From the producer Martin Scorsese, “Revenge of the Green Dragons” looks at the real Asian gang that terrorized the streets of New York City in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The story followed two immigrant brothers Sonny (Justin Chon) and Steven (Kevin Wu) who survived child poverty by joining the Chinatown gang “The Green Dragons.” The brothers climbed through the ranks quickly, which drew the attention of the New York City Police Department. After an ill-fated love affair that pits Sonny against his own brother, he sets out for revenge on the very gang who made him on who is he.
Latino-Review had an exclusive telephone interview with Harry Shum Jr., who played the mysterious and merciless gang leader Paul Wong in the film. We talked about the Asian gangs, Paul Wong and switching gears in acting away from “Glee” TV shows and “Step Up” movies.
“Revenge of the Green Dragons” is available on DirectTV now and playing in select theaters today.
Read the interview below.
Latino-Review: So you said it’s based off an article from New Yorker. So what did you read about this story?
Harry Shum Jr.: I read the article, which was like twenty or thirty pages in length. It’s about on how the gangs were organized called the Green Dragons. These guys were human traffickers and drug dealers. The leader, Paul Wong who I play, of this gang would recruit and use these young members, who were essentially like child soldiers. He would use these children to [kill] and get anything done for him.
He’s a very soft-spoken leader. He’s a very complex character and that’s what drove me into it. There’s a lot of levels and a lot to work with. So the turning point of the story is with Sonny, who is the main character in the movie, befriends my character. Their relationship was quite complicated. There were a lot of backstabbing and one took care of the other. With this gang story, it’s very interesting and complex.
Latino-Review: So how much extra research beyond this article? I read the same article, but I couldn’t find anything more about this Paul Wong person.
Harry Shum Jr.: Paul Wong in the article in many ways was very mysterious. There wasn’t a lot written about him. I pretty much had to create him. One of the actresses in the movie, Linda [Wang] was actually friends with Sonny’s girlfriend who met her demise in the film. She knew Paul and she had seen Paul Wong before. I based on what she had seen and the character development came there as well. It’s very rare to meet someone in this nature. I don’t know if he’s alive or not. No one knows where he is at this point right now.
So for her giving me a little bit of a glimpse, it really helped a lot. Most of it I had to create on my own as well. He’s very vicious, but what I did know for sure was that he was soft-spoken and didn’t look like a gang leader. He almost looked like a stand up cool shaven lawyer. You wouldn’t think this person would be involved in these extracurricular activities. With that I delved deeper into the psychosis on what motivated this person to do these things without remorse.
Latino-Review: What were the specific personality traits you had to stress upon for a person who most of us don’t know about?
Harry Shum Jr.: There were plenty [of personality traits] and it’s tough to nail down one. Being manipulative is definitely one thing that he was able to do. He was able to be your friend and you’ll put trust in him wholeheartedly. To be able to have that ability, I think that’s how he got that far. Under certain circumstances, he was able to control and got himself out of them because he was a master manipulator. It was that he was able to have these kids believe in him and put a lot of trust in him. They would look at him like he was some king and they would die for him. That was the strongest trait that he had going for him.
Latino-Review: He was a very strong character in the film. Now throughout the entire process, I learned a lot about these Asian gangs that I didn’t know about before. What surprised you the most that you learned about these Asian gangs while you were playing the role or researching?
Harry Shum Jr.: On what drove me home was on how no one stopped these gangs for a long period of time. There were certain codes like with Italian gangs and Mexican gangs in terms of the different races. With Asian gangs, there was a free for all. It blew my mind. It’s hard to pick up the motivations by being in the gang. It could be that you’re angry, frustrated and no one else cared in this world—making this as the only way to express it. By killing people and extorting, it made you feel a little bit better about yourself.
It may not be the primary motivation for these gangs, but it’s not specifically clear. It’s besides doing it for the specific reason for Paul Wong. You’ll find out these kids felt like they were getting screwed over and they would had to do something about it. They felt like to get something done was to be part of the gang.
You’ll see violence in different gangs, but this one took it towards a whole different level.
Latino-Review: No kidding. It’s not to mention that it really happened for real.
Harry Shum Jr.: Yeah, it’s not a fabricated story. The film was very violent in that sense, but it was a true depiction on what it was. Obviously, there were more that happened that wasn’t in the film. I think that Andrew Lau definitely captured on what it was like back then.
Latino-Review: I thought one of the trickier things to accomplish in this film was with speaking in Chinese, which seems like you were fluent with it. Was it difficult to speak different languages back and forth in the movie?
Harry Shum Jr.: I’m not very [good] with my Mandarin. But my Cantonese [is good] since I grew up speaking Cantonese. My parents do speak Cantonese. When this opportunity came, I felt comfortable, but at the same time—I speak just a little bit above basic Cantonese. I could speak it and hold long conversations with certain words. There are technical words that I wouldn’t know. Of course, during filming, Andrew Lau would help me along the way. At the same time, I was trying to develop my tongue to pronounce certain words.
It’s really nice to go back and forth. For this film, to be in the English language, is truthful to Paul Wong. He was able to speak in American and Chinese accents.
Latino-Review: Well, I’m not Chinese myself, but I’m actually Thai in real life. I couldn’t tell the difference. Was there a hint of accents really if you re-watch yourself?
Harry Shum Jr.: To me, for my character, there was a slight Chinese accent. I didn’t want to overdo the Chinese accent. There were elements that allowed me to turn it on and off, for which I tried to put it into the character. He was a master manipulator and one wouldn’t know on where he would be going. You can’t really beat this guy and you don’t know on what he would do. It’s the beauty of his process.
Latino-Review: Tell me about the directors, Wai-keung Lau and Andrew Loo. I had the feel that it was a hybrid between an American and a Hong Kong movie storytelling.
Harry Shum Jr.: Most definitely. Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo co-directed the movie. Andrew Lau directed “Infernal Affairs,” a Hong Kong original version that Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” came off of. Andrew Lau is a basically the Martin Scorsese of Hong Kong. In that Hong Kong industry, he mastered the gang crime thriller genre. He had a very specific way in shooting.
The shooting process was very different than what I’ve ever experienced. He shot things really fast. He didn’t have actual lighting and used a lot of natural lighting. He was very efficient in that aspect. The fast shooting was something you would have to get used to. I came from the background of TV and doing a couple of films. The Hong Kong film process is a lot different from the American film, in which it was a lot faster with a very quick turnaround.
Latino-Review: What was the most difficult thing you had to do on this project?
Harry Shum Jr.: The most difficult thing for me was in the story with [Sonny’s] girlfriend taking her last breath. The story that I was told was it took place in the forest and taught him a lesson. To get that in a real place, we had to conjure the feelings of abandonment. It was seeing that someone they loved for the very last time. It was very difficult to be [in that scene] and to see it on an actual film. By getting into the psychosis of this mad man, you have to hide it under your skin without showing your anger and the madness.
It was a hard feat by itself and it was challenging. I was also exhilarating at the same time since I came from a different background of playing these happy characters from a joyful place. This is a really dark character and was difficult to get into.
Latino-Review: I know you loved doing the “Glee” television shows and the “Step Up” movies by being all happy with the singing and dancing. Are you going to continue this path or do you want to do more dramatic roles?
Harry Shum Jr.: I just want to do any interesting characters. I don’t care if they’re happy or sad or angry. It’s on where they’re coming from. People ask me, “Do you like dancing or do you like acting?” They’re all interconnected. With dancing, I’m acting through physical movement. When I’m acting, I’m dancing with my emotions. I find the balance in the two and try to utilize it. I’m not going to be dancing in everything I do, but I feel like acting in everything that I do no matter what.
So I do want to continue in this angle. Right now I’m filming “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” sequel over in New Zealand right now. It should come out next year. I’m having a blast. It’s an incredible story with very rich characters with some bad ass martial arts by Yuen Woo-ping. I just want to keep continuing and doing interesting characters.
Latino-Review: Thank you with this conversation and good luck with your future endeavors.
Harry Shum Jr.: Thank you. I appreciate it.
“Revenge of the Green Dragons” is out in select theaters today and on DirectTV.