Matt Dillon plays an FBI Agent hunting down subversives in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the McCarthy era. Great idea, crap movie. It happens. And this time it happens to uncommonly talented people. Dillon, at 29, hardly seems the ideal casting choice for an agent who must age over decades into a hardened man. But he gives the role a game go. Playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) has an even tougher time with his original screenplay.
The story is set against a rich historical context. During the communist witch hunts of the ’50s, many innocent Asian Americans were persecuted merely for sending money to their families in Red China. Agent Kevin Walker (Dillon) knows that laundryman Chen Jung Song (Tzi Ma) is no threat to national security. But the bureau wants arrests made, and Walker complies, leaving Song’s young daughter, Marilyn, without a father. Before despair drives Song to suicide, he puts a curse on Walker that he may live and suffer like a Chinaman.
Ten years later, the curse kicks in. Walker falls in love with Song’s now-grown daughter, played by the fiercely smart and sexy Joan Chen (Heaven and Earth, TV’s Twin Peaks). She returns Walker’s love until she learns that it was he who persecuted her father. Then she seeks her own revenge. Hwang’s tale is staggeringly ambitious in its attempt to weave cultural, sexual, political and mystical themes into a seamless whole. The material needs the touch of a master. What it gets is British director John Madden, who shows the same clumsy hand that made his debut feature, Ethan Frome, such an insufferable slog. Hwang’s ideas are hung out to dry, limp and lifeless.