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DVD: Big Trouble In Little China—Martial-Art SFX Precursor

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Traditional wuxia, films in a martial arts fantasy genre that originated in Hong Kong, feature melodramatic acting, slapstick humor, and silly story lines between elaborate fight scenes in which characters can literally fly. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China took these crucial elements of Chinese film-style and coupled them with a goofy American hero (played by Kurt Russell), an abrasive and clumsy activist lawyer (Kim Catrall), staged it in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and had an American hit on his hands.

James Hong as 'David Lo Pan' threatens Suzie Pai (Miao Yin)
Immortal magician Lo Pan (James Hong) threatens Miao Yin
(Suzie Pai) in Big Trouble’s climactic wedding scene.

The interesting thing is, this movie came out in 1986, 14 years before the critical cross-over success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and 13 years before the state-of-the-art special-effects blockbuster, The Matrix.

BTiLC has all of the necessary components for wuxia: magicians and ghosts, monsters and flying sword fights, gods of storm and lightning, virtuous maidens and their heroic lovers, and wise old-men teachers masquerading as peasants. Chinatown provides a colorful venue for these adventures, with white-slavery rings, gambling, tongs and tea parlors as extra spice.

Even at its age, the movie is hardly dated, mostly because it is actually set in the romantic past. The era that informs BTiLC is the 40s, a time when the “yellow peril” could be discussed without snickering or PC outrage. (In fact, a radio talk show in the background over the opening credits features a caller arguing that “Chinese immigration” imperils the American worker.) This, despite Russell’s Jack Burton character, who seems hardly to notice the ethnic of his gambling buddy Wang Chi.

Is this gonna get ugly? I hope not cause I thought what we were, racial differences notwithstandin’, was all friends here, all Californians.

While hardly as athletic as a Jackie Chan movie, or as beautifully scripted as Hero, BTiLC is one of the few movies I can watch over and over again. This is an underrated classic, even in its adopted genre, which continues to succeed because, despite the wild action and fantastical plot, the main characters are likeable and we can identify with them.

You just listen to the ol’ Pork Chop Express an’ take his advice on a dark and stormy night when some wild-eyed eight-foot tall maniac grabs your neck an’ taps the back of your favorite head up against a barroom wall. An’ when he looks you straight in the eyes and asks you have you paid your dues? Well you just stare that big sucker right back in the eyes and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like this. “Have you paid your dues Jack?” “Yessir, I have, the check’s in the mail.”

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