Based on a 1992 New Yorker article by Fredric Dannen,’Revenge of the Green Dragons‘follows Sonny (Justin Chon) and Steven (Kevin Wu), two immigrant brothers who survive the impoverished despair of New York in the 1980’s by joining the street gang known as “The Green Dragons.”
The brothers quickly rise up the ranks, drawing the unwanted attention of hard-boiled city cops. After an ill-fated love affair pits Sonny against his brother, he sets out for revenge against the very gang that made who made him who he is. From directors Andrew Lau (‘Infernal Affairs’) and Andrew Loo, and legendary Executive Producer Martin Scorsese, “Revenge of the Green Dragons” is a mix between a Hong Kong action film and a New York City crime thriller.
Lau and Loo spoke with Jason Teich about the Asian immigration experience, the American Dream, and much more.
“Revenge of the Green Dragons” Is Now Playing In Select NYC Theaters. For More Info About Showtimes – Here
Your film was inspired by Fredric Dannen’s 1992 New Yorker article, “Revenge of the Green Dragons.” What drew you to the article, and why was that was a story you really wanted to tell?
Andrew Loo: Fred’s piece is one of those really well-researched annals of crime. There are so many colorful characters, so many larger-than-life events, that it’s just shocking. Even more so when you remind yourself that it’s true. But for us as Asians, it was also a very interesting look into the reality of the immigrant experience for a lot of people that we know—families that have come here in hopes of a better future. It’s a story that for the most part hasn’t been told in mainstream culture. Usually what you hear is, “Come to America, work hard, play by the rules, and it’ll all work out in the end.” That’s not the reality for everyone.
“Revenge of the Green Dragons” definitely inverts the typical immigrant experience that we see portrayed in film. What do you think your film says about the immigrant experience overall?
Andrew Lau: There are so many different backstories of immigrants. And coming to America can be a good dream or a bad dream. Maybe the parents work hard for their children. That’s good. But sometimes people cannot be in the normal world. They become against it. And some people cannot speak good English; they just live in their areas.
Do you feel the immigration experience in America has changed since the ‘80s and ‘90s?
Andrew Loo: The inflexibility in the economy still exists to a large degree, but now it’s with a different ethnicity. If you’re Hispanic and you’re working in California, you’re going to experience a lot of the same racism and difficulties in being able to pursue your dream of being here. If you’re going to go work in a kitchen, if you’re going to mow my lawn, then you’re welcome here—those are your opportunities. I think what existed in Flushing for Asians in the ‘80s and ‘90s is exactly the same as what exists for Hispanics in California today.
And what’s the economic reality like for Asian immigrants today?
Andrew Loo: They say that China is going to be the world’s largest economy in two decades. So if you’re [Chinese] and you’re looking at coming to America for economic opportunity, you’re actually better off staying in China.
In the film, the character Paul says that people come to America because at least here there’s the hope of a better life. Do you think that’s true?
Andrew Loo: That’s certainly the hope. In the ‘80s, that’s what drove thousands of people to land in this country. You’re sold a bill of goods—send us “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”—but it should also say right there on that sign that we can put you to work for minimum wage or less. That’s the dirty little secret of America: This country’s always relied on cheap, oftentimes illegal labor for its economic success, whether it’s blacks or Asians or Polish or Hispanics. Everyone in their turn has come here willing to work. To me, that’s very much a part of the story. I don’t think there really are that many opportunities.
Martin Scorsese was an executive producer on your film. Did he have any creative input?
Andrew Loo: Marty has too much respect for other filmmakers to put any kind of pressure on us. But he did read the script, and sent notes back.
What was his reaction to the finished film?
Andrew Loo: He came out to see it at the Toronto Film Festival, and one of the first things he said to us was, “Oh my god, that is one crazy ride. I was born in Flushing, where the Green Dragons are from. I lived there for a good chunk of time. I had no idea that was going on.” Here is someone who is from New York and didn’t know about that Asian experience. And you have to believe that there are a lot of people in this country who also don’t know about it.
What was the experience of co-directing like?
Andrew Lau: I’m a director of photography, so I would do that kind of technical thing. [Loo] is also the scriptwriter, and he would devote more time to talking to the actors on set. Culture-wise, [Loo] knows America better than me. He could help me with the language, with how the characters would talk, and things like that. And I’m glad to be able to help bring up a new director. Nowadays we need some new blood.
What was the casting process like?
Andrew Loo: Casting was particularly challenging. We made the choice to populate the film with American-born Asians, as opposed to bringing everybody over from Hong Kong. This is an American film, and it was important that it didn’t give off the vibe of us bringing the toolbox from Hong Kong and making a Hong Kong film here. But casting Asian actors in America brings its own issues. There just haven’t been a lot of dramatic roles for Asian actors here. When you go through the headshots and reels, you don’t get the chance to really see what these actors are capable of. We had to spend an unusual amount of time bringing people in for multiple sessions to New York or L.A., and just hanging out. We had to get a sense of who they were as actors and what their backgrounds were. And we really had to then take a risk and say, “Yes, this person is capable of the role,” even though if they didn’t have anything to really suggest that they were other than our belief that they could do it.
What made you believe that Justin Chon was the right choice for your lead, and what was it like working with him?
Andrew Loo: Justin was the most classically trained method actor in the group. He did his research and he didn’t really joke around. He was very serious. I think it was a hard movie for him because of that. It is a very dark film, and we said this to all the actors, especially Justin: If you’re going to be committed to the film, you’re going to have to be willing to go to that dark place and live there for a while. And to their credit, they did.
Did that darkness pose a particular difficulty for Alex Fox and Michael Gregory Fung, the child actors who played the younger versions of the characters Sonny and Steven?
Andrew Lau: Casting young Sonny and Steven was very difficult. Then suddenly [Alex and Michael] appeared. We had to talk about a lot of things with them. They are so intelligent, and they got what we wanted. But of course we had to rehearse a lot. And luckily, their parents supported them.
Andrew Loo: Yeah, they had great set parents.
Andrew Lau: If their parents hadn’t been supportive, they wouldn’t have allowed them to do scenes with marijuana-smoking, punching, those kinds of things…And afterwards, [Alex and Michael] said they had a good experience.
What was your most memorable experience directing the film?
Andrew Loo: That’s a tough one. I think it was the overall sense of family that really just organically came through the shooting process. You know, you always hear stories about how working in New York is impossible. Everybody’s union, everybody’s jaded. You’re never going to make it for that budget. You’re never going to find the right people who want to go through this process. And our experience was entirely counter to that. We had a great crew. We had a great cast. Very demanding conditions, but at the same time, I think it’s fair to say that people from our cast and crew met some of their best friends during this experience.
Andrew Lau: This was a big challenge for everybody. And when we finally made it, of course we were happy. On the last day, I told people, “If we can finish this movie, it’s a win already.” And the whole project was finished the second week, and we could go to Toronto the third week. That was memorable.
— Interview Conducted by Jason Teich