Monday, April 6, 2009

Big Trouble In Little China: Then and Now

When I was 6 years old, I went to see a movie with my family: Big Trouble in Little China. This was a big deal for me on multiple levels - first, because my family hardly ever went to see movies in the theatre; and second, because this proved to be my newest favorite movie EVER!!!

And it kind of still is.

As a 6 year-old (and later years, when I kept watching over and over to the point of obsession*), the movie offered me all the exciting action I could ask for. There were cool martial arts stunts, explosions, guns, magic and an exciting adventure. There were monsters and gods. And there were a TON of Chinese main characters! Badguys, sure, but also the goodguys - and ALL of them were total badasses. Lightning (pictured above - one of the "Three Storms," who were god-like villains) was probably the coolest character ever created, and he didn't even speak English!**

Of course, Kurt Russell was the focal protagonist, but he was one of only three white people in the entire film. And - better yet - he was totally out of his element and needed massive help and support (or, really, leadership) from the Chinese guys all around him. Equally focal to the story was his best friend, Wang, who was all kinds of awesome. As a kid, when I was playing with my best friend (a white kid), he would be "Jack" (Kurt Russell's character), and I would be "Wang" - and I definitely thought I had gotten the better end of that exchange.***

I watched that movie so much that I can almost recite the whole thing word-for-word, even now. And I've found myself wondering - why that movie? There have been so many martial-arts-type movies since my childhood - why was that one so special to me?

And so I now turn my adult eye and mind to the film, and I think I get it. Because, considering it came out in 1986, that movie was revolutionary in its depiction of minorities. The Chinese people weren't the weirdos and extras in the movie. Instead, Jack - the muscle-bound white "hero" - is the stranger. He constantly "talks the talk" while being exposed for his cluelessness. He's totally out of his element, and it's the Chinese characters who have to bring him along for the day to be saved. Some of the plot-line is drawn from ancient Chinese mythology, and it is treated with relative respect. Again, Jack's questioning of the "myths" is depicted to show him as the unbelieving barbarian - while the Chinese folks who know their truth go about taking care of business.

Even better - the one strong white character in the movie? A woman (played by Kim Cattrall of Sex in the City fame). She's familiar with Chinatown and its subculture. She's strong. She mocks Jack's ridiculous attempts to hit on her. Granted, she ends up getting captured and "saved," but she takes a leading role in her own rescue (while Jack botches it up numerous times).

And then let's go to the one interracial romance - between a Chinese guy and a white woman. And the guy is hardly exotified in this one.

Shall we continue? Outside of the one Chinese guy who ends up with the white woman, every single other Chinese guy in the movie is a complete and total badass - and the dork even gets his badass moment. There are no dorky Chinese nerds running around. All the stereotypes depicted in so many movies before and since - absent.

And - yeah, yeah, yeah - there's a lot of martial arts, but still . . . "Forbidden Kingdom" is a mockery. "Big Trouble in Little China" says - those Chinese dudes can more than hold their own.

And, of course, I'm not trying to make this out to be the perfect movie - it's still a ridiculous action-adventure at the end of the day. The few Chinese women in the movie aren't exactly shining beacons of strength. But - for when it was made - it's kind of amazing. Hell - even compared to present-day movies, it still holds its own.

A movie about a ridiculous, macho white trucker. But a ridiculous, macho white trucker who just so happens to like to hang out in Chinatown after making his deliveries, playing fan-tan (a Chinese gambling game) with his Chinese buddies, and whose best friend happens to be a Chinese guy. In fact, they are such good friends that - without a thought - this macho white trucker gets himself involved in a deadly adventure to help his friend get back his girl.

You think that concept didn't grab a hold of me? You think - even as a 6 year-old - I didn't notice how his Chinese friend imparts wisdom and fights like a badass while trying to keep the confused white guy from getting himself killed? You think I didn't soak in all the various cool Chinese heroes (and even cooler villains) filling the screen at all times, even if I was too young to really digest it all on a conscious level?

Because there were no other movies like it. Not before. Arguably - not after. A big, crazy American action-adventure movie where the Asian guys completely stole the show and were meant to. And this was a movie starring Kurt Russell and directed by John Carpenter! A movie that just sunk its claws into my 6 year-old heart and never let go - even 23 years later.

Of course, it bombed in the theaters. Kurt Russell even noted going into it that it was going to struggle, "This is a difficult picture to sell because . . . It's a mixture of the real history of Chinatown in San Francisco blended with Chinese legend and lore . . . There are only a handful of non-Asian actors in the cast".****

But it has lived on. Even prevailed to become a huge cult classic. Kind of like a minority who doesn't let him/herself be silenced - if you stand up for yourself long enough, somebody's going to take notice.

So I suggest that all of you go check out the film. See if you can combine the joy of your six-year-old self with that of your conscious adult mind and rejoice that a movie with all this goodness was made two decades ago. And then ask yourself why so few like it have been made since . . .

* I remember watching the entire film all scrambled on tv when the pay-per-view channels were somewhat discernible at random times throughout a showing.

** He was the only Storm with no speaking lines, and - judging from Thunder's thick accent - it had to be because he didn't speak English at all . . .

*** When I was alone, I was "Lightning."

**** This particular quote ripped from Wikipedia (I swear I do real research on my own time . . .)


uglyblackjohn said...

People laugh that I put Kung Fu Hustle on my list of movie Favs.
BIg Trouble was hella' funny with a lot af action.
It's still a cult favorite.
I never noticed the social aspect of the movie (we had abunch of Asian friends growing up) so it wasn't anything odd.
We had life to balance the media image of minorities.

T.Tan said...

I'd never heard of this movie before tonight, and I'm really glad you could illuminate some of the social themes it deals with. I'm definitely gonna pick this one up!