American Chinatown (1996)

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Grandmaster Taejoon Lee makes his lead role debut in this film from Miami Connection helmer Richard Park.

Yong is an enforcer for local gang lord Eric. When Eric’s gang begins to have issues with rival crime lord Wong, Yong uses his martial arts skills to ensure that Eric can continue business. While Yong spends most of his free time at the food stall of his mentor and former street legend Jim, his life changes after rescuing Lily, a college student with a taste of the wild life.

Despite his best efforts to avoid her, Yong eventually develops feelings for Lily and the two begin a relationship amidst the war between Eric and Wong. Things go from bad to worse when Yong learns that Lily’s brother is none other than Eric. Upset and betrayed, Eric stabs Yong as a lesson, forcing the young martial artist into retirement. However, when Wong hires two deadly assassins, Max and Billy, will Eric be able to get help from the man whom he felt betrayed him?

It is clear that South Korean director Richard Park can be considered a definitive cult filmmaker. Starting out in his native Korea, he transitioned to the U.S. working with local Korean martial artists like Jun Chong and Y.K. Kim. Here, Park works with Taejoon Lee. For those unfamiliar, Taejoon is the son of Dr. Lee Joo-Bang, who is the founder of the martial art of Hwarang-Do, a style that originates from the styles used by the Hwarang Knights and has instances of Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, and other martial arts.

As expected, the acting isn’t exactly Oscar worthy. It is more on the level of what to expect for a B-movie. There may be times when the sound may not be clear due to some various technical issues. In something similar to the crazy spoof credits on some Troma films, The Naked Gun films, and others, the boom mic was held by “the most obnoxious disruptive whining chump to ever hold a boom”. No joke. That’s when you know the sound of the film would be affected. However, Lee gets an A for effort and it is not until the second act where we can see a more dramatic performance rather than the robotic one seen in the film’s first half.

Robert Z’Dar, who recently passed away, does pretty well for cult film levels as Eric, Yong’s boss. He has a level of respect for his enforcer until he learns that he is in love with his sister. Bobby Kim does well in a more mentor fashion as food stall worker Jim. The only issue here is when he speaks Korean, there are no subtitles, making it somewhat difficult to understand what he is saying, unless you are fluent or have Korean as your native tongue. And for those expecting Kim to beat up some bad guys alongside Lee will have to wait until the finale where he only gets in about 10-15 seconds of fighting, but that’s okay as he plays more of a mentor here. As for Liat Goodson, she does well, so-so as Lily. Having a British accent, she does her best but her role isn’t really one that makes an impact even in the whole love story angle of the film.

Taejoon Lee also served as the fight choreographer of the film. The film is a chance for Lee to showcase his skills in Hwarang-Do and while it may look like a possible self-defense video of sorts, there are no bad close ups and shaky editing that could mar the film. In fact, if anything, the fights here look good. In one of the strangest twists of the film, Taejoon’s brother Eric has not one, not two, but three roles in the film. He has a nice wicked opening fight scene leading the charge as Eric’s underling Brian. Eric has some impressive kicks as seen in this particular fight. In the middle of the film, he lets his down and sports Kabuki like make-up to play a Yakuza leader who engages in a swordfight against big brother Taejoon. Finally, sporting a Genghis Khan look, he joins Taejoon student and the founder of the Farang Mu Sul style, Michael DeAlba, to play Wong’s assassin Billy.

American Chinatown is a cult film that ranks up there with the likes of Richard Park’s other American efforts, notably L.A. Street Fighters and Miami Connection. While the acting and script may suffer from blandness, the fight scenes bring a sense of redemption as the art of Hwarang-Do comes to life on the big screen.

WFG RATING: C

A Peacock Films Production. Director: Richard Park. Producers: Larry Larson, Taejoon Lee, and Richard Park. Writer: Richard Park. Cinematography: Janusz Fikora and Maximo Munzi.

Cast: Taejoon Lee, Robert Z’Dar, Liat Goodson, Bobby Kim, Jun Sung-Ki, Eric T. Lee, Michael DeAlba.

 

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