Touted as an “erotic thriller”– a genre that effectively means neo-noir?*– Joe Eszterhas’s film features several veteran supporting actors such as Victor Wong, Kevin Tighe, and Richard Crenna. It’s a shame that these actors– or Donna Murphy for that matter, whose character Det. Karen Heller would have made for a very interesting protagonist– weren’t given more things to do and say.
Jade’s tagline asserts that “some fantasies go too far”– the obvious reply to which is that others don’t go far enough. It’s interesting to ponder what a “too far” Jade would look like. The film’s most transgressive moment for its implied audience comes when Trina admits she’s been enjoying afternoons of anonymous sex with multiple partners in an oceanside “fuck pad” (as Inspector Petey Vasko, played by Ken King phrases it) not so much to punish her cheating husband than as a fulfilling hobby.
Linda Fiorentino (Unforgettable, The Last Seduction)– possibly the Lizabeth Scott of her generation– stars as Trina Gavin, whose name all these years later inevitably evokes California’s current governor, the hoarse and impeccably gelled Gavin Newsom. Chazz Palmintieri, fresh off his success in The Usual Suspects, plays Trina’s husband Matt, an unctuous, politically connected lawyer whose Bronx accent allows him to actually get away with saying things like “paisan.”
As with many SF noir films Chinatown shoulders a lot of dramatic weight. The foot-chase sequence threading Chinatown’s back alleys when Corelli and Inspector Vasko go looking for a person of interest, hair-dresser/ call girl Patrice Jacinto, includes vivid shots of a Chinese opera, a clear reference to Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai.
Such action precedes an homage to 1968’s Bullitt, when someone cuts the brake lines in Corelli’s car and he hurtles down Lombard St. like a sedan-sized juggernaut past pedestrians and a school bus. This sequence represents the mere preview to another, extended car chase up and down SF’s hills, stitched together from locales including Twin Peaks, Nob Hill and Grant St. Ploughing through a Chinese New Year parade (apparently it’s February), Corelli barely escapes as enraged residents threaten to drag him from his car to dismantle him.
The repeated invocation of Chinatown as a distinctive, exotic space paradoxically makes the City itself more opaque– something fundamentally difficult to parse. This is a version of screen Orientalism, one that transmits the properties of one space– the ethnic enclave of Chinatown, with its embedded rituals and particular human geography– to the larger urban environment. As a mystifying gesture, Chinatown-as-the-City has a lengthy provenance, from the urban photography of Arnold Genthe and the (white) touristic gaze of late-nineteenth century journalism, arguably through post-Civil Rights Era films like Chan is Missing and (much more problematically) Year of the Dragon. The difference, of course, depends on the position from which things are viewed.
But it is the arrogance of the (hetero cis white male) ruling class which fuels the violence and decadence of Jade’s storyworld. Governor Edwards (Crenna) swears like LBJ and clearly enjoys sex with professionals. And while he feels no remorse at all for his sins, he’s aware of a need to keep things tidy. When Corelli visits the governor with recently discovered photos depicting him in flagrante delicto the following exchange occurs:
Gov. Edwards: If you drag me into this business, David, if my name even shows up on the periphery of this, David, you better get the fuck out of the state of California because you’ll have as much of a future here as Jerry Brown.
Corelli: Who is Jerry Brown?
Brown, of course was governor of the state from 1975 to 1983 and 2011 to 2019.
Jade’s greatest disappointment lies with the fact that Trina– poised, amoral, perverse– becomes a victim. Fiorentino, an actor so good at being bad, deserves to play a genuine femme fatale. Yet the final reversal leaves us with a chastened Trina and her oddly empowered husband, whose knowledge of his wife’s infidelities only sharpens his appetites.
The sporadic use of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring lends a propulsive quality to some of the scenes but ultimately fails to direct the film’s winding plot.
Michael Biehn sports a solid cop mustache.
*According to Linda Williams’s The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema “Danger and sex combine in a format which is both thriller and skin-flick, often figuring a female protagonist who herself straddles the roles of sexual interest, enraged victim and vigilante survivor” (2).