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THE ‘DRAGON’ WARS: A HARD-FOUGHT MONTH

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The latest bullets from the “Year of the Dragon” battlefront:

--The film’s co-author says the movie is truthful.

--Two Chinese coalitions say the movie is libelous.

--A city councilman says the movie encourages racism.

That’s where the debate now stands on “Year of the Dragon,” the Chinese gang-war film that is disappearing at the box office but continues to show a remarkable ability to generate controversy outside the movie theaters.

While MGM/UA, the film’s distributor, refuses to talk about the alleged racism issue, one of the key creative forces behind the film has lighted a backfire by condemning some of the film’s critics.

Oliver Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Year of the Dragon” with director Michael Cimino, told The Times on Thursday that the film is being “misperceived” by Asian-American organizations critical of it and that such organizations are “full of hot air.” A source close to the film’s production, who asked to remain anonymous, added that MGM/UA’s Aug. 29 decision to attach an apologetic disclaimer to 200 prints of the film was an example of “corporate cowardice.”

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Meanwhile, two coalitions of Chinese-Americans have filed a $100 million class-action libel suit against MGM/UA and the film’s makers as City Councilman Michael Woo took steps to prevent another “Year of the Dragon” clash from occurring.

But despite all of this fervent publicity--which some say must increase the public’s curiosity--”Year of the Dragon” appears to be proving itself just another box-office clunker from MGM/UA, a studio plagued by a number of recent disappointments. “Year of the Dragon,” a look at a bloody fight between a stubborn police captain and a ruthless Chinese crime syndicate, cost an estimated $20 million but grossed just $2.6 million last weekend, and has grossed only $13 million since it was released Aug. 16.

As of this week, “Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird” has larger box-office revenues.

One question in the “Year of the Dragon” debate is whether a film that features such words as “nigger,” “spic,” “polack” and “chink” is a movie about racists or a movie that is racist.

Critics of the film say that “Year of the Dragon” is, indeed, a racist movie, not so much because it features such derogatory labeling but because its portrayal of Asians as either incompetents or criminals promotes negative stereotypes. Many critics say that what incenses them about the film is that when white audiences watch it, the whites howl with glee when a Chinese character speaks rapidly with a thick accent or drives a car on the wrong side of the street. One “Year of the Dragon” protester said that when she saw the film, a member of the audience yelled “Kill the Chinks!”

A visit to a Pasadena screening of the film failed to find similar shouts, but did confirm that the audience--mostly white--snickered at certain Asian characters.

Still, Oliver Stone believes the film is fair. According to Stone, the violence-riddled film represents “an inside view of (New York’s Chinatown) that too many people want to ignore. I think we re-created the truth.”

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Stone has a history of controversial films: “Midnight Express,” which he wrote, was attacked by Turks; “Scarface,” which he also wrote, by Cubans.

And now some Chinese-Americans are attacking “Year of the Dragon.”

The Federation of Chinese Organizations of America and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn. has gone so far as to take its criticism of the film to court. In a suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Aug. 30, they contend that “Year of the Dragon” is “libelous on its face, in that it falsely, either directly or by implication, portrays members of (the two organizations) as criminals and as part of a Chinese crime syndicate, thereby exposing members of (the two organizations) to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy.”

The suit argues that in one particular “Year of the Dragon” scene, four Chinese-language pictographs (characters) that are claimed to translate into English as “Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association” are linked with crime by appearing on the screen immediately before a meeting of Chinese gang leaders. (The association describes itself as a national support group with thousands of members.)

In addition to asking for $100 million in damages, the suit asks that MGM/UA be enjoined from showing the film until the reference to the association is removed. Frank Rothman, MGM/UA chairman and chief executive officer, did not return phone calls about the lawsuit.

Michael Woo, the first Los Angeles City Councilman of Asian descent, said he has offered the association any help he can give it with its suit.

But Woo, who was instrumental in initiating negotiations with MGM/UA over the disclaimer, is more interested in preventing future “Year of the Dragons” from happening. “The problem within the film industry,” said Woo on Thursday, “is that it has to come to some sort of ethnic understanding.”

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Woo added that to reach that understanding, the industry must take steps to involve Asians in the decision-making process. While not calling for hiring quotas, Woo pushed three points:

--That the industry establish an advisory committee composed of Asian-Americans. The committee would examine scripts relevant to Asians and offer suggestions.

--That the production of films featuring positive portrayals of Asians be encouraged.

--That MGM/UA make a monetary contribution to the Asian community since, Woo claimed, “the studio is potentially making money over what I consider to be a highly misleading portrayal.”

Woo said he is in negotiations with Rothman over these three issues.

If protests over “Year of the Dragon” continue, and if the libel suit against MGM/UA makes any progress in the courts, there is a chance--perhaps slim--that MGM/UA will re-edit the film when it is transferred to videocassette and sold to cable-TV programmers.

Such was the case with 1984’s “16 Candles,” widely criticized by the Asian community and others as offensive. In the original version of the film, a character by the name of Long Duk Dong is kicked while lying on the ground after he crashes a car. When shown on the Z Channel, the kicking scene was removed.

Co-writer Oliver Stone wouldn’t want to see that happen to “Year of the Dragon.” He is convinced that his research in Chinatown has produced a film that, he said, is true to life. The criticisms of “Year of the Dragon” as a racist film, he said, are “unfortunate.”

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“There is no way to escape offending someone,” he said, “if you’re writing about something important. But it’s at the point where you cannot even do that. Nowadays, you cannot make a movie that says anything. It’s reached the point of blandness.”

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