Like so many stories, this one began in a bar with a group of guys throwing down shots and yakking about the ways things happen and why. It's a ubiquitous ceremony among the peoples of the world, and the peoples of this world happened to be Chinese-American. And one of them was the astonishingly accomplished young playwrigh David Henry Hwang, author of the renowned "M. Butterfly."
But even playwrights can learn. What Hwang learned that day was that in the early 1950s, the FBI, seeking a communist-free America, mounted an assault on San Francisco's Chinese-American community. They succeeded in putting several people in prison on a statute never before, or since, used: Trading with the enemy. The crime? Sending money back to the family in mainland China. Dum da dum dum! Calling Sgt. Joe Friday! Dick Tracy, report to Chinatown, your country needs you!
"It seemed to me to be the Chinese-American equivalent of, and at least as interesting as, the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II," says Hwang, 36, on the phone from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. "And it points up a tragic fact: that the larger society didn't see us as Americans, quite, even though we'd been here for many generations."
Like any writer, Hwang carried this hot little tidbit around in his head for a few years, not quite sure how to deal with it.
"Then a certain kind of plot started coming into my mind," he recalls, "A revenge plot, like 'Les Miserables' or 'Manon of the Spring,' played out over years and years." This, by the way, is how writers' minds work: plots, unbidden, come bumbling into the head and will not stop clamoring for attention until they are satisfied.
So, plot-hot and incident-rich, Hwang sat down to write "Golden Gate," which begins with the original crime, then follows its ramifications and the forces of vengeance and retribution it releases over the course of two decades, from 1952 to 1967.
But strange forces came to play across the story. For one thing, Hwang knew that his young federal agent wouldn't be the villain but in a certain way a victim himself of the institution he represented.
"I've always been interested in the way that people do bad things on the surface, but then you begin to explore the reasons for that behavior and it's very interersting dramatically," he says.
Thus his young G-man, played by Matt Dillon, is initially portrayed as a kind of joyous, bounding young pup, in love with his job and enflamed by his crusade.
"I admit the influence of 'GoodFellas,' " recalls Hwang. "I wanted to show the seductions of that life, and why it was that young men fell into it. It's not that the FBI and the Mafia are morally equivalent, but both offer the attractions of extraordinary power and the sense of being an elite."
The film depicts a tragic romance: the agent falls in love with the daughter (Joan Chen) of the man he's arrested, and she with him. But when she learns who he is, she turns on him. He responds in a strange way, by becoming the man he destroyed.
This is Hwang's first original screenplay. He is himself making a transition between worlds: Having clearly mastered the stage, he's coming off an intense period of screenwriting -- including screenplays for "M. Butterfly" and "Golden Gate," but also adapting Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" for Martin Scorsese, A.S. Byatt's "Possession" for Sidney Pollack, Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy" for a major studio, and a novel, "The Alienist," for a major producer.
"I'd say it's been a learning experience going from the theater to films," says Hwang. "You discover that the rules are slightly different. Theater, for example, begins as artifice and the audience expects to pay attention. They want to work hard.
"Film is set in a 'real world,' and you can't quite count on the audience's undiluted concentration. Thus on stage, you're much freer to manipulate tones; something completely absurd can happen, the audience accepts it and you go on from there. In film, that sort of thing is much harder to pull off. You've got to pretty much stay within the same central tone you establish."
There are also practical issues of control.
"In the theater, the writer is respected and revered. Not so of course in the film world. For example, for 'M. Butterfly' I wrote the screenplay, but the movie that came out was truly David Cronenberg's, not mine. I just wrote it and was out of the loop. The movie turned out much different than the screenplay, and one always has to wonder: Would it have been better had they done it my way? I just don't know. I suppose I'm somewhat spoiled by the theater."
But Hwang has not given up on the stage; indeed, as a kind of dessert for his hard couple of years' work in the film industry, he's promised himself a major play for this year.