Musings on 'Big Trouble in Little China'

The Three Storms hit the streets. 20th Century-Fox/Getty

In our podcast episode "The War on Creativity," we discuss humanity's love/hate relationship with creative thought. Sure, humans champion examples of creative success and tout the power of innovation in the workplace, but our brains are also rather logically programed to distrust new, creative notions. That's why such brilliant, groundbreaking films as "The Big Lewbowski" failed to find an audience and make back investor money in their initial runs.

And this brings me to "Big Trouble in Little China," which I mention as one of my all-time favorite films. Because why wouldn't I love a film from my childhood that overflows with dark sorcery, hideous monsters, labyrinthine subworlds, kung-fu action and more than a few laughs? I think about the film quite a bit, so I'd like to take a minute to blog about just why the film continues to resonate so strongly with me, as well as how I feel about the one big criticism leveled at the 1986 fantasy action flick.

The Science of Lo Pan

Since I devoted a whole blog post to this topic previously, I'll keep this one brief. Just as John Carpenter's love of old westerns tends to creep into the structure of his films, so too does his love of science. That's why there's talk of antimatter and tachyon transmissions in "Prince of Darkness" and terraforming in "They Live." In this film, however, the cursed David Lo Pan is "of no flesh" and little more than "an evil dream." Where is Lo Pan? "Where is the Universe," answers Egg Shen, thus raising the metaphysics of Lo Pan to the cosmic level of universal expansion (expanding into what?). As always, the mysteries at the edge of human understanding equal or exceed our strangest fantasies.

The Possibilianism of Egg Shen

This is another topic I've blogged about in the past, but I always come back to this wonderful quote from the character Egg Shen, played by the late, great Victor Wong: "There's Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest... Just like your salad bar." It's a world view recipe I'm quite taken with, lining up quite a bit with David Eaglman's concept of Possibilianism, which avoids theist and atheist extremes in favor of "the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities." It's also an approach favored more and more by millennials. There are simply so many forms of belief to choose from, why shouldn't we pick the best, most positive bits from the salad bar of belief?

American Foreign Policy

Jack Burton.
Silver Screen Collection/Getty

Then there's the wonderfully biting view of "Big Trouble in Little China" as a metaphor for the United States' foreign policy. Because what do we have in Kurt Russell's Jack Burton? He's a likeable guy and he has his talents, but his John Wayne gusto mostly just lands him in more and more trouble as he wedges himself into foreign, ancient and unresolved feuds.

Sure, his truck winds up stolen and he takes a shine to Gracie Law, but nothing else makes the war against Lo Pan "his fight." We can well imagine him strolling cocksure into Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq or pretty much any place that's known the shadow of U.S. military intervention or diplomacy.

But for all his blunders, Jack Burton pulls through int he end. Does the same hold true for the U.S. of A.?

The Racial Issue

Roger Ebert was not a fan of "Big Trouble in Little China," accusing the film of unapologetic stereotypes "straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu." For my part, I find myself in a weird place contemplating the racial aspects of the film. I'm a white American, and no matter how open-minded and culturally sensitive I strive to be, I'll never be able to fully grasp the experience of mass media stereotyping. But I also can't use that as a crutch to simply brush the criticism aside since I'm the adopted father of Chinese son. There will come a time when I'll have to explain racism and racial stereotypes to him, and "Big Trouble in Little China" undoubtedly has a place in such discussions -- but will it play a positive role or a negative one?

It's a quandary I'm still working out in my head, but I tend to find solace in the seeming realness of the film's Chinese American characters. Kung Fu red shirts and storm sorcerers aside, the core characters exude relateable personalities rather than sheer exotic whimsey. They all seem written to straddle the boundaries between their Chinese heritage and their American identities, albeit by white writers in the 1980s. We even see this in the inhuman Lo Pan, who for all his Fu Manchu characteristics is also a grumpy old man frustrated by his past romantic failures.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think it's far from cut-and-dry with "Big Trouble in Little China." I think there was a genuine effort on the part of Carpenter and others to create something far more progressive here, while also playing upon the cinematic legacies of both Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema.

But perhaps I'm completely off base on the issue. I'd love to hear how other fans or detractors, particularly those of Chinese ancestry, view the film.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.