Jesse Bullington and I have (perhaps foolishly) decided to embark upon a quest: watching “classic” adventure movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. These columns will run every Wednesday on our blogs, excluding the last post of each month, which will appear over at Fantasy Magazine. Today is a very special entry, as we watched this film in order to celebrate my beloved husband John’s 29th birthday! Yay! So, uh, it will contain images from the film and from our party, because I’m too lazy to blog twice about the same event. There’s love for ya!
So here’s how it happened. We’d made pina coladas and were drinking them out of actual coconuts (I tell you this not because it is fascinating but because it explains the sugar- and booze-fueled insanity below). Jesse gave John this shirt, which to those of you familiar with the film we’re reviewing, should look familiar:
I should explain the next photo by explaining that my husband, who at 29 has arthritis in his knees (my grandmother blames veganism), drinks prune juice every morning, and, well, asked for sarongs for his birthday. Why? Because he likes to terrify our young neighbors by sitting outside in a towel while smoking cigars and drinking whiskey and commenting on the gloriousness of the weather. Think a skinny, 6’2” Bilbo Baggins, but in a skirt. Anyways, so yeah, this happened:
I think I should let you know is that what you’re not seeing (at the request of one Jesse Bullington, AKA “the enemy of fun”) is what happened after John donned the sarong-and-tanktop combo. In some sort of show of solidarity Jesse put on his bike shorts–the ones that are heavily padded in the crotch–a hawaiian shirt, and his bike helmet, and he and John drank from one another’s coconuts and toasted life. But I can’t show you those pictures because as I said, Mr. “The Enemy of Fun” claimed this was “a professional site” and “that means no pictures of him that look like that.” Any complaints can be sent to Jesse via his contact form on his site. Anyways, you can see why watching Big Trouble in Little China just had to happen that night.
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction by John Carpenter (The Thing, Escape from New York, Halloween) in the prime of his awesome. Written by Gary Goldman (Total Recall) and David Z. Weinstein (who didn’t really do anything else), but apparently “adapted” by W.D. Richter, who directed The Adventures of Bukaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Obligatory synthesizer soundtrack by John Carpenter himself. The best acting in the history of film by Kurt Russell (if you don’t know who Kurt Russell is please slap yourself), Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City, Star Trek VI), Dennis Dun (The Last Emperor), James Hong (Kung Fu Panda, an amazing array of television roles including The West Wing and Sammo Hung’s Marshall Law), Carter Wong (Blazing Temple, tons of other Shaw Brothers films), and Victor Wong (The Joy Luck Club, the 3 Ninjas movies).
Quote: Far too many to name, but our favorites are as follows:
Molly: “It’s all in the reflexes.”
Jesse: “When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: ‘Have ya paid your dues, Jack?’ ‘Yessir, the check is in the mail.’”
John: “What does that mean, huh? ‘China is here.’ I don’t even know what the hell that means.”
First viewing by Molly: Um. As an adult? Because of John? I used a clip of this film (along with others) to teach Said’s Introduction to his book Orientalism for years at FSU—more specifically, the scene where Lo Pan first appears after the Three Storms wreak havoc on the gang war that is occurring in an alley in San Francisco. Because you can only talk about the plot of this movie with sentences like that.
First viewing by Jesse: Eight years old, I think. I was at my grandparent’s house and my brother rented it, forever changing my world—not unlike the difference between BC and CE, one’s life can be measured as Before Big Trouble and Post Big Trouble.
First viewing by John: Whenever it premiered on television. I think I was seven or eight years old, but I can’t remember exactly.
Most recent viewing by all: Last Saturday.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Negligible.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: I think this film confirmed a lot of things about me, rather than informing them, but that said, it confirmed some pretty awesome stuff. Wind, fire, that sort of thing. Also, magic is real and secret societies are constantly warring with each other in back alleys and Kurt Russell is tougher than anyone and kung fu is awesome and monsters can be defeated with Chinese black magic (which is different from sorcery), and so much more.
Impact on John’s childhood development: The year is the late nineteen-eighties. The place is the childhood of a young boy who will soon become a man. Because of this movie. While watching an episode of 21 Jump Street on the recently-launched Fox network I am informed that the weekend’s Saturday night movie will be a film called Big Trouble in Little China. I watch the preview and discover what it means to be a man, what it means to love a woman, and what it is like to have magical Chinamen for friends (Jesse says: dude, Chinamen is not the preferred nomenclature. Magical Asian American, please). I know that I must watch this movie. Forever.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: FUCK YES.
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching (with picture added by me for illustration): Considering I found out we were re-watching this five minutes before we did on John’s birthday, I didn’t have a lot of time for reflection on the movie itself. Fortunately, I logged what thoughts I did have once it was determined we were going back to Little China:
Holy shit, are we really gonna watch this? I can’t believe Raechel’s never seen it—she’s not going to believe this shit. I’m so happy we found an effective method of boring a wide enough hole in this coconut to get the pina coladas inside without making a huge mess. I better top off before we start—shit, got it everywhere. Anyone else need anything? Is this movie violently racist or a nuanced homage to wuxia cinema? I probably should’ve put the lime in the coconut, shaken it all up, then added the pina colada. That makes more sense.
John’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Excitement; joy; brief but intense moments of arousal thinking about Kim Catrall; more sustained moments of arousal thinking about Kurt Russell. . . you know, the usual.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: I definitely come down on the side of this movie being pastiche/homage to wuxia more than a completely racist depiction of Chinese people and their wily, Oriental ways. I mean, nothing in this film is more ridiculous than, say, the part in The Seventh Curse where we learn that the hero of the film went to Thailand to find an herb to cure AIDS but instead rescues a Thai girl? From cultists? And he gets a blood curse that causes his blood? To explode? And Old Ancestor? Or the part in Mr. Vampire where—ok, actually, just any part of Mr. Vampire, even the goddamn title. I mean—really. Sure, Big Trouble is a Hollywood film rather than a Hong Kong film, but c’mon, the IMDB character list includes such extras a “One Ear” and “Joe Lucky.” Then again it was 1986, but I’d like to think Carpenter knew what he was doing. Yet, somehow, Big Trouble also transcends pastiche. It never grows old, never suffers from slow pacing or a moment of making a lick of sense.
Anyways, THIS MOVIE. My husband makes a lot more sense if you’ve seen it. It’s rad, and I love it.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Yup, the old magic is still there. The question of whether or not it is racist is debatable, of course, but like Molly I lean toward it being a joyful tribute to Hong Kong cinema—it’s pitch perfect in many regards, and self-aware enough for me to give Carpenter and crew the benefit of the doubt. There’s also the fact that it is completely awesome, but I wasn’t going to let that sway me one way or the other.
It’s just as baffling as when I saw it twenty years ago, and just as amazing—the filmmakers did not give a single fuck if it made a lick of sense so long as it was unrelentingly ridiculous, and that it is. The clip we included above of Carter Wong inflating? It’s established earlier that he has human blowfish powers, sure, but why does he explode? Is he so angry he loses control? Is he too saddened by the death of Lo Pan to go on living in a world without a lecherous old gremlin in a wheel chair who can astrally project himself? The audience doesn’t know, the characters don’t know, and I sincerely doubt the screenwriters know, either. But it doesn’t matter. This is the beauty of Big Trouble in Little China—everything is a set-up to one of the following:
a) A one-liner, usually delivered by Kurt Russell
b) A fight sequence
c) A crazy mystical occurrence
d) Any combination of a, b, and c
I was ok with that when I was a kid, and I’m ok with it as a pina colabbered adult. May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.
John’s thoughts post-viewing: Yeah, this movie’s still got it. And by “it” I mean “everything that is awesome in this universe.” It’s got Kim Catrall being sexy, Kurt Russell driving a semi, kung fu, Chinese black magic, monsters, gunfights, swordfights, innuendos, and entendres. Pretty much everything that I love. It’s like Woody Allen says about orgasms: “my worst one was right on the money.” I could re-watch this movie while undergoing surgery sans anesthesia and still enjoy the hell out of it.
Also, this movie is a loving paean to everything: kung fu movies, westerns, noir, screwball comedies. . . everything! Listen to the banter between Jack and Gracie (hell, just listen to the names Jack and Gracie) and you’ll hear John Carpenter tenderly kissing the brow of Howard Hawks. Try not to think of John Wayne as Kurt Russell stares down Lo Pan and asks “you know what Jack Burton always says?” You can’t do it! This movie is an homage to film in general, and kung fu film most of all. Egg Shen is like a kung fu Jesus. Compare this film to The Golden Child and you’ll see the difference.
This movie shaped by childhood and continues to reshape my adulthood. I typically go back to this film and Captain Ron whenever I’m feeling adrift on the sea of life, and they guide me back to myself. Yeah, you read that right.
High Points: The entire goddamn movie. Rather than singling out any specific clip, I think this music video that John Carpenter’s band Coupe de Ville made for the movie says it all. You heard: John Carpenter’s band. Behold:
Final Verdict: Nearly twenty-five years later, this movie still shakes the Pillars of Heaven.
Next Time: Probably nothing this good. Maybe an episode or two of Shelly Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre to cleanse the palate.