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Hey y’all, LMD took a walk on the wild side of late 1980’s New York watching Revenge of the Green Dragons.  Intrigued from the outset by this gritty tale of pre-gentrification New York, based on the real-life horrors committed by the Chinese gangs of Manhattan and Queens, it seemed the cherry on the celluloid cake that it would be directed by Andrew Lau, the man behind our fave Hong Kong crime thriller, Infernal Affairs

We chatted with Director Lau and his co-director-in-crime, Andrew Loo about partnering with executive producer Martin Scorsese and the challenges of bringing the Green Dragons back to the streets of New York City.

Dig it!

 

Revenge of the Green Dragons

Andrew Lau & Andrew Loo

 

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  What brought this story to your attention?

Andrew Loo:  After we finished The Flock with Richard Gere, we decided at that point there was an opportunity to collaborate together on an English-language coproduction that Green Dragons helps define.  We were approached a pair of producers in New York who optioned the article, Revenge of the Green Dragons, by Frederick Dannen. So they said, “We have this article. We think we might have a movie here, would there be any interest on your part to direct the film?”  I said, “Well, there’s interest, but there’s no script.” They said, “And, oh yeah, by the way, you’re going to have to take the article and develop it into a script, as well.”  Oh yeah, thanks buddy! 

So, flash-forward two a half years and then we finally have a script which we were happy with and we sent it out to Marty {Martin Scorsese} and he came on board.  We knew up front that it was going to be a challenge to get the financing, because we didn’t want to create a story that was driven in the Year of the Dragon model: We didn’t want to have to cast a leading Hollywood star to drive foreign sales that would then allow us to finance the movie, and at the same time tilt the balance of the story we wanted to tell.  So that’s how it started.

 

LMD:  Were you aware in Hong Kong about the gang activity that was going on here in New York at that time?

Andrew Lau:  For me, I feel the gangsters are the same.  I mean, most of the gangsters at that moment were coming from Hong Kong, so that fear, you can feel it.  When you’re going, ‘Who is the gangster?’ You can feel it.  Of course, fear of the gangsters is quite scary for some people, but in the old days in Hong Kong; someone would say, ‘Everyone is a gangster.’  We were surrounded.  But the fear when people heard, ‘Oh, this is a gang from wherever,’ they would get scared.

But I’ve always said this is not a gangster movie. I mean, on the surface, it’s gangsters killing people, but the difference is there’s so many backstories.  Every character has their backstory.  Of course there’s this immigrant story; why they became a gangster?  Why did they do these kind of things?  And also, the racism was very serious.  I still remember the dialogue that “We cannot kill white people.”  When Auyeung {Jin, actor} the detective goes to the restaurant after somebody killed a white man, and then the police come in and say, “You, out! This is not your business, this is white people.”  This is the reality at that moment.  Of course, it’s not today, but today it still happens, I think so.

 

LMD:  The immigrant aspect of it reminded me a bit of The Godfather 2, where you have the Black Hand guy in the old neighborhood preying on other Italian immigrants.  Watching a similar situation here, where everything is very insular and the gangs only victimized other Hong Kong immigrants, it made me wonder why they would do that to their own people?

Loo:  Well, if you look at how it sort of works even in L.A., South Central, it’s always black on black, and it’s the same thing here; you perpetuate crimes within your community.  There is actually a very real reason for that as it relates to the Green Dragons: In doing research with Detective Mike McGuiness, who was one of the main law enforcement individuals involved with this case, I said, “Mike, I’m going to ask you a very direct question, you can choose to answer it or not. Is it true what I hear that you guys didn’t really get involved with the Asian on Asian crimes? You had your hands full?”  He said, “Andrew, I’m going to be blunt: Yeah, we didn’t give a shit. If something was going on in Chinatown or Flushing, we didn’t get involved. It was only when it escalated. It was only we had to get involved that we really turned our attention to it.”  So, that’s the reality of that world then.  New York now is a different place than it was 30 years ago.

 

LMD:  There are a number of well-known Hong Kong/Chinese actors who speak fluent English.  Was there a specific idea to cast Asians or Asian-Americans who had some type of US presence?

Lau:  We had argued these things in the beginning.  We had thought we should bring Hong Kong actors here, we should.  But in the end, I said no.  We are not shooting a Hong Kong movie.  You know, there is a feeling that if you bring so many Hong Kong actors and extras, it’s not an American movie.  It’s that simple, I mean, the feeling.

You are right, so many Hong Kong people are fluent, but in the end I didn’t like it.  We chose actors and actresses that were originally from here and they had the feelings: They all went through immigration; whether it was the father, or mother, or the older generation, they had that kind of feeling that an immigrant from somewhere, they lived there, they automatically had that kind of feeling.

Loo: There’s a connection to the Asian-American experience, whether it was one or two generations removed, all of our cast in some way, in their own way, have gone through it.  So that was an important component towards the authenticity.  But also, we knew that this was an American film and so we didn’t want to be perceived as just bringing all of our tools from Hong Kong and making a Hong Kong film in New York.

 

LMD:  Your production crew is almost all US-based.  What was that like for you, Director Lau?

Lau:  It was different, very different, especially working in New York.  At the beginning, it was quite hard.  I mean, we didn’t have a big budget for those kind of things.  And the system that works here, the union; writer, cameramen, ba, ba, ba…  And this was hard for this project.  So that’s why we didn’t have much budget to shoot in New York.  Shooting here is very hard; everywhere is expensive.  Sometimes people would say, 'Oh, you can save money if you shoot in Toronto, or New Orleans,’ but we insisted, though we knew it was hard and it was painful.  We were facing a different system: In Hong Kong on a film set, you can be the cameraman.  You can move the lighting.  You can move the chair, but here, you cannot.  If I want to put the camera here, *moves my recorder one inch to the left*, I have to call somebody outside - Ahhh! {Laughs}

Loo:  And there’s 50 people standing around, while we have to wait for the person to come.

Lau:  And if you move it, they complain.

Loo:  Immediately, you get a call from the hall, “Hey, I hear the directors are moving props.”

 

LMD:  So, completely the opposite of Hong Kong?

Loo:  Well, it’s a different kind of efficiency.  Look, Hong Kong is known in the world for doing things cheaper by doing them, I guess, more efficiently, right?  There’s its own sense of efficiency.  Here, the efficiency is built on division of labor.  So, in theory, you have electricians that will work on electrics, you have a camera guy … and that’s their concept of efficiency.  And it works. 

For better or worse, there was a certain method, a certain style of filmmaking that we chose to employ on this film and I think in terms of the context and the expectations, everyone at the end of the day, at least on our crew, they were adaptable enough, they were inspired by the material enough to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to check my expectations at the door. I hear how these guys want to shoot this, so let’s give it a shot.’  And so, at the end of the day, our crew, our cast, everybody bought in and it was a good experience.

Lau:  Yes, I had to face it.  When I came here, of course I knew I was coming into that kind of system, but I had to face it.  I had to change people’s minds.  I had to change the crew’s mind.  And luckily, our crew - like the operators, lighting team and the actors - opened their minds to do it.  In the first days, that was very critical.  I mean, in Hong Kong, I hold the camera, but here I cannot.  The union said I cannot.  So we had to fight for these kind of things a little bit.  And also they had made it clear that they had set up so many rules that the time was limited for us.  We only had how many days?

Loo:  23

Lau:  At the beginning, we panicked.

Loo:  Originally, we had 35 days, but then we had to cut our budget, we had to cut our script.  We went from 109 pages on the script to 83 before we got green lit, so you can imagine how much was removed.  So that brought a certain reality to how we could shoot.

Lau:  I still remember that each day we filmed a lot of scenes, not shots.  Sometimes four scenes a day – scenes, not shots a day.  And so that’s why we had to think about how to shoot; the location and set.  We had to set up the set, how to decide the lighting.  It was a lot like the old days; I would put the light up here like in the old Hong Kong movies.  I would try to decide how to put the lighting.  We would just go in after the actors’ rehearsal and then shoot.  Also, this was good for us because it made it more realistic; because normally on the set, the light would go up here and then here, but no, it was just like normal life.  So I saw that everything was quite realistic.

 

LMD:  Director Lau, it’s interesting that you say used techniques that were similar to your old Hong Kong films because Revenge of the Green Dragons has an energy that reminds me of your earlier work, like the Young and Dangerous films.  Was working with a whole new cast and crew energising?

Lau:  That’s why sometimes when I work in Hong Kong, I’ll suddenly jump to another country to make a movie.  That makes you like brand-new; the location, brand new people.  I can bring some crew from Hong Kong, but I didn’t want to.  I mean, this is an experience: To face new people and different things is what makes you have energy and it’s also this is a challenge.  This is the most important, that the crew should have energy on the set.  So working like this, you meet the people and you get their feelings.

I still remember a long time ago when we went to casting in Chinatown, we met a lot of young Asian people and we got a lot of feelings about that.  That they may be a second-generation, or third generation, but you got something of that, that they may feel, ‘Okay, now we have food,’ but their spirit, there’s still something missing.

 

LMD:  A lot of attention around the movie has come from Martin Scorsese’s involvement. How hands on was he with the film?

Loo:  Well, it was sort of heavy up front and heavy on the backside.  In the middle, he was overly scheduled with Wolf of Wall Street; he was on a crazy, accelerated schedule.  I don’t know how he pulled that off.  On our project, he was instrumental at the outset - along with Andrew’s name and the script - to get the financing.  Without those pieces, it just wouldn’t have happened.  So, that was pretty cool.  Then he read the script, he had positive reactions, and then we started on the journey to make the film.  When we saw him in Toronto, we showed him a cut of the film.  This was sort of a proof of concept in a way for us is the first thing he said was, “Okay, that’s a crazy world. I was born in Flushing and I had no idea that was going on. So I didn’t realize it and it was right in front of me.”

 

LMD:  I live in a different borough entirely and people in my neighborhood knew about those gangs.

Loo:  But he’s also from a different ethnic background, right?  So, his world doesn’t cross over into that world, even though they are living in the same community.

 

LMD:  Director Loo, you mentioned speaking with the detective who worked on the actual case and I wondered if in your research you had spoken with any of the other people portrayed in the film, or the surviving families?

Loo:  Well, I met the real Sonny.  We took some liberties with his character, but in the film, once he drops the dime and cooperates with the feds, then he went into witness protection.  So he {the real Sonny} disappeared and he ended up in California, and he had heard that there was a film being made and he reached out to the producers in New York.  And there was a very cryptic sort of note, “I hear you’re making a movie about the Green Dragons. I have information you may find useful.”  So, I was like, ‘Whoever it is, I gotta go talk to them.’  You don’t write that kind of email unless you’re for real.  So we kind of texted, and I was using like this Skype burner phones because I was worried.  I didn’t know what his intent was.  So I had to change phones a couple of times before we got there.

Lau: Like in the movies.

Loo: Like in the movies. And so, yeah, I got to hear his perspective in terms of the culture; the way they thought, the way they dressed and what they ate.  Just those things which are so specific. 

The mother of the two boys in the film, the actress, her name is Linda Wang, and she actually grew up with the Green Dragons.  She was best friends with Tina.  Tina was staying at Linda’s house when she disappeared.  She still had clothes from Tina.

Lau:  She brought some clothes down to the set for Shuya {Chang} to wear.

Loo:  She used to walk to school with I Chung every day.  So she knew that world, she lived that world.  And when I heard that, she was a big part of the research, and then I said, “Well, you’re going to be in the film.” So, yeah, there was quite a bit of real, hands-on, factual research.  And that’s the beauty of independent filmmaking is the financing period is so long, you have time to get it right.

 

LMD:  Director Lau, I cannot let someone who has contributed so much to the culture of Hong Kong go without asking your thoughts about the Umbrella Revolution.  What is your feeling about what is happening in HK right now?

Lau:  For me, I am not that political.  The young people want something, it’s okay for me.  They have the dream right?  They have the dream of democracy, okay.  It’s good, but they cannot {do it} like this. If they want to protest, okay.  One square for those kind of things, okay. They cannot make the people stuck.  I mean, now they are all stuck.  It’s like destroying something, in my opinion.  They have dreams, okay.  They have freedom, okay?  Yet they ask for too much and they affect other people.

Loo:  You affect and damage people’s ability to make a livelihood…

Lau:  To make a livelihood.  Yeah, they damaged a lot of things.  I got so many calls from my friends…

Loo:  Restaurants are closing.  Businesses are going down…

Lau:  Even a lawyer working in Admiralty, I mean, nobody can get in.  Okay, you ask for something, okay, that’s fine, but you have to think how to ask for it.  And have a reason to ask for it.

Loo:  Now to be the flip side of that, and that is when you’re in a society and you’re dealing with a government and an economy that doesn’t allow for any other way to express your unhappiness, your grievances, your complaint, you are left no option, okay.  They’re given no choice.  There are no other options available to these kids.  And you know what? In my opinion, they’re just fed up.  They’re fed up.  They are not given a voice, they’re not given an outlet, they’re not given any opportunity to determine the future of their city.  It’s their city, too.

 

LMD:  Director Lau, what is your next project?

Lau:  I have actually finished my next film.  It’s From Vegas to Macau.

 

LMD:  What would you like for people to take away from Revenge of the Green Dragons?

Loo:  I think America is the greatest country in the world - it is - having lived in so many different places.  But that’s not to say any one place is perfect for all people; there are good things and bad and there are bad things that come out of good intent.  America in 1980, there was an immigration format; you were given the opportunity to apply for political asylum because of human rights abuse.  That was great in conception, but it had a real consequence and that was to open the floodgates to all these illegal immigrants to come in, and there was no infrastructure to allow for them to merge into American society.  That is the genesis of the Green Dragons.  That’s how the Green Dragons and gangs like them… it was almost destiny because they are the negative out of the positive.

Lau:  The message for me is very simple; life’s not that easy.  It’s not that easy.  America is a goldmine, but sometime it’s not.  So when you do something, you have to think very clearly, and it is not that simple to move to another place.  You have to think very clearly.  And in our pasts something is not only bad, sometimes it’s good, so you have to make a balance.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

October 22, 2014

 

 

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Photos  

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 by L.M.D.

Stills courtesy of

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