China Girl

(Abel Ferrara, USA, 1987)


"The thing you can do in film is take physical objects and study them" (Ferrara). In China Girl, Ferrara and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli take the trademarked slick look of ’80s film, television and advertising – the look that turns every surface into a glazed design object or lifestyle accessory – and transform it into something wondrous, mobile, bottomless.

The entire movie – a modern star-crossed-lovers-in-the-hood melodrama, with respectful nods to Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story – is hooked to an aesthetic "high", whether representing scenes of love, violence or gangland tensions (Little Italy versus Chinatown). Everything is a play of shadows approaching and receding; reflections in water still, shimmering or disturbed; struggles between light and dark forms and the metamorphoses between them – expertly cut to a soundtrack of beats, cries, provocations and counter-provocations.

Everything here seems keyed to the stylised realms of music and dance, poised just before the point of becoming a full-blown musical (a genre that attracts Ferrara). An early dance scene that sets off the attraction of the young lovers is a gem.

China Girl is unusual in the director’s oeuvre – albeit no less fatalistic – in its foregrounding of a romantic couple; henceforth, all such affairs will be dissolved into perverse triangles, daisy-chain encounters and the ubiquitous monitoring of groups, families or communities.

Already here, in Nicholas St John’s script, the social collective is never far away: the eternal fight over territory allows Ferrara to make his first elaborated sketch of society as a prison, harshly geometric and devoted to the policing of personal lives and identities.

MORE Ferrara: The Addiction, Bad Lieutenant, The Blackout, Ms. 45, New Rose Hotel, ‘R Xmas, Pasolini, Mary, King of New York

© Adrian Martin June 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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