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'Golden Gate' (R)

By David Mills
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 28, 1994

It's hard to know quite how to take "Golden Gate," the new romantic movie by award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly"). It wants to be essentially an airy fable, or so it would seem from the very first words of narration: "There once was a man who transformed himself into an angel." Allusions to angels and devils and other spirit-type stuff turn up throughout "Golden Gate," sometimes rather slyly (as when Chinese doo-woppers sing a bit of "Earth Angel") and sometimes as explications of theme (as when we learn the legend behind a carved-ivory "Goddess of Mercy").

The fairy-tale nature of "Golden Gate" is reinforced by the approach of British director John Madden ("Ethan Frome"), who favors such stagy devices as having star Matt Dillon and early love interest Teri Polo carry on a personal conversation in the midst of a trial -- with Dillon on the witness stand, Polo in the back of the courtroom, and lawyers blathering on as if nothing were the matter. In fact, the entire acting style of the film is purposefully artificial and overblown.

At the same time, "Golden Gate" seems to think it's a knee-slapping satire as well. Bruno Kirby plays a boob of an FBI man who, when a case goes bad, slams down the phone and barks to himself, "Damn, I hate due process!" Stan Egi plays a '60s campus radical as pompous clown. And yet "Golden Gate" is tackling subjects not usually thought of as comic: the Red Scare, racial injustice, governmental abuse of police powers, guilt, shame, suicide. Indeed, the filmmakers want people to take these subjects seriously. I think.

As "Golden Gate" unfolds, you find yourself trying to figure out its form instead of investing in the characters and the story. How deeply should one invest, anyway, in a whimsical fable? How about a whimsical fable about existential agony?

The story centers on Dillon as FBI agent Kevin Walker, a brash youngster assigned to San Francisco's Chinatown in the early '50s to sniff out Commies. He trumps up a case against laundryman and labor organizer Chen Jung Song (Tzi Ma), who is sent to prison and disowned by his fellow Chinese. Years pass, and Walker develops humongous guilt feelings over this. His crisis of the soul is compounded when he falls in love with Song's daughter Marilyn, played by the mesmerizing Joan Chen.

The best part of "Golden Gate" is Dillon's courting of Chen. It's the one element of the story that seems to come at you straight, no distracting arty flourishes, no broad jokes, no political lessons. Here are simply two gorgeous actors playing at falling in love -- over a malted milkshake, no less! -- and it is lovely.

Marilyn eventually discovers, of course, that this is the badge-carrying jerk who ruined her father's life. And soon Hwang is heaping on the mystical Eastern hokum, having to do with some sort of spiritual transference between the laundryman and his victimizer. (Ancient Chinese secret, huh?) For the audience, it's head-scratching time until the final credits.

"Golden Gate" is rated R for profanity.

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