Upon its initial release Big Trouble in Little China (1986) was considered a critical and commercial failure,1 but like many other films from director John Carpenter it has seen a slow but steady cult appreciation develop. This article argues that this is a consequence of the narrative framing the “hero” of the film as the comic relief character. In doing so this film engages more with the comedies of Howard Hawks than any of Carpenter’s other frequent engagements with his films, both in its overall comic sensibility as well as its relationship to both Carpenter’s and Hawks’s more serious films. In interweaving his own fantastic sensibilities with a synthesis of Hawks’s adventure and comedy films, Carpenter produces a comedic action dynamic whose impact is strengthened rather than diminished upon subsequent viewings. In so doing BTiLC subverts the orientalist narratives common to its contemporaries such as the Indiana Jones films by revealing the farcical and condescending nature of their underlying premise through the exploits of its starring heroic buffoon.
The Fantastic Frontier
BTiLC tells the story of Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), a hazy composite of John Wayne and Indiana Jones and his truck “The Porkchop Express.”After a night of gambling and drinking in San Francisco’s Chinatown Burton ends up, through a combination of luck and reflexes, winning a bet with his friend and restaurant owner Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) leading to him accompanying Wang to the airport while he waits to be paid back. What follows is the kidnapping of Wang’s fiancée Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), local lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and the theft of “The Porkchop Express” by the ancient undead sorcerer and business tycoon David Lo Pan (James Hong). Burton and Wang must then ally themselves with local wizard Egg Shen (Victor Wong) and end up saving not only their respective love interests but also defeating Lo Pan and his entire suite of supernatural minions. In true western fashion, Burton then decides to leave this newly restored community for a life on the road.
The similarities to the western are not purely superficial, as the script for the film was originally intended to be set a century prior, with a far more literal interpretation of the archetypical hero on horseback. Beyond the origin of the film these western sensibilities are a key element of Carpenter’s own authorial style; often considered a director of horror, his filmmaking strays from those confines as often as it remains there. Films like Starman (1984) and They Live (1988) lack the atmosphere and affect of the horror film yet are too representative of Carpenter’s body of work to be excluded as outliers. Likewise, his more explicit horror films like (1978) and The Thing (1982) occupy such a clear position within the genre, partly as a consequence of the genre redefining itself to incorporate these seminal films as foundational texts. Indeed, the drive to ascribe a generic purity to a body of work so indicative of the “recent stylistic developments” that Rick Altman associates with an increased acceptance of “genre mixing”2 reflects an acknowledgement of the dichotomy between Carpenter’s contemporary nature as well as his fondness for the relation to genre seen in the works of filmmakers like Hawks.3 The question of genre in Carpenter’s films itself produces a paratextual discourse as to how best these films can themselves be categorized as each articulation provides a point of reference that can later be applied to yet more texts, be they subsequent releases or historical re-evaluations.4
One solution to the question of genre hybridity in Carpenter’s films lies in the reframing of his films as not being on the fringes of horror but rather at the center of the discourse around the fantastic. Rather than fantasy, which carries connotations of separateness from horror and science fiction, the fantastic is a mode that describes the indeterminacy of these sites of generic ambiguity.5 As a literary term the fantastic owes its modern provenance to Tzvetan Todorov’s account of the uncertainty caused by the transition from mimetic realism to supernatural marvellousness in a text.6 In Translating Time Bliss Cua Lim articulates a model of the cinematic fantastic that uses its capacity to intertwine conflicting accounts of the real to bridge encounters between radically different ideas of existence such as the encounter between the west and the global south. The fantastic here is a “temporal translation that renders supernaturalisms in the language of homogenous time” and in so doing reveals the “politico-ontological commitment to radical temporal heterogeneity.”7 Where Carpenter’s work differs from those studied by Lim is a shift in perspective from the temporal to the spatial, although as this article will go on to discuss, the boundary between these two categories is not entirely impermeable.
This use of geography as a metaphor for ontology is most apparent in Carpenter’s relation to that archetypical genre of the American landscape, the western. Kendall R. Phillips describes the unifying trend of “a uniquely geographic logic” underpinning Carpenter’s films as a whole and that “he is in many ways a director of westerns, in spite of the fact he has not produced a film recognizably within that genre.”8 His films portray people under siege, isolated, and at the frontier of the familiar and the alien in his characteristic widescreen cinematography that gives his settings the vast quality of the American west. “Carpenter’s heroes are often loners and drifters, outlaws who are just trying to survive in badlands, or else they are part of ragtag groups of compatriots who must overcome their differences to survive a siege of their last remaining fortress.”9 This article will differ from Phillips’ approach to Carpenter’s relation to the frontier, focusing less on his indebtedness to the genre itself and more so on its specific embodiment in the films of Howard Hawks, whose influence on Carpenter’s sensibilities cannot be overstated.
Carpenter and Hawks
Phillips’ characterization of Hawks’s influence on Carpenter being found in his westerns sidelines the influence of the specifically Hawksian approach both to that genre and to the process of filmmaking that Carpenter adopts. Both Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and The Thing are remakes of Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) and The Thing from Another World (1951) respectively, with the latter film also appearing on a television set in Halloween. These films’ indebtedness to Hawks are often downplayed in favor of acknowledging the influence of Night of the Living Dead (1968) in Assault on Precinct 13 as well as the increased fidelity The Thing exhibits to the original film’s source material. While this framing of Carpenter as a product of fantastical genre cinema places him more firmly amongst his peers, it distracts from the intertextual discourse with Hawks that runs throughout his body of work as well as the productive insights that can be gained from such a study.
Where Assault on Precinct 13 takes the frontier spirit of Hawks’s westerns and presents it without the foundational confidence in the sanctity of what the frontier denotes and protects (a gesture that is repeated and magnified in Carpenter’s reworking of The Thing), it is BTiLC that showcases Carpenter’s engagement with Hawks’s work beyond a director of action, but also as a director of comedy. In addition to Hawks’s adventure films there exists an equally iconic suite of films such as His Girl Friday (1940) or Monkey Business (1952) that display a more anarchic side of Hawks’s worldview that supplements the rigid structures seen in his action films. Robin Wood preferences this dichotomy above even the comic nature of the films, including Scarface (1932) in the former category despite the violent nature of the film’s subject matter.10 Wood writes that “If the adventure films place high value on the sense of responsibility, the comedies derive much of their tension and intensity from the fascination exerted by irresponsibility,” with the childlike antics of Scarface’s Tony (Paul Muni) darkly echoing the youthful impropriety of Monkey Business.11
That Hawks can simultaneously extol the rigid structures of American society in his actions, “takes the state of civilization for granted in a way that has become increasingly difficult for the modern artist… his inability to make statements about modern society limits his work, affecting particularly certain of the comedies.”12 It is this foundational reliance on the stability and progress of American society that Carpenter replaces in his remakes of Hawks’s films, supplementing these narrative structures with elements of the fantastic in the form of the zombie like gang members in Assault on Precinct 13 or the far greater emphasis placed on the alien nature of the titular Thing. In BTiLC the “tension and intensity” that Wood finds in the contrast between Hawks’s comedies and adventure films is replicated not only in the genre-bending nature of the film’s premise, but in the underlying narrative structure that allows it to comment on hegemonic power structures rather than superficially criticize them.
Big Trouble in Little China
Burton certainly fits into the role of this frontier hero, as a drifter who arrives in an unfamiliar situation and leaves once his work is done; but what makes him different and functions as the core of the film’s engagement with both the western and the martial arts film, is Burton’s uselessness as a hero within the narrative itself. Burton has no specialized knowledge regarding the magical forces he is attempting to overcome, is woefully under equipped in all the fights he finds himself in, and at the climax of the film only kills Lo Pan, through the same combination of luck and reflexes seen in his bet with Wang, the real hero of the film. That the protagonist is Burton’s friend and not him is obvious: As it is Wang’s quest to save his fiancée that sees him holding his own in martial arts combat with unarmed gang members at the start, and finishes with him engaged in a wirework sword fight with an array of magical beings, saving Miao Yin and returning to his bustling restaurant. The central conceit of the film is that although the dynamic of hero and sidekick is reversed in this way, the film remains focused on Burton as the lead and Wang as peripheral, producing a martial arts film, but viewed from the position of an outsider.
When viewed alongside other martial arts films of the early 1980s this blend of comedy, action, and fantasy doesn’t seem so unusual, with Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) itself serving as an influence on the creative direction of BTiLC. Yet this engagement with the style and sensibilities of Asian martial arts cinema is always informed by BtiLC’s identity as an outsider in this space. Just as in Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” BtiLC seeks to construct the comic tone of these films as an outsider, coming to the same conclusions through its own cultural pedigree.13 The film sets out not to imitate these films, as to do so would not capture the cultural specificities of production and spectatorship from which these films emerged; but rather the film, like Menard, seeks to justify its narrative choices within the conventions of Hollywood comedy, action, and adventure. The result of this approach is a film that is earnest in its appreciation for Asian cinema, yet at no point is anything other than an American film.
This structural position of exteriority is present throughout the film but is no more evident than in Burton, Wang, and Lo Pan’s first meeting, as this scene and the following escape sequence demonstrates not only the inadequacies of Burton’s attempts to engage with the film’s cultural stakes, but also how this narrative framing manifests through the film’s action scenes. After Burton and Wang attempt to break into Lo Pan’s hidden mansion they are captured, tied to wheelchairs, and brought in to see him in his decrepit physical form. An aspect of Lo Pan’s curse is his material confinement to the body of a wheelchair bound old man, rather than the spectral image that represents his true appearance. Just as Lo Pan’s entrapment in the wheelchair restrains him, so too are Burton and Wang trapped using the very same material bindings. Despite the film not having made clear the exact nature of Lo Pan’s curse, there already is this degree of visual communication, aided by the formal characteristics of his framing as a villain, and the recognition of James Hong despite a drastic change in appearance between scenes.
This symbolism and context is all lost on Burton, who despite his obviously compromised position continues to mock the “little basket case on wheels” and decides that Lo Pan’s plan to take over the universe might be better served in a “psycho ward [sic]”, incredulous to the idea that the figure before him is indeed the ten-foot-tall wizard that stole his truck. Despite everyone else in this scene understanding what the stakes are and what is happening, Burton’s line of questioning remains fixated on irrelevancies continuing his constant repetition of inane questions that receive no answer. Indeed, this scene provides the most satisfactory response of all to Burton when Lo Pan quips that “You were not put on this earth to ‘get it’ Mr. Burton”, reinforcing that he, the outsider, and drifter, really doesn’t belong here. But despite this fact Burton remains at the center of this scene and the rest of the film due to his instinctive engagement with his surroundings that is drawn less from the heroic conventions of action cinema and more from a Carpenter-inflected reading of Hawks’s comedies.
From this scene onwards this bifurcation becomes readily apparent as Wang continues down the path of heroic growth and Burton remains trapped in a reflexive cycle between him and the hostile environment around him. Once Wang and Burton are wheeled back into their cell, Burton realizes that he can reach the knife in his boot and cuts both him and Wang free before grabbing onto the villainous Thunder (Carter Wong) from behind. Burton starts explaining how he has the upper hand in this situation, only for Thunder to use a combination of strength and magic to fling Burton back onto the wheelchair and send him careening quickly towards a pit. The scene then becomes focused on Burton’s attempt to free himself from the wheelchair and the pit, intercut with brief asides to Wang’s actual escape from Thunder. Even though Wang is undoubtedly performing the more exciting action, it is Burton’s struggle against gravity that frames this sequence, as Wang is only featured when his efforts affect Burton not the other way around.
The actions performed by both Wang and Burton are informative in illustrating their progression throughout the film. Wang also starts in opposition to the wheelchair, but through this scene he progresses to combat Thunder, then moves on to rescuing his friend Eddie (Donald Li) and together they continue to fight off Thunder and his guards. One can see a progression here from conflict with an inanimate object, to an individual, to a group as the actions required of Wang become more intense and interpersonally coordinated. Burton on the other hand exhibits a more cyclical pattern, as his bravado when dealing with the wheelchair does not translate into his confrontation with Thunder as he is instead thrust into an even more harrowing situation involving the inanimate object. In addition to this lack of development for Burton’s role as an action hero, it also mirrors his continuous bewilderment in the face of magic as he is unable to move on from the physical metaphor of the wheelchair and Lo Pan’s identity. Instead of internalizing this knowledge and moving forward, Burton’s response is to arrogantly try and push through, destroying the wheelchair in the process alongside any actual hope of understanding its meaning.
Burton has now become locked in this environmental cycle, restricted to reflex action alone. Burton’s continued reliance on the innate functionality of his gun or knife rather than Wang’s increased personal mastery of fighting styles reaches its apex when before the final confrontation with Lo Pan, Egg hands out a magic potion to Wang and Burton. For Egg and Wang this heralds the transition from the moderately naturalistic martial arts present in the film so far, to the fantastical choreography that dominates the following scene, acting as the culmination of Wang’s growth as an action hero unrestrained by the limitations and constraints of the physical world. If this apotheosis were not already apparent, Wang leads a toast to the flag and nation of the United States removing all doubt that in this American film he is the very American hero at its center. This differs wildly from Burton’s reaction to the potion, with his description of the effects seeming closer to a mild high rather than the physics defying properties seen in his allies. Burton’s inability to progress from a conflict with the inanimate to the animate is shown in its clearest form in the very next scene, where he triumphantly shoots at the ceiling, dislodging a brick which falls and knocks him out for most of it.Figure 3:
Carpenter and Russell
John Carpenter filming Kurt Russell struggling against the non-human agency of a hostile environment is a more apt description of The Thing rather than BTiLC, but it is in this earlier film that Carpenter lays out the underlying forces that manifest through Burton. Whereas in Hawks’s The Thing from Another World, the Thing is easily read as a stand-in for an abject other that the heroes can orient themselves against,14 Carpenter’s Thing is far less concise as its ability to infiltrate and mimic compromises the autonomous collectivity that defines the Hawksian group, instead leaving the individual to confront not only their isolation with their environment, but also how this relationship itself is an aspect of the process by which their subjective identity is composed. This reappraisal of the Hawksian frontier into one that bestows additional agency to the environment is a feature of many of Carpenter’s films, to which the maliciously comical bricks and wheelchairs of BTiLC can attest.
Here one can see Burton as a developmentally arrested comedic figure, but unlike the childish regression of Monkey Business, Burton is arrested in his development as a subject distinct from and having mastery over the objects that constitute his surroundings. Just as the Thing is a creature that does not respect the boundary of the self and the other, so too does Burton in his lack of acknowledgement that for all his bluster he is actually subject to these forces that constitute that subjectivity. The difference between Burton and the Thing in their approach to their respective constraints speaks to the heart of the subversive and comedic project at play in BTiLC. Where the Thing can simply overcome whatever obstacle faces it through either radical transformation or brute force, Burton must navigate within the confines of the Reagan era “hard body” hero15 albeit one that like other collaborations between Russell and Carpenter is tinged with a degree of parody. Despite Tony Williams’s assertion that “Carpenter and Russell merely use [this subversion] for superficial humour and leave intact the ideological system from which they were created”16 the narrative framing of characters like Burton clarify the substance behind his portrayal.
Despite Williams’ accusation being more directed towards Escape from New York than BTiLC, even in this more classically heroic example of a Carpenter and Russell collaboration the subversive qualities found in the latter are already present. Commenting on Russell’s character, Snake Plissken, from Escape from New York Robert Shail presents him as emblematic of the reactionary mythology of the masculine hero that by this point had become crystalised in the form of the tortured-yet-capable figure of the hard body hero.17 With Russell’s almost perfect embodiment of the “tough guy” star type18 the self-parodying element of a character leaning just a bit too far into the role is apparent on first glance, but upon comparison with BTiLC the means by which this portrayal extends beyond the superficial begins to come into focus.
Beneath this macho affect, Plissken too is forced into confrontation with his environment just like Burton and in doing so sheds light on how each film’s portrayal of the 80s hero goes beyond a superficial mockery of the archetype. In addition to viewing these films as products of the era of Reagan and Rambo, so too must they be contrasted with the template set by Hawks in his construction of the masculine frontier group. Rather than any one member subordinating themselves to the authority of another, the core factor running through these films is a construction of the individual subject as possessing a mastery over their abilities and a shared clarity of purpose that provides them with pre-conscious coordination without any explicit command. This drive is pre-conscious as it is a constitutive property of their identity as men, the struggle in many of these films being that of a recognition of their own identity; seen in Hawks’s comedies as a triumph over the lure of irresponsibility, or in his adventure films as a triumph over the adversity that is testing the group’s cohesion.
Where Hawks’s protagonists are shown dealing with the aftermath of incursions across the frontier (Dude’s return from abroad in Rio Bravo, or Hildy’s temporary resignation in His Girl Friday), Carpenter’s protagonists are more embroiled in this space where these assumed forces of subjection are not as reliable and as such the assurance of victory that they provide is also absent. The absence of this uniting throughline is what makes Carpenter’s “vision fundamentally different from Hawks” with Barry Keith Grant equating this with the ideological “safety net” present in Hawks’s films that Wood also attests to.19 Instead, there is a greater reliance on the vagaries of the environment itself and it is on this point that Burton and Plissken differ to the greatest extent. For all his macho bluster and violence, Plissken’s actual success is always contingent on the help of those around him, with even the final climactic shootout leaving him literally dangling helpless in mid-air while the President (Donald Pleasence) shoots the remaining assailants. What is key here is that unlike Hawk’s masculine heroes where their reliance on each other doesn’t factor into their conscious actions, Plissken is aware of the nature of his environment and its inhabitants in his success and when it comes time to choose between maintaining his status as a loner and subordinating his authority to that of the group his choice of the latter is always rewarded with success while the former leads to ruin.
This isn’t to say that Hawks’s subjects are uncomplicated, but rather that they take for granted unity of one’s conscious mastery of any given environment and the reactive pre-conscious engagement with the specifics of the one they find themselves in. Burton’s comedic role is clearly dependent on his inability to function as a hero in the former sense, while the balance maintained by the film between action and farce is reliant on his surprisingly competent engagement with the latter. The repeated failure of his typically heroic actions is always balanced with his continued capacity to avoid death through his cyclical return to engagements with the material world of his surroundings, his absence of subjective agency being the very property that facilitates his famous “reflexes.” This synergistic opposition at the core of Burton’s character reaches its zenith in his final confrontation with Lo Pan where, still with lipstick smeared lips from his kiss with Gracie in the previous scene, he makes two attempts on Lo Pan’s life; the first is preceded by a rousing speech and an intentionally thrown knife, which misses spectacularly and the second, performed as a pure reflex action to Lo Pan’s supernaturally accurate return throw of the very same knife.Figure 4:
Not only is this scene of pivotal importance to the film, as it features the primary antagonist’s defeat, but it also exhibits a model for heroism that operates because of Burton’s structural position relative to his environment rather than any particularly heroic action. Indeed, even before the failure of Burton’s first throw, his attempts at masculine bravado are instantly undercut by his lipstick, drawing attention to him as a caricature of an action hero and the image of the Reagan era tough guy that frames it. Unlike the effortless unity of Hawks’s blend of circumstance and ability, or Plissken’s acknowledgement of his own restraints, Big Trouble in Little China features a climax that seemingly happens by accident. Wang and Thunder are fighting elsewhere while this scene takes place and just as before the structure of the scene never removes its focus on Burton. This inversion of importance is driven home through the absurd non-sequitur of Thunder magically detonating his own body after he sees that Lo Pan is dead, not only resulting in one of the film’s most memorable, short, and unexpected special effects but also continuing to undercut the “actual” action of the film in favor of Burton’s buffoonery.
Even though Wang is operating at the peak of his competence as an action hero, ostensibly following through on the hard body promise of violence solving the film’s problems, it is Burton and Thunder’s reflexive reaction to events that lead to the victory of the group rather than anyone’s mastery over a particular situation. Indeed, unlike the other films discussed so far, where the defeat of the villain leads instantly to the resolution of the narrative once Lo Pan is defeated; our heroes must still escape from the collapsing building and fend off the remaining guards. Where Escape from New York teases this dynamic out somewhat through Snake’s need to be freed once the President is safe, this pales in comparison to the additional challenges that face the heroes of BTiLC as they must defeat the remaining henchmen, escape the collapsing building, and find Burton’s truck as well. The cause of the character’s struggle is not Lo Pan’s agency alone, but rather the entire situation of which he is just a single part.
Mirroring Burton’s own incapacitation by falling rocks, the last of Lo Pan’s henchmen, Lightning (James Pax) is defeated by a combination of crumbling architecture and having a Buddha statue dropped on his head, marking the transition from being an environment hostile to our heroes, to one that conspires against their adversaries. Rather than focusing on the subjective agency of the protagonists and antagonists as expressions of some inner value or competence, this reading of Big Trouble in Little China puts forward a malleable subjectivity that, rather than relying on a static relationship to an already mapped environment, such as one’s symbolic positioning relative to pre-existing notions of identity, processes of subjection are always at work as a result of interactions between and within the environment as a whole. The comedy in Burton’s position derives from his inadequacy as a hero in a more subject oriented sense, but it is his close connection to the materiality of his environment, and his innate reactions uncluttered by any real ability to plan or anticipate the future that allows him to act as a conduit for his heroic becoming.
Here the Hawksian tension between responsibility and the irresponsible becomes apparent once more, though in a transformed state. Burton feels a sense of responsibility towards his friends, but his being in that situation leads to him performing irresponsible actions because of his lack of basic competency. From this comparison alone one can see that these terms are not the opposite of one another, indeed in Burton’s case the former is the root cause of the latter. If the film were to construct this relationship as opposing rather than constructive forces, then it would fall into what Wood calls one of Hawks’s key “flaws,” that of a too rigid adherence to a “structure [that] is satisfyingly bold and symmetrical” but that avoids the complexity that the setup of the screwball comedy thrives on.20 Indeed, in Wood’s assessment: Although the films where this rigid structure are most clearly followed are in many senses some of Hawks’s finest, it is in the potential for a life outside this system, and a recognition of its precarity that elevates Hawks’s work.
What is interesting in this framing of Hawks’s structural limitations is that the very qualities that Wood identifies as being central to this contextualized view of Hawks’s heroes are those that are seen in Burton’s own heroic deeds; with the oft touted individualistic mastery present in Hawks’s films at times become hard to distinguish from sheer happenstance.21 Wood’s argument lies in this sense of “precariousness” having the dual effect of creating the effortless feeling of the heroes’ victory, while also remaining grateful for the underlying conditions of this event in the first place. In Wood’s description of the “perfect Hawksian society”, the rational mastery of Wang and the instinctive reflexes of Burton are resolved through the positioning of these two forces as allies rather than opposites.22 With this underlying unity of these twin forces the comedic inversion of their roles is bolstered, mitigating the potential for the kind of deficits Wood identifies in some of Hawks’s weaker films. Rather than producing the film as an outright comedy, Carpenter produces a synthesis between the twin poles of Hawks’s oeuvre, to preserve his underlying reverence for Hawks and the western, while still moving beyond it.
Here the role of the fantastic as the common factor in understanding Carpenter’s strange and modern frontiers becomes apparent, as it is in the supernatural unification of heterogenous temporalities and ontologies that the potential contradictions of this synthesis are overcome. The two narratives of the film, that of the Hollywood drifter hero coming into an Asian space and fixing it with his can-do attitude, and that of the local hero saving his community through mastery of martial arts (and the assistance of his comic relief sidekick) can exist simultaneously because of the narrative leap one must make in order to engage with the fantastic in the first place. The intertwined operation of these two descriptions of the film is what allows it to avoid being a mean-spirited mockery of Burton or the uncritical overshadowing of Wang. Where in Hawks’s westerns the effortlessness of the heroes assured victory comes from the conditions that produce their masculine identity, in BtiLC this comes from the inherently arbitrary nature of the supernatural, where any insurmountable obstacles can be overcome using the contents of Egg’s “Six Demon Bag.”
It is in the recognition of Carpenter as a filmmaker of the supernatural and the fantastic that the depth behind what appear to be superficial critiques of the masculinity in late 20th century action movies becomes apparent. Instead of depicting characters moving through spaces with already delineated gendered categories, such that violence is the unquestioned solution to intractable problems, or that the heroic mastery implied by these identities transcends cultural barriers, the fantastic shifts the focus onto the very construction of those identities themselves. That these spaces represent heterogenous ontologies and temporalities, means that subjects themselves can have a meaningful impact on the very forces of their subjection. As seen in Russell and Carpenter’s collaborations the farcical embodiment of these heroic forms is only part of their depiction, the other being how the imposition of the fantastic either in the form of a dystopian New York or “Chinese black magic” interrupts and confounds the very roles their portrayal is embellishing.
This shouldn’t dismiss the complexity of Hawks’s own approach to gender, with the frequent figure of the Hawksian woman offering a vision of femininity equally at home amongst the professional world as any man. Likewise, BTiLC is not without its own regressive elements, for all the comical subversion of Burton’s masculinity and the elevation of Gracie’s professionalism, it is still up to Wang and Burton to save her and Miao Yin. This is where the fantastic and Grant and Wood’s observation of Carpenter’s removal of Hawks’s ideological safety net come together. The fantastic serves to homogenize differing models of the world not through the assertion of a new dominant model, but by allowing for incongruity and the unknown through the language of the supernatural. The ontology of the film’s setting works not to reinforce these familiar genre elements but rather to contrast them, with the film fostering a comfortability with confusion and indeterminacy rather than a swell of confidence in the reactionary structures Carpenter is accused of reaffirming.
The best example of this property of the fantastic occurs near the end of the film when Burton and Egg are sneaking into Lo Pan’s compound via underground tunnels filled with the “black blood of the earth” (Burton’s questioning reveals that it isn’t oil, but there is no further information provided) and a strange creature leaps out of a hole in the wall, kills someone before being banished by Egg, compelling it to “come out no more!” After again doing nothing Burton’s response to this incident is to ask “What!? Huh!? What’ll come out no more!?… Dammit!” as everyone moves on. The real answer is that there is no explanation for what the creature or the black blood is, only that they exist and that they have no underlying structure beyond their purpose in the moment; the primary one being to demonstrate even further how much Burton is not suited for this task. This isn’t to say that this is meant to foster an incurious acceptance, but rather what makes this scene work is that the audience, too, wants to know what just happened and whether this will become relevant again later. It is in this questioning drive that the fantastic elevates Carpenter’s work above a nihilistic repetition of genre conventions and instead allows for its creative and subversive engagement with those same archetypes as well as for this engagement to remain relevant over thirty years later.
The question remains, however, as to whether this inversion of the orientalist adventure film, coupled with the film’s comedic heroic dynamic, is enough to counter its foundational reliance on those very same stereotypes. That the film emulates the effect of Hong Kong martial arts cinema through a Hollywood genealogy doesn’t change the fact that this same western pedigree also has a long history of appropriating Asian culture for novelty value, framing the east as an inherently mystical place as opposed to the mundane west. While this article has sought to show the substance behind the film’s critical portrayal of ideas of the western masculine hero, the fact that it continues to utilize tropes and stereotypes that may overpower these points in the films favor. Regardless of the perceived success of the film’s engagement with these themes it unquestionably tries to redress them which is more than can be said for its more financially successful contemporaries such as the Indiana Jones films.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) neatly replaces the earlier Raiders of the Lost Ark’s (1981) Egypt and Nepal for India and China, maintaining the underlying logic of Jones’s (Harrison Ford) knowledge of archaeology and physical prowess being applicable to all non-western cultures. Jones doesn’t skip a beat when he is told about the magical stones he must rescue from the thuggee cult, itself an uncritical repetition of British colonial embellishments of local violence.23 Even though one can claim that the film engages in a parodic repeat of earlier narratives in its depictions of local cults and banquets of live snakes, the underlying capacity for Jones to both understand and adapt to these challenges is never questioned. Indeed, the only time Jones is incapable of exercising his heroic agency is when is placed under the spell of the cult and rendered zombie like and capable of harming his companions. Not only is Jones’ adaptable and universal capacity for heroism shown to be the solution to the film’s problems, but that part of the evil he must destroy is associated with the subordination of that agency under the authority of a local power structure.
The distinction between Jones and Burton in this regard can’t be starker, highlighting the latter’s recognition of his outsider status as a part of what makes him a funny and likeable character. Even though Temple of Doom also contains supernatural elements, the doubt they engender is always addressed by Jones’s status as an academic and heroic authority, as opposed to the bemused indifference of Burton in the face of the genuinely irreconcilable. The need to have everything be explained by Jones’s paternal masculinity is further reinforced by the film’s decision to have his primary goal to be that of saving an army of enslaved children, and by association the infantilized people of British India. His identity as a symbolic father figure is further reinforced by his two companions: the Chinese child chauffer Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) and Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), an American nightclub singer whose discomfort with local environs and food is played for comic relief. The film positions them as a screwball nuclear family united by the underlying paternal authority of Jones’s leadership. Even dysfunctional paternalism still embodies the same structure of the textbook version and although one can draw some parallels between Short Round, Willie, Wang, and Gracie, BTiLC’s supporting characters are always portrayed as Burton’s peers never as subordinate.
Where its contemporaries flatten the agency of their chosen environments, BTiLC demonstrates a form of intercultural intertextuality that directly engages with the formative properties of being situated in a place, and with its peoples. That the film still uses the underlying orientalist logic of Hollywood depictions of Asian culture is not erased by this, and the question of whether this story was wholly appropriate for Carpenter to tell is beyond the scope of this article and still open; however, what I propose as the outcome of this discussion is that Big Trouble in Little China is doing something different to its peers, and offers a model for productive subversion of generic structures, while still remaining an enjoyable work of popular cinema. Given the increasing prevalence of fantastical action-adventure film in Hollywood, exploring means by which one can tell complex stories within a codified generic framework is as important as ensuring that there is still room for stories that lie outside them. Through the new opportunities its study affords as both a work of genre cinema, and a blueprint for self-aware intercultural filmmaking, BTiLC deserves a re-visit; “just remember what ol’ Jack Burton says at a time like this… Give me your best shot, pal. I can take it.”
- John Kenneth Muir, The Films of John Carpenter (Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc, 2005), 36. ⮭
- Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: British Film Institute, 1999), 142. ⮭
- Ibid, 123. ⮭
- John Frow, Genre (New York: Routledge, 2015), 31. ⮭
- Jacqueline Furby and Claire Hines, Routledge Film Guidebooks: Fantasy (Oxford: Routledge, 2012), 31. ⮭
- Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1973), 25. ⮭
- Bliss Cua Lim, Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 251. ⮭
- Kendal R Phillips, Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2012), 123. ⮭
- Ibid. ⮭
- Robin Wood, Howard Hawks (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006), 52. ⮭
- Ibid. ⮭
- Ibid, 62. ⮭
- Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 45. ⮭
- Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993), 27. ⮭
- Susan Jeffords, Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 24. ⮭
- Tony Williams, The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror, ed. Ian Conrich and David Woods (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), 119. ⮭
- Robert Shail, The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror, ed. Ian Conrich and David Woods (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), 111. ⮭
- Ibid, 108. ⮭
- Barry Keith Grant, The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror, ed. Ian Conrich and David Woods (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), 13. ⮭
- Robin Wood, Howard Hawks (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2006), 64. ⮭
- Ibid, 142. ⮭
- Ibid, 127. ⮭
- Mini Mark Bonjour, “Thuggee and Sati Revisited: The Persistence of the Colonial Gaze in the Merchant Ivory Film the Deceivers,” Artha Journal of Social Sciences, 15 no. 3 (January 2016), 27. ⮭