American Chinatown (1996)

PLOT: A pair of young, star-crossed lovers is caught in the middle of a vicious gang turf war. When the girl’s crime boss brother discovers that her chosen companion is his top enforcer, his anger and exceptionally massive chin threaten to destroy everything.

Director: Woo-sang Park
Writer: Woo-sang Park
Cast: Tae-joon Lee, Robert Z'Dar, Bobby Kim, Liat Goodson, Eric T. Lee, Sung-Ki Jun

During the film awards season of 2009, a lot of deserved attention was on Mickey Rourke’s masterful comeback performance in the 2008 film, The Wrestler. While he’d been working semi-regularly, it had been years since he lit it up in a starring role. Up to that point, many had agreed his career as a leading man in Hollywood was all but finished. Since that time, Rourke has rallied admirably, scoring high-profile roles in Iron Man 2, The Expendables, and Immortals, among others. As it turns out, we may have the star of 1995’s American Chinatown to thank. Tae-joon Lee is a Grandmaster in Hwa Rang Do, the Korean martial art that his father helped to create. In an interview with the French magazine, Karate Bushido, Rourke described how his foray into Hwa Rang Do and training with Lee helped to save his career.

I don’t know much about Tae-joon Lee, but here are some of the facts. He worked on two films with L.A. Streetfighters and Miami Connection director Woo-sang Park: this one and KK Family List. He was in a movie with Rob Lowe. He wears his hair long, rocks a mean sportscoat, and is capable of growing his own facial hair. He’s a pretty good onscreen fighter and a capable fight choreographer, but an average actor. In the great tradition of Jeff Wincott, however, he is an outstanding martial artist chainsmoker. Watching him in this film literally made my throat and eyes scratchy. (I was putting up insulation at the time).

Lee plays Yong, a street tough who acts as the main muscle for a gang run by his friend Eric (Z’Dar). The opening scene finds him breaking up a potential gang rape by felling a trio of Hispanic gangbangers with kicks and punches before shaking them down for their clothes and money. He then befriends their intended victim, a college student named Lily (Goodman). Their night ends when Yong drives her to a rough neighborhood to visit his friend and mentor, a street food vendor named Jim (Kim). After a bite to eat, he admonishes her for hanging out in rough neighborhoods and tells her to go home.

As in all relationships, these two crazy kids fall into a pattern. Lily comes to visit Yong in a bad part of town, Yong admonishes her for hanging out around roughnecks in bad neighborhoods, she cries, she gets attacked by roughnecks on her way home, then he saves her from said roughnecks. Yong is cold, emotionally unavailable, and irritable. These qualities seem born out of self-loathing, and he constantly vocalizes his displeasure with Lily’s attraction to him. She is positively smitten.

Even less pleased about Lily’s attraction to Yong is her step-brother and local crime kingpin, Eric. He only wants the best for his younger sister. He showers her with spending money on the regular and even puts out some feelers in South Korea to find Lily's birth mother. Aside from his drug dealing and murder habits, he's the model of a doting older brother. When he discovers that Lily's boyfriend and his top enforcer are one in the same, he sends a message to Yong: stay away from Lily or else. He punctuates it by stabbing Yong in the stomach. I'm not sure if that was meant to be an exclamation point or a period in the gang world, but let's not discount the possibility that it was an em dash or ellipsis either. These miscreants are as lawless with their grammar and punctuation as they are with their drug-running and killing.

In his second-to-last screen performance is Bobby Kim, as Yong’s mentor, Jim. This was actually great casting. Kim’s weary face communicates his character’s years as a crime boss, and his disposition demonstrates a sincere desire to be left alone (unless you’re looking to buy a burger). He’s been described as the “Asian Charles Bronson” and I can’t disagree on that point. Both are visibly aged men who can still kill a motherfucker as needed. Kim throws a few kicks towards the end of the film, but is used primarily to dispense sage advice through mumbles and occasional (unsubtitled) tangents into Korean.

It’s difficult to imagine any scenario where this film was made for much more than $10,000. The lighting is virtually non-existent, most locations look run-down or hastily thrown together, and the majority of the acting is pretty flat. All that said, Woo-sang Park is one of the subgenre’s kings at microbudget filmmaking; if you're trying to do a picture on the cheap, he’s well-equipped to stretch your film dollar. The action contains some convincing bloodletting and there’s a few decent large-scale brawls. Technically speaking, the major misstep here is the sound mix. Gregory Degen apparently couldn’t decide between a mono or stereo mix and when the sound wasn’t inaudible or distorted, it was peaking like a banshee after getting hit in the crotch. Perhaps the boom operator was partly to blame; the filmmakers included this ball-busting message to him in the credits.

As is the case curse for most great genre actors, Robert Z’Dar was charged with elevating American Chinatown’s derivative source material through the sheer force of his performance. Dramatically, he’s the best and most watchable thing about the film. He has a few good lines. He looks cool with a moustache in a film that relies heavily upon them. However, the romance between Lily and Yong really drags the film down and not even Z’Dar can help that; what should have been a subplot is instead the film’s focus. I can appreciate that the filmmakers tried something different, but other than Z’Dar, a few decent fights, and a latter-day Bobby Kim mumblecore performance, there’s not enough here to keep the movie afloat.

2.5 / 7


  1. Great review!

    That boom mike credit is hilarious! Very Naked Gun-esque. Always wanted to see this for the Z'Dar factor.

  2. Thanks for reading, Ty. Technical deficiencies aside, there's a few decent scenes in here and Z'Dar has the bulk of choice lines. If you're a completist, you may want to check this one out before it falls out of circulation. On top of that, it's interesting to see how Woo-sang Park handled material outside his comfort zone (usually being Korean immigrants trying to assimilate in America). Which is not to say he should necessarily try a love story again -- it enveloped the story to the movie's detriment and left the actors hung out to dry in a lot of spots -- but the effort is appreciated.

  3. You're welcome. Will try to get ahold of this.


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