Tony (Richard Panebianco) is a good hearted kid from Little Italy who attends a dance club one night. He seems to move through the bustling crowd magnetized by something we can’t see. He soon encounters a pretty young Chinese girl named Tye (Sari Chang) and they begin dancing as if drawn together by an invisible force. The good time they and the people around them are experiencing is soon brought an abrupt halt when a group of Asian gang members appear led by Tsu (Joey Chin). This moment is actually very operatic as the whole place just comes to a standstill and the people watch on to see what happens next. Tony’s actions are clearly offensive to them and they certainly don’t want him messing with one of their own. He knows from the reaction in the room he’s got to split before they cut him to pieces, so he does. Following an exhausting footchase through the darkened streets, he is able to make it back to the safety of Little Italy but is cornered by Tsu and his thugs in an alley. Luckily, Tony’s big brother Alby (James Russo) and his crew including the loudmouthed “Mercury” (David Caruso) arrive and save him in the nick of time. In the middle of the little melee that occurs the cops show up and everyone scatters in different directions. Afterwards, Tye’s brother Yung (Russell Wong) is alerted by Tsu about her being with a white boy and he orders her to stay in the neighborhood.
Across the street from Alby’s family pizzaria (where he and Tony work) a new Chinese restaraunt opens, taking the place of an Italian owned store. This cultural change shows the successful tolerance between the Italians and Chinese but it’s also clear from their reactions that Alby and his racist friends don’t share that view. More trouble is brewing as Tsu the hotheaded gang member doesn’t pay any mind to the current stability of the Italian-Asian underworld law. All he wants is to make some extra money for himself and his friends. One night his gang attack the restaraunt’s owner threatening him to pay them a cut of the income just like he would in Chinatown…or else. When the owner relents at Tsu’s offer, the Chinese establishment is firebombed and partially damages Alby’s pizzaria across the way which drives him and his friends to seek revenge. Meanwhile, Yung (who works at an upscale restaraunt) finds himself stuck in the middle when he is given an order from the Triad chieftain Gung Tu (James Hong) to get Tsu in line or else. Yung tries to convince the rebellious Tsu to back off but this leads them to have their own in fighting over loyalty. To complicate matters, Alby and his friends also plan an attack on Tsu’s gang and bushwhack them on their own turf. Seeing that things are getting out of control, the local Italian mafia boss Enrico (Robert Miano) warns Alby to stay out of the way and let the “family” take care of it. Just like Tsu, he ends up disobeying orders and puts both the Italian and Chinese partnership in peril. At a meeting, Enrico assures Gung Tu that he will protect their interests no matter what but the violent animosity between Alby and Tsu only continues to grow with the secret teenage lovers Tony and Tye in danger from the collateral damage happening around them.
China Girl was New York filmmaker Abel Ferrara’s fourth production. He had previously made the cult classics Driller Killer (1979), Ms. 45 (1981) and Fear City (1984). This may have been another low budget outing but it clearly showed he had matured as an artist through the strong vision in his approach to the material. The film was essentially a 20th century take on the classic story of Romeo and Juliet injected with his own personal sensibilities. It is paced well and every scene has an energy thanks to the great acting, finely crafted direction and superbly written screenplay by Nicholas St John. The combination of violent underworld crime drama and forbidden teenage love story really gives it a constant charge of emotion. While watching I was reminded of a number of classic films such as Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story and Mean Streets just to name a few. This film certainly falls right in line with them but offers a kind of 80s New Wave-Hip Hop twist.
With his follow up to China Girl, Abel Ferrara made another urban crime classic that would incorporate some familiar elements as well as feature a few of the same cast members. It is another film from his ouvre we highly recommend checking out.