Year of the Dragon

(Michael Cimino, USA, 1985)


Oliver Stone's colourful career as writer and writer/director can be used to indicate something of the range of possibilities for representing power in American fiction film. Stone has toyed obsessively with the question of how to articulate the power of the individual (usually masculine) with and/or against the power of the social. Some of his responses to this question are typically conservative, while others are more fractured, contradictory, or dimly progressive.

In Midnight Express (1978) it is only the individual who meaningfully exists – he who struggles and wins over a vague, amorphous, threatening society, a truly paranoid projection of a Dark (Asian) Other. Salvador (1986), at the other extreme, portrays the hero as, at best, a canny survivor darting about within a theatre of political power. This theatre is represented (with relative complexity) as a conjuncture of military, political and economic forces both local and imposed. The Vietnam film Platoon (1986) sits somewhere in between those options.

Scarface (1983) and Eight Million Ways to Die (1986) go someway towards de-mythifying the crime/gangster genre by stressing the pragmatics of shifting games within sites of criminal power: they neither romantically valorise nor entirely extinguish the agency-potential of the individual (again, more survivor – if he indeed survives – than hero).

Year of the Dragon (co-written with Stone by director Michael Cimino) takes a few large strides backward, and tries to cover its tracks with some muddled and defensive extenuations. It re-mythifies the crime genre where Scarface de-mythified it. The film is fully nostalgic in a way indicated early on in this essay – the roots of contemporary urban power as played out in Chinatown reach back "thousands of years" to the Chinese Triad (the Triad, like the Italian Mafia, being important for contemporary war mythology because of their old fashioned concentration of power in Families and Fathers). The film opposes two great orders – Law and Crime, indistinguishable here from Good and Evil. Out of these orders emerge Great Men – not the appointed rulers or fathers of these clans, who keep them working in a steady state – but the excessive men, the sacrificial figures whom we mentioned earlier, men who "care too much" (if they are Good) or who want too much (if they are Evil). Such guys are barbaric and dangerous – they "fly too high" (in Joey Tai's case), causing catastrophes – yet they are lovably "crazy" (in Stanley White's case). The social systems wouldn't move without them, and neither would the fictional system – they provide the disequilibrium necessary to "open" any story (so that as the final funeral scene seems to answer the opening funeral scene by laying the fiction to rest, Stanley must enter the scene and plunge it into chaos).

This film puts power back into bodies and subjectivities, and plays out the phantasms that haunt the traditionally defined hero (if it weren't for the moral divide of Good/Evil, and the racial divide of Chinese/American – this is a film begging that the Vietnam war be replayed so this time it can be won by America – Stanley and Joey would both count as the hero; they are often signified as such in the obsessive mirroring relations of the mise en scène). Stanley dominates physical space – his police territory – by simply crossing it, entering its secret places, throwing people around. The "weak parts" of his body are menaced (his wife killed, his girlfriend raped). Almost literally towering above the normal world, Stanley and Joey, doppelgangers supreme, must inevitably confront each other alone, in a space apart – abandoning themselves to a ritual mutual annihilation (compare the final battle of Good versus Evil in Cronenberg's Scanners [1981]) whose final moment of grace is Stanley's act of letting Joey kill himself (he ain't heavy, he's my brother).

Power resides in acts of violence of and upon bodies. Joey's great scene as hero in the film comes in his mission to Bangkok (every move must be personally carried out). In the "model" fashion of Tony's successful power-plays in Scarface, Joey too has the ability to withhold and then reveal events that drive and articulate the fiction (as earlier, when Joey is revealed to us, but none of the other protagonists, as the one who sets up the young assassins, and then in a double twist disposes of them). Confronting, in this savage terrain of raw power (the film's primitivist nostalgia), the person with whom he must negotiate, he suddenly takes the upper hand and forges a direct relation by whipping out of his bag the head of the "go-between" White Powder Ma – "let no motherless fuck ever raise his head between us again".

The language of bodily abjection (particularly in the anal mode) is laid on thick in Year of the Dragon. People in the way are to be "pissed on" and Stanley vows to Joey he will "last long enough to piss on your grave"; for Stanley to catch the Triad's punks is to have "one hand on their balls"; Stanley talks of having scar tissue on his soul; White Powder Ma describes the person (actually Joey to whom he is speaking, although he doesn't know it) who is murdering his way up the criminal hierarchy as a "miserable crow who flies up the ass of a dead animal to reach the gut without work"; and Joey is ticked off by his elders for thinking with his ass rather than his brain.

The film's conception of power is summed up in the indelible image (and sound) of the old Mafia chief. His body is old, beyond repair, his voice only producible through a mechanical amplification attached to his throat. Yet he stands not for the pathetic limit of bodily power (as does Tony in Scarface) but its force as will (the body which fiercely wills itself to stay alive) more than its attribute of accumulated wisdom (the canniness to stay in the position of power). The old man knows and identifies with the absolute and determining role of youth in a body – "all young men want power, that's what it means to be young" – and his decisions must always be made on the basis of a direct contact of bodies and wits ("let me look at his face"). He is in several symbolic respects the "father" who can be transgressed only at punishment of death.

Power is thus a matter of an eternally "young" body and its power-hungry drives. Cimino and Stone plug this body-power into a conception of the world which distinguishes pure and glorious warfare (Stanley: "this is a fuckin' war!") from the steady-state compromises of petty politics (which either keeps things merely simmering under the form of an "arrangement" between sides, or instils in one side the will to lose – "nobody wants to win...this is Vietnam all over again"). When this distinction comes into force, Stone is no longer able to, other than marginally, introduce the pragmatics of games and strategies with a conjuncture of players and forces – power is simply the elevation into pitch battle of two opposed forces who either cancel each other out or emerge one victorious and the other defeated.

MORE Cimino: Heaven's Gate

© Adrian Martin January 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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