'Golden Gate' is altogether original, and it's beautifully acted

January 28, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Say this for "Golden Gate": It's not a variation, it's a theme. It covers materials that have never before made it to the screen, and it feels completely fresh. Set in and around San Francisco's Chinatown in three separate time periods -- 1952, 1962 and 1967 -- it chronicles the twisted penetration of the Asian community by stout-hearted "patriots" of the FBI, and what that cost in human ++ terms. It watches as a callow FBI agent, under orders from "The Director," essentially destroys a man's life, and then at last finds the guts to confront the wreckage he's created and take responsibility for it.

Indeed, the character of Kevin Walker is an odd one for playwright David Henry Hwang to have chosen as the moral fulcrum of the story he wanted to tell. In a conventional handling of the scandalous and shameful story, he'd be the villain. In Hwang's story, he's the tragic agent of destruction, doomed to suffer for the pain he's caused and at last allowed a grace note of redemption.

Walker, played by the perfectly cast Matt Dillon, is a handsome, callow young Red-hunter. In the early '50s, he buys it all: the commies are everywhere, involved in a godless global conspiracy, and they must be broken else they'll be setting up in D.C. Hwang has a good time with his young Feds, so much so you wonder if he didn't at one time want to be a G-man himself. He watches as Walker and his partner, Ron Tirelli (the always amusing Bruno Kirby), run roughshod in the Chinatown of 1952 as they try to separate the rats from the cheese, blissfully unaware there are no rats and there is no cheese.

The director, John Madden (no, not the football guy, but isn't it fun to pretend it is?), also has a good time. His early '50s world is deliriously evoked, syncopated to pre-rock be-bop, and built around the icons of the time -- the dry martinis, the snappy fedora, the floppy gray-flannel suits, and the late-hours jazz joints. In fact, Madden finds a subtly different rhythm and visual design for each of the three periods he examines.

The FBI always gets its man, innocent or not, and Walker finally manages to convict a labor organizer with an "attitude" who has run a service that helps immigrants send money back to their families on the mainland. The rap is "trading with the enemy," another triumph of American justice. But Walker is not quite as dumb as he likes people to think, nor quite as numb. He knows he's sinned, especially as he sees the shame descend upon poor Chen Jung Song (Tzi Ma).

Ten years pass, and when Song is released from prison, the ever-vigilant Feds assign Walker to tail him. Confronting the life he's ruined, Walker is shattered by what he's done, and he

watches helplessly as the shamed man mopes around Chinatown and then commits suicide. At the same time, Walker is stunned by the beauty and vivacity of Sung's daughter, Marilyn (Joan Chen), and has soon fabricated a relationship with her.

In a sense, this middle act duplicates the duplicity at the heart of Hwang's great "M. Butterfly," where two lovers are simultaneously unified and doomed by a great lie at the center of the relationship. He cannot tell her that he is the man who effectively killed her father; she does find out, and then it's war.

Six years later, it's the '60s. Now she's the one the FBI is investigating -- she's a law school professor engaged in radical politics. Walker again is assigned the case, though by this time he's begun to see through the Bureau's intransigence. Working from the inside, he manages one small gesture of mercy, to save the woman he loves, knowing exactly what it will cost him. This may be a somewhat theatrical and over-romanticized portrait of the Good G-Man, but Dillon is so dogged and earnest he manages to make it believable. He's the best thing in the movie.

Hwang is somewhat marooned in the no-man's land between theatercraft and screencraft, and the movie is entirely too stilted and not fluent enough, particularly burdened by its lumpy three-act structure. Now and then it indulges in the cheesily hokey, as when two lovers slow-dance for the first time, and a light beams down on them from on high, signifying the purity of their love. Someone has obviously seen Tony and Maria's first dance from "West Side Story."

The movie is also somewhat bald in its construction: Walker's first girlfriend, Cynthia (Teri Polo), is really only a deus ex machina whose only role in the story is to put the moral issue of the film bluntly before him, like a "Jeopardy" answer: Which is more important, justice or law? He says justice, though we can tell (and so should she) that he doesn't mean it. He gets rewarded with sex for getting it right, and the movie that follows ++ then crudely documents the painful way he learns the importance of justice over law. But the argument isn't really vigorously pursued, or argued fairly.

Still, give the movie the credit it deserves: beautifully acted, it creates an entirely new world and documents a forgotten crime. Some day, Hwang will write a great movie, when he is more comfortable with the form. This isn't it, but it's an intriguing beginning.

"Golden Gate"

Starring Matt Dillon and Joan Chen

Directed by John Madden

Released by Goldwyn

rated

** 1/2

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