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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

More Trouble in Little China

 BTILC 1

 ***The following is a piece I wrote to introduce Big Trouble in Little China at a screening at UC Santa Cruz. I’ve slightly re-edited it for LoveHKFilm.com Hope you enjoy it. ***

The film I’d like to talk about today is the very epitome of a cult classic. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China may have flamed out at the box office in 1986, but it eventually rose like a phoenix from the ashes on home video, cable, and DVD, garnering a fervent cult following. Twenty-three years later, there are a number of theories as to why it didn’t click with audiences at the time. Maybe it was bad publicity, maybe no publicity, or, as I would like to think, maybe it was simply a few light years ahead of everything else out there.

Even so, I think, in some respects, the movie could be considered a bit old-fashioned – and not just because it boasts the kind of rapid-fire line delivery you’d see in such Howard Hawks films as Bringing up Baby and His Girl Friday. No, it’s the genre. Big Trouble’s resemblance to a Western is neither accidental nor merely symptomatic of Carpenter’s own filmmaking tastes. Before Buckeroo Banzai director W.D. Richter was brought in for rewrites, the original screenplay by Gary Goldman and David Weinstein set the events of the film in the Old West. The original plot centered on a cowboy who drifts into San Francisco’s Chinatown, gets his beloved horse stolen, and finds himself fighting for his life in a mystical Chinatown underworld.

I would propose that it’s Big Trouble’s very resemblance to a typical Western that perhaps gives some people the wrong impression about the film. After all, on the surface at least, Big Trouble in Little China seems to be yet another story of your typical white guy, real American hero. This outsider with insider’s knowledge, who just so happens to walk with a John Wayne swagger and the enunciation to match, wanders into town (in this case, an exoticized space coded as “foreign” and “dangerous”), wins over the locals, saves the day, and rides off into the sunset. And I guess that’s kind of what happens. But not really. That’s just the cover story or, at the very least, the kind of synopsis one might accept if they were only casually aware of this film or, if they had actually seen it, weren’t paying too much attention.

At its heart, Big Trouble in Little China is a proto-“Bromance” between two Californians, truck driver Jack Burton (Carpenter alum Kurt Russell) and his best, perhaps only real friend in the world, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), who are – racial differences not withstanding – two reasonable men about to experience some very unreasonable things. In the process, however, expectations about just who’s supposed to be the leading man and who’s supposed to be the sidekick gets completely flipped…with hilarious results.

And perhaps it’s this very clever role reversal that makes the pre-release controversy surrounding the film seem a bit puzzling. According to Carpenter, the Asian American community was none too pleased with the project. During filming and after the finished film was released, Carpenter was accused of resurrecting old stereotypes. In Roger Ebert’s own review, he said the film comes “straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all of the usual stereotypes.” It would take a long time to situate the dense history that Ebert’s referencing here, but what I’d like to suggest to you about this controversy is that it may just be a case of wrong place, wrong time for Carpenter and company.

You have to understand that in 1981, the producers of a film called Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen had tried to film in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Protesters, angry that Chan was once again played by a white actor – in this case, Peter Ustinov, forcibly ejected the production from Chinatown, and all of the Chinatown sequences you see in the finished film are shot on a studio lot. Fast-forward to 1985, and you have the emergence of another controversial film for the Chinese American community – Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon, starring Mickey Rourke in a modern-day update of another familiar Western plot: the new sheriff hell-bent on cleaning up the town, although in this case, the sheriff (Captain actually) is a bigot and the town in question is a thoroughly corrupt vision of New York City’s Chinatown (the film also stars Big Trouble’s Dennis Dun and Victor Wong, if you’re looking for an intertext).

Now, if those two controversies weren’t enough, you’d also need to remember that, historically speaking, Chinatown has often been depicted in American pop culture as some kind of Orientalized underworld, a place where up is down, black is white, and you don’t know what the hell is really going on – if you’ve seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, you have the crystallization of that entire imagined world in a single line of dialogue at the end. And you can’t totally say that this kind of Orientalizing doesn’t occur in Big Trouble in Little China. After all, Carpenter takes all these swirling associations surrounding Chinatown and pushes it to an over-the-top extreme, literalizing the idea of Chinatown as an underworld in ways that I’m sure ruffled a few feathers. I mean, you don’t get any more literal an underworld than one dripping in the “black blood of the earth.”

Instead of getting hung up on this very narrow reading of the film, what I would like to do instead is to propose a couple alternative lenses through which to read the Big Trouble in Little China. The first is the tradition from which Carpenter and his Chinese and Chinese American actors all say they drew upon for inspiration. Let me give you a brief example: the villain of the piece, David Lo Pan (James Hong), may provoke in some viewers a knee-jerk reaction of seeing him as nothing more than an offensive Fu Manchu-type character, since Sax Rohmer’s insidious Yellow Peril stereotype seems to be the only reference point for an Asian villain in popular American and European culture. But I fail to see how Lo Pan differs at all from the numerous power-mad wizards, fame-hungry swordsmen, evil Taoist priests, and dastardly imperial eunuchs who populate scores of novels, comic books, and movies in Chinese popular culture.

Carpenter himself stated that in Big Trouble in Little China he wanted to do an all-out kung fu ghost story, attributing his inspiration for the film to a number of Hong Kong martial arts movies he’d apparently loved for quite some time. Notably, Carpenter’s knowledge of Hong Kong cinema doesn’t stop at Bruce Lee, which would be common for many Americans during this pre-internet, pre-DVD, early VHS era. Instead of Bruce Lee, Carpenter drew upon the high-flying swordplay action of vintage Shaw Brothers wuxia flicks and their ilk. He’s cited as reference points a film called Swords of Fame, which I’m not sure exists under that English title, and even a more recent film (for his time, anyway), Tsui Hark’s 1983 martial arts epic, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain.

Now, simply put, wuxia is a broad genre that involves the adventures of martial artists in China. For lack of a better term, it’s a Chinese Western. Or since it predates it, I guess you can say the Western is an American wuxia, take your pick. In these stories, sword-wielding heroes and villains populate the world of Jiang Hu (Gong Wu if you’re a Cantonese speaker), a chivalric world that seems to exist both literally as a physical space “out there” and conceptually in the minds of the characters as a kind of a code of conduct. These wuxia films, books, and comics (called manhua) often feature characters with supernaturally-enhanced powers, as they tend to shoot rays from their hands, fly, and do all sorts of things you’d never be able to learn how to do even after a lifetime of kung fu lessons. Although some critics may wish to take Carpenter to task for playing fast-and-loose with Chinese history and mythology (after all, Lo Pan’s lair is a crazy mishmash of Chinese, Thai, Indian, and vaguely “Oriental” cultural signifiers), let’s be real about this – it’s not as if Chinese writers, directors, and artists haven’t been doing this sort of thing for decades already.

And I guess it’s Big Trouble in Little China’s Hong Kong cinema connection that may be part of the reason I want to say that the film was ahead of its time. After the Bruce Lee craze died out in the 1970s, Hollywood didn’t seem to seriously catch up to Hong Kong cinema again until the turn of the twenty-first century, as films like The Matrix incorporated wire-work in their stunts, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came to the attention of Western audiences, actors like Jet Li and Jackie Chan finally crossed over to Hollywood, and numerous fight coordinators like Yuen Woo Ping, Corey Yuen Kwai, and others were hired to liven up the stuntwork in everything from Charlie’s Angels to The Musketeer. So, with that fairly recent cross-cultural film exchange in mind, I guess you might say that Carpenter was way ahead of the curve in 1986.

The second lens through which you might want to view Big Trouble in Little China is as an Asian American film. Sure, its director may be a white guy, but the majority of its characters, especially the heroes, are Chinese Americans. Is Big Trouble in Little China the masculine response to Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior? Not intentionally, I’m sure. But in this story of a group of Chinese American men who prove that they’re “good enough” to vanquish an ancient evil, what’s most striking for me is what a genre film, rather than a so-called serious drama, allows these characters to be – they don’t suffer from any clichéd dual identity issues, they’re not worried about the model minority stereotype, and they’re certainly not bitter, navel-gazing whiners. These are men of action. I mean, you only have to listen to Wang’s non sequitor of a toast towards the end of the film to get full evidence of where his national allegiance lies. So, in that respect, you could say that Big Trouble in Little China is an Asian American coming-of-age story like no other. It’s a film that has it both ways. While the film may demythologize American masculinity through the figure of Jack Burton, it effectively remythologizes it through the actions of its Asian American characters. Through this coalition of cross-cultural male bonding, even someone as hopeless as Jack Burton can score a few heroic moments, too.

I really want to put it out there that this is a far richer film than you might expect, and there’s so much more to talk about –the conspicuous presence of Kim Cattrall’s character, Gracie Law, in Chinatown, Lo Pan’s sex life (or lack thereof), who and what Egg Shen might actually be, and a slew of other routes of interest. But to say anymore would spoil the experience, if I haven’t already.

So if you ever get a chance to sit down and watch the film,  I want you to somehow remember what I’ve said, but, at the same time, push it out of your mind for the next 99 minutes, and just sit back and enjoy this unique cinematic experience from John Carpenter. You’re about to find out, as Jack Burton does – that China is here, whatever the hell that means.

 

 

2 Responses to “More Trouble in Little China”

  1. Foxlore Says:

    Great piece Sanjuro. ‘Big Trouble’ is one of my favorite films, and one that I think was really wasted on most of the US audience at the time. For me the thing that I really loved about it was that for all his bluster Jack Burton was really useless in comparison with those around him (even Gracie Law to some extent). It was refreshing to see the Asian American actors shine here and this is still a film I use in classes on gender to highlight some of those same aspects of masculinity that you mention above.

    It is interesting the no other Hollywood film has really captured the same aesthetic dynamic that Big Trouble had. Even when you compare it to something like ‘The Forbidden Kingdom’ which seems to be a bit more authentic in aspects of lore and intertextuality, Kingdom seems to be trying way too hard and it lacks much of the fun.

    If ever there was a film that needed a sequel it is this one. Sure Russell is old now…but maybe that could work now as part of the charm.

  2. Pantyhose Hero Says:

    I love “Big Trouble…” but ever since becoming a fan of HK Films, I always find myself saying “You know who would’ve been good in that role?” I try not to do it but now it’s a force of habit and you can’t deny that Wen would’ve been the perfect role for a certain mr. Biao’s US debut.

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