For Playwright Hwang, Mediums Change While Themes Stay the Same on Screen as on Stage, `M. Butterfly' Writer Addresses Race Relations

By Marilynne S. Mason, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 13, 1994 | Go to article overview

For Playwright Hwang, Mediums Change While Themes Stay the Same on Screen as on Stage, `M. Butterfly' Writer Addresses Race Relations


Marilynne S. Mason, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


DAVID HENRY HWANG has made the difficult switch from writing plays to writing movies. His "Golden Gate," directed by John Madden, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Hwang has already established himself as an important force in American theater. His first play, "FOB," written as a senior at Yale, opened in the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1980 where it won the Obie for Best New Play.

Since then, he has collaborated with Philip Glass, won a variety of awards, grants, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has written screenplays for Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack. His Tony Award-winning "M. Butterfly" has been produced in 36 countries around the world, making him a phenomenon among young American playwrights.

"Golden Gate" is a highly stylized fable about a white FBI agent who frames a Chinese immigrant on a phony charge. When the man is released after 10 years in prison, he is rejected by his own people and commits suicide. In remorse, the FBI agent (played by Matt Dillon) tries to make amends to the man's daughter (Joan Chen), watching over her like a good angel - until she learns the truth. A love story about an impossible love, the film defies Hollywood realism, relying on some unusual theatrical tactics to layer the story with symbolism and social commentary. The form, with its nod toward "magic realism," is meant to underscore the artificial sentiments of the period.

Hwang finds writing for the movies very different from the stage, where, he says, the author is still king.

Regardless of the medium, his motivation for taking on a particular subject remains the same.

"The whole reason," he says, "is to reveal something to myself. I don't know how the characters will evolve. I have a sense of a beginning and an ending. But I often compare writing to a road trip. I'm driving from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, but I don't know how I'm going to get there. The process of finding the road is the exciting thing about writing."

"Golden Gate" is a spiritual journey, he says. The idea for the film came from some Chinese-American friends.

"They told me about these people who had been hounded by the FBI in the 1950s, how they were prosecuted for sending money {innocently} back home to their families in China," says Hwang, who is Chinese-American.

"They did go to jail and were ostracized by their people when they got out, and then one of them committed suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. …

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