Sunday, July 3, 2016
China is Here, Mr. Burton: My 30th Anniversary Salute to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
This weekend back in 1986, Twentieth Century Fox released the film Big Trouble in Little China. It's hard to believe that it has been three whole decades since John Carpenter's classic mix of action, fantasy, and kung-fu debuted in movie theaters. What's harder to believe is the fact that at the time of the movie's release, no one was prepared for what Carpenter had unleashed onto the screen. Big Trouble in Little China, like a lot of John's films, was not a commercial success. Nor was it greatly appreciated as it commonly is now. As a 9-year-old kid at the time, however, none of that shit mattered. It was the wildest Hollywood movie I had seen at that point, and it captured my imagination. It was also a major turning point in my understanding of film. All this results in Big Trouble in Little China becoming one of my all-time favorite movies.
The film centers on a trucker named Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), who's drawn into a mystical journey through San Francisco's Chinatown to help his buddy Wang (Dennis Dun) rescue his girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), from a 2000-year-old undead sorcerer called Lo Pan (James Hong). Lo Pan must find a green-eyed girl to marry in order to appease the god that stripped him of his flesh, and he has an army of warriors (such as The Three Storms) and monsters at his side, ready to help him conquer the world once he is whole again. Aiding in Wang and Jack's quest are a civil rights attorney named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), newspaper reporter Margo (Kate Burton), and Lo Pan's Van Helsing-like nemesis, Egg Shen (Victor Wong).
Watching it now, 30 years after first seeing it, Big Trouble in Little China remains a high-flying, fast moving, fast-talking action/adventure fantasy. What makes this picture mind-blowing is how the film blends elements of American westerns, Hong Kong films, horror, 80s effects-driven tentpoles, and Golden Age screwball comedies so seamlessly that feels like it didn't require any effort at all. Like Ol' Jack always says, "It's all in the reflexes." It's the kind of genre-bending that hadn't been seen before, which is most likely why Fox were dumbfounded on how to promote it, and why a lot of audiences didn't understand it in '86. It's one of the most daringly imaginative and ridiculously entertaining genre mash-ups ever created. Without Big Trouble in Little China, we probably would have never gotten anything like The Matrix.
The imaginative tale is matched by a wonderful production design and costuming design that captures the world of San Francisco Chinatown and what could possibly lurk underneath. And the film is given an amazing sense of scope thanks to the cinematography of frequent Carpenter collaborator, Dean Cundey. Perhaps what gives Big Trouble in Little China its true sense of mysticism is the score by Carpenter himself and Alan Howarth. Inspired by Asian music handed to them by members of the cast, the synthesizer and guitar music is a journey itself, filled with pulsating rhythms, East Asian influences, and Carpenter's trademark spook factor providing as many twists and turns as Lo Pan's underground domain. It's a dark, magical score that gives me goosebumps every single time I hear it. Definitely my favorite score of all of Carpenter's movies.
One thing about the film that stuck out with me as a boy was its Chinese-American characters. Unlike some other beloved movies from the 80s, these people are not stereotypes. Guys like Wang, Eddie (Donald Li), and Egg Shen, even with all his prophecies and Anthony Hopkins-style Van Helsing lunacy, are depicted as real characters. While still maintaining their heritage, our heroes are just as All-American as someone like Jack, caricature of All-American he may be. There's no Long Duck Dong in this picture.
I remember seeing TV spots for Big Trouble in Little China before its July 2nd opening, and, right away, I knew it was my kind of flick. It had monsters, martial arts, visual effects, and Kurt Russell. Everything 9-year-old Josh could want. But the clincher was this: John Carpenter's name was above the title. When I saw that name, I instinctively knew I wanted to watch it. I had been watching John Carpenter movies ever since I was really little. They always stood out for me, but, naturally, I wasn't cognizant as to why. So when I saw those spots for his newest movie, and seeing Carpenter's name, that's when things clicked into place. I thought back to those movies I liked: Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, etc. I started recognizing the patterns I saw in those movies: the way the films looked, how Carpenter uses the same actors again and again, the fact that he wrote the music for his movies, the not-so-happy endings. When I finally viewed the film for the first time on home video, it was everything I expected and, to quote Eddie, a whole lot more! From that point on, whenever a new John Carpenter movie came out, I would be filled with anticipation.
It was the first time I started to understand what a director was, and the basic idea of a "director's style". When I began taking film classes in college, learning about directors and style came very easy for me, because John Carpenter's movies were the example that I would instantly think back to. In a way, Carpenter was for me what Alfred Hitchcock was for him. Big Trouble in Little China was ground zero for my understanding of filmmakers.
Although a box office failure, Big Trouble in Little China would find new life thanks to home video and cable. The legend of Jack, Wang, Egg, Gracie, Miao Yin, and the ultimate evil spirit, Lo Pan, would grow and Carpenter's wild-eyed adventure would go on to be a bonafide classic. As someone who has loved this film since childhood, it is truly awesome to see that it has amassed a devoted and far-reaching following. People like Quentin Tarantino, for example, who not only cast Kurt Russell in his Grindhouse installment, Death Proof, but also displays Jack Burton's famous t-shirt on a restaurant wall in that film. This movie has paid its dues, Jack. Let's all give a toast (with the six-demon bag magic potion of your choice) and say Happy 30th Anniversary to Big Trouble in Little China!
Big Trouble in Little China is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. It is also available for streaming on Netflix.