By Tyler Rea
What happens when a Chinese guy tries to join the Italian MOB? This is the premise examined in Mark Wiley’s new film, Made in Chinatown. It’s a unique fish-out-of-water comedy-of-manners that looks at what it means to be an American in the 21st century. Not a Chinese-American or an Italian-American, just an American. And it took 20 years to be made!
“I had the idea for the story in 1999,” recalls Wiley. “I was visiting New York’s Chinatown and tried to enter a Chinese association, and they refused me entrance; it was ‘Chinese only’ and I was a White kid. So, I walked across Canal Street and had lunch in Little Italy, where I pondered what would happen if a Chinese guy tried to join an Italian association. As I ate my chicken parmigiana, I started cracking up at the idea of a Chinese guy in his 20s trying to get a neighborhood Italian girl by joining the Italian MOB. Could such a thing happen? And if so, what would it take?”
What many people outside of New York may not realize is that Canal Street divides Little Italy and Chinatown. The neighborhoods literally are separate and combined in some areas. Having this type of ethnic diversity and homogenization at the same time makes a brilliant stage for such a comedic story.
Wiley remembers that it took over a decade for the story to take form. “I wanted this to be a comedy, yet I kept writing the protagonist into dark scenarios. What if he was brought in the MOB just to infiltrate Chinatown,” remembers Wiley, “and he must burn down his dad’s produce stand? On the comedy side I just kept coming up with funny scenarios, like he tries to shake down a deli and ends up buying some cheese and borrowing money to pay for it.”
That deli scene made it into the film, and ‘Salame the Deli Man’ is played by stand-up comedian Jeff “Fat Rat Bastard” Pirrami.
The funny names and scenarios then emerged. Wiley then sent the script to several coverage readers and developed the story further, then sent it out to everyone he could think of in the film business (including long shots like Rob Reiner). But no one would read the script or return his calls. And despite being the author of 15 books, Mark couldn’t get an agent to represent him to the studios. Two decades passed without him giving up and in the end, Wiley developed a unique story played out by a dream cast of film and TV stars he grew up admiring.
“It was unbelievable to me that all of these fixtures of film and television would want to be in my little movie,” recalls Wiley. “I mean, no one would give the script a look and then all the sudden all of my heroes are calling and then standing in front of me on set acting out my script! The saying is true, that everything has its time. I believed in the story so much that I just never gave up.”
The plot of Made in Chinatown centers around Vincent “Vinny” Chow, played by Jay Kwon (The Punisher, Iron Fist), a second-generation Chinese-American who grew up in Chinatown but dismisses his own culture to join another in order to date a neighborhood Italian girl, Tina (Theresa Moriarty, Dead Sound). Vinny sees himself as a New Yorker, an American, who can be anything he wants—so why can’t he be an Italian wiseguy? After all, he can repeat all the best lines from his favorite movies. His best friends are a chubby Italian guy named Joey Risotto (Timothy Chivalette, Glass) and a gay, Black classical actor named Lawrence (Emmanuel Brown, Blindspot). He sees his parents (Fenton Li, The Blacklist and Patricia Chu, Orange is the New Black) stuck in old Chinese ways and not thriving in America. The Chow’s best friends are the Wongs (Greg Lee, Madam Secretary and Karen Tsen Lee, Law and Order: SVU) and their daughter May (Shuya Chang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny). The Wongs embrace American ways and have a nicer life.
The subplot examines tensions between the Italian MOB crews of Manhattan and Brooklyn and the Chinatown Triad. Manhattan’s MOB boss is Al Capella, played by the timeless Tony Darrow (Sopranos, Goodfellas, Analyze This). He runs a tight crew, handles business and is supported by underboss Frankie Brows (Paul Borghese, The Irishman, Back in the Day), and enforcers Paulie (Chris Caldovino, Boardwalk Empire, Sopranos) and Danny Boy (Danny Collingo).
Brooklyn’s MOB boss is Amador Condimento, played by the multi-talented Vincent Pastore (Sopranos, Mickey Blue Eyes, A Fish Tale), who runs his condiments business out of an old boxing gym. His ragtag crew includes underboss Fountain Soda Eddie (Tony Ray Rossi, Analyze This, Donny Brasco), playboy Vito (Zach Beyer, The Sultan and the Saint) and Luigi (stand-up comedian Goumba Johnny Sialiano).
Then there’s Chinatown’s Triad boss Hung Phat, played by Hong Kong cinema’s unbeatable Lo Meng (Ip Man IV, Kid with the Golden Arms, Five Venoms). His crew includes Kane, played by Emmy winner James Lew (Luke Cage, Rush Hour, Big Trouble in Little China) and Ming (Shing Ka, Sarah Q, Revenge of the Green Dragons).
They’re all involved in the underbelly of the condiments trade. The illegal trafficking of oils, spices, and herbs has been around for centuries, begun by the great Italian explorer Marco Polo—and its very serious business for these crime families. Recently, they’ve been trying to move in on each other’s territory and tensions are high. And when a Chinese guy starts poking around and tries to join the MOB, the double-crossing begins!
In his many attempts to prove himself MOB-worthy, Vinny is drawn into a web of intrigue instigated by New York’s dirty crime commissioner Sean O’Greedy, played by the incomparable Raymond J. Barry (Gotham, Walk Hard, Year of the Dragon), who is playing all the bosses against each another to bolster his own power.
With the help of his kung-fu master (Tak Wah Eng, The Streets, Revenge of the Green Dragons), and two uncanny Special Agents (Bob Martin, BET Tonight and Bobby Samuels, The Secret War), Vinny goes “deep undercover” to infiltrate the MOB where he finds Chinese culture at the center of who he truly is.
The supporting cast is made up of big names, too. There’s Chiu Chi Ling (Kung-Fu Hustle, Snake in the Easgle’s Shadow), Joseph D’Onofrio (A Bronx Tale, Goodfellas), William DeMeo (Gotti, Back in the Day), Artie Pasquale (Sopranos, Brooklyn Banker), Celia Au (Wu Assassins, Snakehead), Maggie Wagner (Damage Control, Sarah Q), Geoff Lee (The Streets, Year of the Dragon), Stefano Da Fre (Sarah Q, American Fango). To match the action with the acting, in addition to the legends Lo Meng, Chiu Chi Ling, and Tak Wah Eng, Wiley cast several kung-fu masters too, including Peter Ngai (Pak Mei), Paul Sun (Praying Mantis), Steven Chan (Hsing I) and Paul Koh (Fu Jow Pai). Made in Chinatown truly is the first-ever MOB/kung-fu action/comedy. And with no cursing or blood the film appeals to a vast audience, from families to hardcore MOB movie fans and those legions of fans of Hong Kong cinema and kung-fu movies.
“I remember how crazy it was to get a call, and the voice on the other side said, ‘Mark, the script is funny! The Chinese guy tries to get Made!’ I had no idea whose number or voice it was and asked. “It’s me, Vinny! It’s ‘Big Pussy.’ You need to get as many Sopranos into the movie as possible.’ It was a dream come true to get this call, have such an amazing actor love it, and want to help me cast the Italian roles.”
“We all loved working on this film,” recalls Tony Darrow. “It was like a reunion for many of us. Mark Wiley wrote the script, got the money, produced the film and is selling it. He takes on everything. We’re all so proud of the film. I love that kid. We’re developing a new project together.”
Wiley is quick to give due praise to his team of seasoned producers (Gine Lui, Wing Yeong, Elizabeth Yau, and Shing Ka). “With these four special people, who always had my back and the best interest of the project in mind each day, it would not have happened.”
The title Made in Chinatown is a play on the phrase “Made in China” and the Italian Mafia’s notion of being “Made.” And so, Vinny Chow literally is Made in Chinatown.
With great post-production work at Fusion Factory Films the feature is now looking for a great distributor to bring this “dream movie” to theaters. It’s already been named among “The Best Martial Arts/Action Movies to Look Forward To in 2019” by Asian Movie Pulse. While it may have taken 20 years to make, fans hope they wont have to wait another 20 to see it!