Before you read this: did you watch the Dr. Strange trailer? You should, because I’m going to compare it to Big Trouble in Little China, a movie thirty years its senior. “Why?” you ask. Because John Carpenter made BTLC with the understanding that Chinese-ness is context and not just culture, and that the mixture of cultures in America can be a strange and wonderful thing. On top of that, BTLC features Asian actors who have accents and no accents, mixed race Asians, a Muay Thai world champion, and the first Asian-American woman featured on the cover of Penthouse magazine. BTLC, made at the tail end of the exploitation film era, does a better job of exploring (specifically) Asian-American culture than any blockbusters made recently.
The Chinese Mystique and Chinese Spaces
Big Trouble in Little China is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. While SF does not have the first Chinatown in the United States, its strange process of rebuilding and remodeling—from a normal-looking city area into an overcrowded and goofily fetishized vision of pagodas and gold-painted gates—precipitated a similar aesthetic shift in Chinatowns across North America. 99 Percent Invisible covered this change and the influence that the SF Chinatown had on how Chinese people present their communities all over the continent.
By the time of the Chinese immigrant boom of the 1960s, Chinese people (and the quickly-developing community of Chinese-Americans) were creating neighborhoods with two faces: the white-facing, tourist locales featuring kitschy-shopping and cheap massage parlors, and the inward-facing private spaces for natives, native-speakers, and recent immigrants. It’s the latter world that John Carpenter wants to explore in BTLC, and he does so by thrusting outsiders Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) into the dark heart of Chinatown for most of the movie.
In fact, the only spaces for white people are the bookends of the movie—the cozy inside of Jack’s truck as he foreshadows and then post-processes the events of BTLC—and during the MacGuffin trip to the airport. Gracie is there to assist an immigrant, but expresses surprise and alarm when Jack’s target, a green-eyed Chinese woman who’s engaged to his friend Wang Chi, is intercepted by three members of a violent gang. After a quick car chase out of the airport, Jack and Wang Chi never leave Chinatown, and Wang Chi must constantly lead his hapless white friend through the cultural issues that he manages all the time, but Jack is unfamiliar with.
But let’s take a look at the spaces themselves, and how they speak to the different kinds of Chinese people in the film. These spaces are both visually distinct and a testament to John Carpenter’s deft treatment of physical arenas for action. For instance, here’s the apartment of evil sorcerer David Lo Pan (James Hong):
Jack and Wang Chi are blindfolded and bound to wheelchairs. In the super-traditional setting, a white American and a Chinese American are blind and disabled. There’s another major scene that happens in this setting: Gracie and Miao Yin are brought here for their pre-bridal evaluation.
These scenes, featuring a white person and a Chinese person, are amazingly paralleled. In the men’s next scene, they free themselves from imprisonment. But in the women’s next scene, they are both bedecked in over-the-top Chinese wedding finery. The men escape the Chinese context, whereas the women are absorbed into it. But this hyper-traditional mode (check those gold Buddhas!) rejects all of them.
For the big fight, Jack and Wang Chi turn to the assistance of one Egg Shen, played by the inimitable Victor Wong. While other casting directors have underutilized this amazing actor, casting him as just a wise and slightly comical Yoda-like figure (looking at you, Tremors; 3 Ninjas, you get a pass, barely), John Carpenter introduces him to us as a bus-driving tour guide—introducing San Francisco’s Chinatown to a gaggle of white tourists. He’s showing us that Egg Shen has expertise in both worlds, and he’s perfect as a tour guide into the dark magic of Chinatown.
But we can’t talk about the setting of Big Trouble in Little China without confronting the completely awesome final scene. It’s festooned with stone dragon outcroppings and multi-armed demon gods, but also outlined in neon lights and signage. The setting furnishes the final chaotic fight: while the two old magic-users duke it out with neon special effects, the youngblood lieutenants fight near and around them with punches, acrobatics, and yes, Kurt Russell shoots upwards and rocks fall on his head. This clip has some amazingly goofy stunts and effects, and shows the merging of old/new in an over-the-top set piece.
Chinese spaces and imagery—like the dragons, the Buddhas, and so, so much gold paint—have been designed over the years to meet expectations of whiteness, and San Francisco’s Chinatown is a monument to that mode of orientalism. By setting the climax of BTLC in a flamboyantly Chinese set-piece, John Carpenter is showing us the apotheosis of this white-inspired design aesthetic: so outrageous that it’s silly, and vice versa.
Chinese Faces, Chinese Voices
Speaking of that Dr. Strange trailer, when did this
become hotter than this?
When we talk about the Edward Said mode of Orientalism, we’re usually describing an academic treatment of post-colonialism, where the West presents the East as wondrous, mysterious, and dangerous. By casting a white woman into the role of the “balding sensei,” you reinforce two toxic ideas at once: that Asian culture is supposed to be boring and inscrutable (and offers nothing beyond the accepted tropes), and that white people are better qualified to portray it.
Will Tilda Swinton actually be interesting as Dr. Strange’s teacher, or did the casting director just want someone who looked ethereal? Tilda has portrayed a fine angel and vampire, so she’ll probably be good at playing another weirdo with magical powers, right? But the martial arts master isn’t just a visual trope—he or she serves as your cultural guide into Orientalism. Big Trouble in Little China understands this: the character of Egg Shen is engaged directly with the mysterious by reading bones and dispensing magical potions, but he also runs a bus tour of Chinatown (just in case you missed that prize symbolism: we, the audience, are the real tourists).
Although Jack Burton is the main character of BTLC, he’s never “on the inside,” as it were, with regards to the Chinese culture. Instead, he relies on the cultural influence of the many Chinese people around him. These voices manifest in many Asian bodies—from the unspeaking prison henchwomen to the magical Storm Brothers. Speakers switch between English, Cantonese, and Mandarin with ease, often leaving Jack out of conversations or rendering explanations to him via choppy translation. What John Carpenter does artfully is place Jack’s character at the periphery of the SF Chinatown subculture (see also, his amazingly Chinese-y tank top), and letting him go only as deep as his petulance will allow.
For example, when we’re first introduced to the two warring factions of Chinese gangs, Jack’s truck (again, the most white-American space in the movie) is an invasive force, dominating the out-of-focus foreground of many shots while Chinese bodies flow around it:
But later, as he engages more with his friend’s crusade and with the “good guys” of the gang wars, we see more of his engagement with Chinese-ness: more of the tank top, but also more of the community. Just before the climax of the movie, Egg Shen entreats him to drink a potion that will give the team magical powers. Jack and Egg stand on either side of Wang Chi, the most representative Asian-American character in the movie. A series of over-the-shoulder shots examines Egg first, then Jack, then Egg again as they argue about the potion. But Wang Chi combines the two—the sensibilities of the modern west with the mystic, old Chinese—by downing the shot with a hyper-American toast, declaring his own American-ness and illustrating the importance of the Asian-American compromise, and the camera stays centered on Wang Chi the whole time, even as our-hero-Kurt Russell is being imbued with magic.
Pretty much everything I have to say about Asian actors and accents has been covered by Aziz Ansari in Master of None, so I just want to point out how many unaccented Chinese actors exist in this film. I don’t know whether they were cast that way by accident or by John Carpenter’s specific vision, but the real point of this paragraph is that there’s a huge variety of Asian-Americans and a veritable army of Asian-American actors to play them. You don’t have to cherry-pick the ones who sound most Chinese-y, and by hiring actors without accents, you can be more selective of how you portray otherness in film.
Let’s look at another film that fetishizes Asian tropes: Kill Bill Vol. 2. If you’re waiting for a takedown of Quentin Tarantino’s Asian-exploitation throwback, then I can’t give it to you! QT legitimately borrows on several beautiful film legacies, like the woman revenge fantasy of Lady Snowblood and O-ren Ishii, and the faithful psychopath army, embodied by Gogo and the Crazy 88. Most importantly, Johnny Mo, the leader of the Crazy 88, and the “wise sensei who guides a white person in Asian-style spiritualism” are both played by Gordon Liu. Sure, he’s not as ethereal or otherworldly as Tilda Swinton, but his name is synonymous with the ‘70s martial arts movie boom, and has invented styles and weapons for his own films—and his character Pai Mei guides Uma Thurman into innovating beyond simply Eastern martial arts or Western fighting.
Making an Eastern-inspired film in the West is a challenge to move beyond the storied legacy of typical kung-fu movies. It’s asking to yourself, “Yes, but what does American-ness add to the idea of Asian-ness?” As an Asian-American, I’m the product of this mode of cultural blending, so I appreciate when a film (like BTLC, Kill Bill, or even the many chapters of Kung Fu Panda—a box office hit in both the US and mainland China) is able to capture the spirit of two places at once. If you want the same feelings but without the Asian quirk, I highly recommend The Man with the Iron Fists. RZA brings modern blackness to a period Chinese story, and the way cultural elements are intermingled is amazing.
Kitsch in the City
According to the Internet, one of the actors portraying the Storm Brothers was under the impression that he was filming a typical Chinese-style action-horror, so his expressions and martial arts demonstrations come off as Too Melodramatic. For fans of the movie, Lightning’s overperformance is only one of many goofy elements, which also includes: an eyeball flesh-monster, a sewer dude with the worst rubber mask, skeletons just everywhere, some kind of knife ceremony, and so much wire-fu that Jack Burton at one point complains specifically about “buddies flying around on wires.”
Some might complain that this enhances the otherness of Chinatown, but I think the opposite: John Carpenter is doing an homage to Hong Kong B-Horror, and from what I remember as a tiny child consuming these movies, he does a great job making an American entry into the genre. The genre is called “jiangshi,” and relies on jumping ghosts and vampires and silliness—for a sublime example, you can see Sammo Hung doing The Evil Dead first in a gonzo 1980 film, Encounters of the Spooky Kind.
John Carpenter wasn’t making a mockery of Chinese silliness; he was engaging with a genre of Hong Kong horror that was experiencing a renaissance. By the time BTLC released, the Hong Kong market was hitting its heights, and BTLC shared its moment with other goofy horror flicks like Mr. Vampire and this masterpiece of wackiness: Ninja, the Violent Sorcerer. Compared to some contemporary jiangshi villains, James Hong’s Lo Pan-the-gonzo-undead-sorceror-who-only-wants-to-find-love isn’t even that outlandish.
Here’s the thing: the movie treats its Westerners with profound silliness as well. While an American audience can laugh at the amazing effects of this movie (a highlight is one of the Storm Brothers getting so mad that he inflates and explodes), it could also make fun of Jack Burton, who at one point shoots a gun in the air and is knocked out for most of the final fight by random rocks. Gracie Law is constantly mentioning that she’s a lawyer, and merrily exposits: “You know me—I stick my nose in everything.” And after dramatically discussing the many hells of China, Wang Chi teases his white friend for a moment:
Jack Burton: [pointing to Chinese writing on elevator] What does that say?
Wang Chi: [speaks Chinese] Hell of Boiling Oil.
Jack Burton: You’re kidding.
Wang Chi: Yeah, I am. It says Keep Out.
Even though the story of BTLC is set in America, it’s the white folks who are the outsiders. During the denouement, Jack considers cashing in his payment for the strange job, selling his truck, and settling down—presumably, in San Francisco, or in the Chinatown community. But Gracie blithely dismisses this idea, along with the idea of leaving with him or indulging in a goodbye kiss.
Big Trouble in Little China shows a commitment to casting many and varied Chinese actors, decorating Chinese spaces, and engaging in a mode of otherness that’s in-line with contemporary Chinese cinema. The Jack Burton character leaves Chinatown, and the only lasting effect is the oblique mentions to stormy weather in his CB sendoff. John Carpenter’s message for his audience is clear: white people can visit otherness, but maybe they shouldn’t stay.