Monday, December 6, 2010


A little history lesson before I begin: during the 19th century gold rush and railroad boom, Chinese immigrants who poured into the country in search of better opportunities were pretty much considered the lowest form of ethnicity, and were often bullied by blacks, Mexicans, and whites. As a result, many formed support groups known as Tongs. Even though most Chinese had the intention of returning home to their families after achieving their goals, many decided to stay in America. To this day, Tongs are still a pivotal part of most Asian-American communities.
Imagine a sub-par John Woo drama assembled under the atmosphere of an “ABC After School Special,” and you have “Tongs: A Chinatown Story.” The strange vibe is enough to compel you to watch on toward the end, but it’s simply not enough to absorb the bad brunt of the fundamental story telling problems which surface during its second half.
The first half of the movie focuses on fresh Hong Kong arrival Danny Lee, played by Simon Yam, and his brother Paul, living with their poverty-stricken uncle in Chinatown. Danny’s a clean cut kid focused on the straight and narrow. On the other hand, his drug smuggling brother has no intention of following his Uncle’s blue collar example. Danny enters high school, and it doesn’t take long before he clashes with a local gang known as The Red Eagles. Danny covers for the Eagles in one instance, stashing a knife that’s been used in a stabbing, but he shuns the gang when they attempt to embrace him, which leads to all sorts of tension. Following a violent clash, Danny leads a brutal retaliation against the gang that gets him noticed by Mr. Chen, the Eagles’ benefactor. Instead of having Danny killed, he offers him a cut of his territory, much to the chagrin of the other gang. From here, the story shifts from gang violence in schools to a larger scale crime drama. While the first half is quickly paced, the rest of the story is rushed to the point of vagueness. The final moments of the film have a bizarre, open-ended feel. Unfortunately, the film just isn’t quality enough to warrant the extra hour it would need to tell its story. The fight sequences are alarmingly poor, and every other element of production amounts to balsa wood. Nevertheless, it’s hard not appreciate such a sincere effort, and this trans-Pacific production creates an atmosphere that is downright weird enough to qualify as fascinating. There’s even a midget to augment this movie’s already-strange aura.
Shot on location in New Yok City, “Tongs” was directed by Hong Kong superman Philip Chan, who was known as a pop singer before joining the Royal Hong Kong Police Force in the 70s. As an inspector, he foiled several high profile cases which contributed to his popularity. In 1976, Chan was prompted to write the script for “Jumping Ash,” a film about cops battling a drug ring. After the film proved to be a success, Chan resigned from the force to pursue a career in the film industry. Since then he’s dabbled in a little bit of everything. Most fans of Hong Kong cinema will instantly recognize Chan from his numerous notable film appearances. He’s even crossed over into American entertainment several times over the years, appearing in films such as “Blood Sport,” and “Double Impact.” He even had a reoccurring role on the television show “Dallas.” By the way, none of the guys on the box are in this movie, which sucks because I was really stoked about the fat shirtless guy in the leather jacket.

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