bridges form the symbolic backdrop suggesting, surely, the ‘bridgeableness’ of racial and ethnic difference.
In this connection, a brief but, in my view, highly significant scene takes place right at the end of the film: Stan has been pushed down in a jostling crowd and as Tracy helps him up and kisses him, several Blacks are shown in soft off-focus in the background, and they are smiling as they observe the pair. Like it or not, this film is squarely on the assimilationist side of racial equality and racial mixing – that’s a collective American belief at its most idealistic. Personally, I couldn’t agree more.
John Lone as Joey Tai is excellent here. His slick arrogance gets its suitable reward in the end, and, in view of what I’ve said about bridges, I find it significant that he meets his ignominious end on a bridge – he who had done so much to avoid the harmonious bridging of cultures.
In the end, although Stan succeeds in his immediate task of outwitting the bosses at the Shanghai Palace in Chinatown and at the office of the Police Commissioner, we are left wondering how permanent a stamp this one victory of one honest loner cop will have on the turbulent ecology of Chinatown – and of New York City itself. The film seems to leave the question unanswered – perhaps even unasked – but it suggests itself, as does the depressing answer.