Dragon Boys shoot for truth

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Two Chinese seniors are bludgeoned to death in a violent suburban home invasion; a Caucasian drug dealer is hacked up by an Asian gang; a Chinese Canadian teenager goes missing under suspicious circumstances. Are these news headlines? A Hollywood movie? While they could be either, these scenarios are from a new CBC TV miniseries called Dragon Boys ( www.dragonboys.ca/). The two-part drama about Asian organized crime in the Lower Mainland, which airs Sunday and Monday (January 7 and 8 at 8 p.m.), follows multiple story lines and covers everything from Triads to seedy massage parlours and employs multilingual dialogue (English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Khmer, the language of Cambodia).

A riveting script is what attracted an international slate of film and TV stars to the project. Hong Kong luminaries Lawrence Chou and Eric Tsang are gangsters who face off against the Richmond RCMP anti-gang squad’s Tommy Jiang, played by Byron Mann (Dark Angel, Red Corner); The Quiet American’s Tzi Ma and Christina Ma of Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity are the parents of a troubled teenager (Simon Wong) headed down the wrong path; and Saskatoon-raised Steph Song (Everything’s Gone Green) plays a Cambodian girl forced into prostitution.

In a phone interview with the Straight, screenwriter Ian Weir describes the casting process as “a huge eye-opener” and says it is “jaw-dropping how deep and broad that [Asian Canadian talent] pool now is.”

Not everyone, however, was as enthusiastic, Weir says. “When the project was first announced by CBC, there was real concern in the Chinese community in Vancouver. They’d been burned before, and they’re looking at a situation where you’ve got a white producer, a white writer: ”˜Are we looking at insulting, two-dimensional stereotypes of Asian characters that we’ve seen before? Is this what the whole project is going to be about?’”

Weir describes the learning curve as akin to “climbing Mount Everest”. He spent two years researching not just Asian organized crime but Chinese culture as well. To ensure authenticity, Weir worked with cultural consultants Jim Wong-Chu of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop and journalist-filmmaker Colleen Leung. With such controversial material, the scriptwriting process became an exercise in the politics of representation. “What I discovered,” Weir says, “is it’s so easy for a member of the dominant culture to have one set of assumptions about power relationships and power structures which is completely skewed towards my perspective, which is the middle-aged white guy.” He points out, for example, that the character of a Chinese Canadian RCMP superintendent was originally Caucasian until Wong-Chu objected, asking “”˜Why can’t he be a Chinese asshole? Why is the boss always white?’”

Cantonese and Khmer translators assisted with the script (the Mandarin dialogue was improvised by actors Eric Tsang and Jean Yoon). When the character of Chavy Pahn was changed from Chinese to Cambodian to reflect current immigration patterns, Steph Song, who had already been cast in the role, had to learn to deliver lines in Khmer. Chavy’s isolation is intensified by the language barrier—she can’t speak English, Cantonese, or Mandarin—and magnifies her helplessness.

Both Weir and director Jerry Ciccoritti (Trudeau; Paris, France) actively ?solicited input from the actors. Weir says, “As a white guy, I would never have attempted this if I were a novelist because a novelist is flying solo, but as a dramatist, you’re working hand in hand with actors. I was working all the way along with actors who themselves are Chinese Canadian and were able to go to places which on my own I could never have gone to.”

Over coffee at a Broadway restaurant, part-time Vancouverite Byron Mann emphasizes that “the intention of the film was to ”˜get it right’, to be as accurate as possible.” Mann, however, ensured the filmmakers didn’t shy away from gritty material. “Very early on, one of the things that I encouraged the producers to do was [to] not go soft on the subject matter, don’t water it down, don’t be afraid to go all the way to the truth.’” Accordingly, Mann spent time with RCMP officers and learned about how they deal with gangs in order to prepare for his role. Meanwhile, Weir worked with Cpl. David Au of the Richmond RCMP anti-gang squad on the script.

Mann also objected to his character’s wife being changed to Chinese because he saw his character as a banana who “grew up thinking he’s a white man”¦a guy who has never dated Asian girls.” From the start, Mann’s character is working through a strained relationship with his Caucasian wife, and the gangsters hook up with Caucasian women. Unlike most Hollywood depictions of Asian males as monklike, these Dragon Boys, both good and bad, are definitely “getting some”.

They’ll also be getting more. Weir says CBC has already commissioned a two-hour movie-of-the-week sequel that picks up the story three years later. Work on the script has already begun, with the hope of shooting this fall. Although it’s the year of the pig, it may also prove to be the year of the Dragon.