Chinatown Kid (1977)

Posted in Reviews by - October 19, 2019
Chinatown Kid (1977)

A foreboding, moralising melodrama from Chang Cheh about the transformational power of education over a life of crime and consumerism, told through the story of two down-and-out Chinese youths arriving fresh off the boat into San Francisco’s Chinatown. (Well, not quite. Aside from some establishing B-roll footage shot on location, the whole movie is quite obviously filmed at Shaw Brothers’ studios in Hong Kong). One is a well-to-do Taiwanese student sent to the USA on a scholarship (Sun Chien), but in desperate need of income to support his studies; the other is an illegal immigrant (Fu Sheng) who enters San Francisco as a stowaway after fleeing from the cops who frame him for drug possession. The two bond when they work as dishwashers in a Chinese restaurant, but soon take different paths on their own quest for dignity. Fu Sheng uses his fists to become a pawn in a domestic drug war between two rival gangs – inspired by the real-life carnage at the Green Dragon restaurant in San Francisco in 1977 – but has a crisis of confidence when Sun Chien starts a drug habit of his own. Both kids are shown to be decent, innocent, hard-working and ambitious individuals, corrupted by their circumstance and led astray by the breakdown of society. It’s not all doom and gloom, however; the east-west culture clash, though minimal and never fully realised, makes for some funny asides (“I’m surprised they make dog sausages here!” being a particularly good line, said in reference to buying hot dogs), and the effervescent Fu Sheng turns in another spirited performance, particularly during the romantic scenes with his real-life wife, Jenny Tseng. This is the film that broke him to an international audience, but despite its easy performances, the film all too readily meanders into a more predictable ‘rival schools’ narrative, and you wonder what a director with a lighter touch might have done with the material.

AKA: Chinatown Kung Fu.

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Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a keyboard in London, UK.

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