So last weekend I went to a queuing convention held outside the London Film & Comic Con. When the Queuing convention was over, and event that ran for 6 hours in a 30 degree heat with no shade, I decided to pop into the LFCC for a laugh and see if there was anything worth getting. As it was nearly 16:30 I was too late entering to meet Stan Lee so instead I went to the Arrow Films booth and purchased a set of blu rays. The lovely young lady working there even gave me a discount. My haul included today’s film along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The House By The Cemetery, Cinema Paradiso and (ahem) The Exterminator. These will likely be the next set of films I review. So tonight we start with John Carpenter’s classic fusion of east meets west with Big Trouble in Little China. Click below for that review I mentioned.
John Carpenter is one of those directors I grew up loving the work of. I always wonder if it was unusual for a young child to not only love films of this type, but to also follow individual directors. Regardless of how odd it was Carpenter was there with Spielberg, Cronenberg and Lynch… yes, David Lynch, as a director I could always trust to provide a special kind of entertainment. Well, up until Escape From LA. Even his stinkers before that were at least fun stinkers. One of my favourites was Big Trouble in Little China. For reasons I cannot understand this didn’t become a film that I took with me into what I believe is referred to as adulthood. So purchasing this film last week was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, as was last night when I watched the film for the first time in what must be 20 years. It took all of a few minutes for the love of this unique film’s style to come flooding back. Big Trouble in Little China is as good now as it was in the 80s. I should point out that it was always really very good.
Big Trouble in Little China follows trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) as he is dragged into the mystical and action filled world of the Wuxia legend of Lo Pan. That is literally what the film is. An American is pulled into what is essentially the Chinese equivalent of The Hero’s Journey. Jack’s friend Wang (heheh) Chi (Dennis Dunn) is preparing to start a new life with his girlfriend from back home, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai). She coming to the US from China so they can be together and get their life on track. She also happens to have a fairly unique trait of being a green eyed Chinese girl. This is significant and ancient undead villain Lo Pan (James Hong) requires a girl with green eyes in order to be made mortal again. Naturally his allegiance to the dark arts means this will probably be a problem for many people, not just those living in the Chinatown district of San Francisco. Also, once he has married Miao he’ll be killing her and stuff, which is also bad. Oh, and Jack has lost his truck after being forced to abandon it during a kung fu war and he’d really like it back. Along the way Kim Cattrall forces her way into the story because we need a white love interest for Jack and she gets kidnapped by Lo Pan too, which is a problem because she has green eyes also and so fits the whole marriage and sacrifice criteria. It’s up to Jack and Wang (hah) to defeat Lo Pan, save the girls and get the truck back!
Can you tell that this film edges more towards the side of silly fun? The dialogue is often hokey and performed in a staccato manner. This lends quite the comic book feel to the adventure as characters, such as Cattrall’s Gracie Law, pronounce their intent and any exposition with the sort of exclamations you’d expect from a radio play. This is entirely on purpose. It lends the film a cartoonish vibe that helps with the viewers acceptance of the bizarre events we see. Barring an opening scene the studio made Carpenter add in against his will the first 20 minutes is entirely free of magical shenanigans. If it wasn’t for the cheese coated dialogue you would not be prepared for sudden alleyway kung fu battle, the arrival of 3 elemental God like men and the ghostly Lo Pan all in the space of a few minutes. From here the film just keeps getting more and more bizarre as the real world, that Jack is so comfortable in, is gradually erased from the scenes as we’re fully enveloped in a Wuxia fantasy world that exists directly under San Francisco.
If you look at this film from the perspective that Jack’s sidekick Wang (teehee) is actually the protagonist you’ll soon realise something quite cool. That this film really is a western take on the Wuxia legend. Wang (pffft… sorry I’ll stop) is unable to practice his kung fu with his chi being all out of whack, he loses his bride to be, gradually battles increasingly stronger foes until, by the film’s end, he is as powerful as the elemental villains. On the flip side of this Jack often tries to avoid trouble and even manages to knock himself out. His American machismo is often undermined for comedic value too. In essence the film is mocking the American hero and worshipping the traditions of Chinese martial arts and folklore.
In terms of technical achievement Big Trouble in Little China is still quite an impressive work. The blu ray transfer on the Arrow Films release is excellent and while it may show just how much some of the effects have aged, as many HD releases of special effects filled films can, on the whole the image is still sumptuous and as vivid as it ever was. I’ve always liked the use of forced perspectives to create certain effects and sets. It’s such an old trick but works incredibly well. Wouldn’t work today with anything actually filmed in 3D though. Carpenter films during the 80s were often real showcases for special effects work. I’d say if it wasn’t for a certain Mr Cameron the Carpenter would be the name we discuss for progressing that part of the medium.
I’m sure there are many people who would see Jack’s bumbling nature and the goofy dialogue as being detrimental to the film as a whole. To be fair, I can understand that argument. I feel sorry for those people. But I get it. That was often the reason this film was derided by critics upon its original release. That and along with accusations of racial insensitivity, which is absurd. The depictions of the Asian characters is purely positive, with the exception of the evil guys. But they’re depicted as evil for a reason. Practically every Asian in the film is show to be strong, brave and are painted as much more introverted and thoughtful humans. They have all the internal conflict. They drive the story along. Jack and Gracie are merely caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hell, if I was an American I’d be more offended by the depiction of the few American characters here. The costumes and make up choices of all the Asian villains is absolutely spot on to Wuxia films made in China.
If there’s an aspect of the film that felt a little like a let down whilst watching this last night it’s the martial arts themselves. Now the choreography and the actual fights are fine, but the film does such a fine job of building a respecting the legend that carpenters direction of the action in a mostly westernised manner leads to the feeling that the fights are never fully what they could be. The cuts are too fast and the individual sequences of fight motions are too shortly composed. This is very much the American approach to fight scenes, where cuts happen on each punch. To be fair, very few US films get this right today despite the obsession in recent years with kung fu. Watch the Legend of Fong Sai Yuk, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and other such films and you’ll see long takes with complex and precisely crafted sequences of attacks. Go back to Shaw Brothers films of the 70s and you’ll see the same. And it is the Shaw Brothers films that the fights here most try to emulate. The action is still fast paced and fun, it just lacks authenticity.
Big Trouble in Little China is one of the genuine gems of 80s cinema. It doesn’t say much about the world, beyond maybe commenting that US heroes are old hat compared to the Asians, but it is immensely, stupidly fun. It has adventure, humour, action and some excellent fantastical elements that lend it a genuinely unique film. During the 80s only The Golden Child springs to mind as another film that made a real effort to mix east and west. Since then hardly any films have managed that well beyond The Matrix. No, Rush Hour doesn’t count. That film sucks so much. I’m glad I took this nostalgia trip with Carpenter’s under-rated classic. I have a feeling it’ll be re-entering my regular rotation of classic films very soon.