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  • Ravi Swami

"Big Trouble In Little China", Dir: John Carpenter, 1986

To date, this blog has been about discovering films that I haven't seen before but have known about, with the occasional deviation into favourite films like "Buckaroo Banzai" or "CE3K" and the rediscovery that comes with that, often with surprises.

John Carpenter's 1986 film "Big Trouble In Little China" falls into that latter category of "seen before, I'll watch it again", and was released during the period of the mid-1980's when audiences were spoiled for choice as far as fantasy films were concerned and reflects the influence of Chinese martial arts and fantasy films that were slowly finding their way into the West via video releases, speaking of which, if a film was missed in the cinema then it would usually find its' way into video rental stores, something that contributed to a growing cult-status of a film, in many cases.

From a purely personal perspective, having grown up in a West London immigrant community, the central premise of the film was a big draw - watching genre films from different countries is a little like finding yourself in the heart of an immigrant community and a sense of being transported into somewhere out of the ordinary and its' clear that Carpenter's own fascination for Oriental genre films comes through loud and clear, though perhaps in a somewhat distorted fashion, but then, that's half the fun.

Carpenter avoids the cinematic device of parachuting the viewer into a situation by opening the story with Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), a long distance lorry driver, delivering goods into San Francisco's Chinatown, so establishing a sense of "normality" and orientation before subverting it with what follows via a slow build-up, and before everything becomes totally surreal - Chinatown here is "Brigadoon" minus the fog, somewhere where anything can happen, and does.

"Big Trouble In Little China" is a film that has been extensively reviewed elsewhere so I won't go into the details of the plot, suffice to say that if you're a fan of Chinese martial arts fantasies with lots of visual effects and stunt work, then it delivers on all those counts and with its' tongue firmly in its' cheek - I'm hopeless at remembering classic one-liners but Russell delivers a fair share of those and these are one of the many joys of the film.

The concept of one lone Caucasian saving the day for superstitious and ignorant Oriental immigrants is one that goes back a long way in Western literature and Carpenter seems to be well-aware of that, with Russell's "Jack Burton" pitched as an innocent red-neck who instead stumbles his way through a series of increasingly bizarre situations and where his co-star, Kim Cattrall, plays someone who lives in the heart of the immigrant community but is still perceived as an outsider and not to be trusted, and who helps him navigate the strange unfamiliar terrain he has been dropped into - something I can identify with in some respects.

My only reservation watching it again after several decades is the high body count of mostly Chinese characters in a series of frenetic shootouts that punctuate the plot that seem wildly over the top compared to what you'd see in a typical Hong Kong martial arts film, almost to the point of caricature, the rationale being that Burton has landed himself in the middle of a turf war between rival, and populous, Chinese criminal gangs.

Rather like the premise of the "Harry Potter" books and films, Carpenter suggests that a different, alien world may exist with a few degrees of separation from the familiar one we live in and it's a concept that I find fascinating - though we had left the West London immigrant community for the suburbs by the mid-80s', that sense of it being almost another country persisted, with the Chinese gangs of the film having their counterpart in Asian gangs with exotic names like "The Holy Smokes" and similar turf wars where the local police were reluctant to interfere too much.

The films' art direction is impressive even if it is a hotch-potch of non-specific Oriental references, ranging from Chinese through to Indonesian, with the addition of intriguing elements like a red-haired Yeti and monsters that could easily have come out of the 1984 supernatural hit film, "Ghostbusters". The pre-digital animated visual effects by Richard

Edlund's Boss Films are also impressive, though this time around I was less convinced by the hand-animated electrical effects than I was the first time around, but that's just a personal niggle knowing that they can be difficult to get right without looking cartoony.

After watching the film and Googling it, I noticed that it is still enjoying runs at the Prince of Charles cinema, adjacent to Chinatown in London, marking it as a perennial cult favourite of both the Chinese immigrant and host communities in London.

"This is Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express, and I’m talkin’ to whoever’s listenin’ out there...."


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