In "China Girl" (selected theaters) Abel Ferrara has another ultraviolent winner, a Romeo and Juliet tale set in Lower East Side Manhattan's cheek-by-jowl Little Italy and Chinatown.
Ferrara and writer Nicholas St. John, whose previous pictures are "Driller Killer," "Ms. 45" and "Fear City," can create gritty and exciting Manhattan street fables like no one else, and Ferrara has a way of making violence expressive and therefore acceptable as few other directors can. "China Girl," however, has been trimmed to get an R and frankly there's one needlessly graphic stabbing murder that might have better ended up on the cutting-room floor. Even so, Ferrara, who also directed the knockout opening episode of TV's "Crime Story," is an exploitation picture-maker of extraordinary style and substance.
As the credits unroll, we watch the modest, old-timey D'Onofrio's bakery being replaced by the high-tech Canton Gardens, a sign of Chinatown's further encroachment into Little Italy. Against this atmosphere of uneasiness a handsome, curly-haired teen-age Italian-American (Richard Panebianco) almost precipitates a race riot by daring to dance with a beautiful Chinese girl (Sari Chang), a recent arrival from Hong Kong. Through their mutual attraction and eventual love, Tony and Tyan continue to see each other and challenge the traditional codes of ethnic solidarity.
The point is not so much that Tony and Tyan threaten to set off a gang war but rather that through their relationship we're able to perceive a highly volatile situation. Wisely, but also daringly in these times of youth-oriented movies, Ferrara and St. John treat the kids' relationship as a potentially tragic leitmotif, the tip of the iceberg, and therefore they're not constantly in the foreground of the action. Ferrara was also shrewd to cast actors as young as Panebianco and Chang, both in promising film debuts; were Tony and Tyan a little older you'd think they were crazy not to get out of their neighborhoods, but clearly (and credibly) they can afford only a subway ride.
Movies almost never show the economic roots of racism, or how ethnic pride, fueled by economic realities, can often make minorities more intolerant of each other than the majority is of either of them. Furthermore, in this instance we see that both the Italian and the Chinese kids are impatient with their elders. If they're in gangs, they want a piece of the action, which threatens the lucrative harmony achieved by the two leading ghetto criminals, Gung-Tu (James Hong) and Enrico Perito (Robert Miano). The steely Gung-Tu confidently predicts that soon "you'll have to go to Brooklyn to get a pizza," which is fine with Miano because the price is right. Consequently, "China Girl" evolves simultaneously as a bloody confrontation not only between races but also between generations.
The look of the film is sensational. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli couldn't ask for a richer background for his dynamic camera work than the gaudy, crowded, narrow streets of the Lower East Side. Ferrara is as fine with actors as he is with all the other elements of film making, although he does allow the Living Theater's legendary Judith Malina to go over the top as a grief-stricken mother. Fortunately, "China Girl" is exciting and lurid enough to sustain her excesses. "China Girl" may be entirely a fiction, but it certainly is persuasive, a romantic "Lower East Side Story" with a pungent aura of authenticity.
'CHINA GIRL' A Vestron Pictures release. Executive producers Mitchell Cannold, Steve Reuther. Producer Michael Nozik. Screenplay Nicholas St. John. Camera Bojan Bazelli. Production designer Dan Leigh. Music Joe Delia. Associate producer/production manager Mary Kane. Costumes Richard Hornung. Film editor Anthony Redman. With Richard Panebianco, Sari Chang, James Russo, David Caruso, Russell Wong, Joey Chin, Judith Malina, James Hong, Robert Miano.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (younger than 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).