Sunday, June 7, 2015
The Lo Pan Dilemma: Why I Will Never See Another Big Trouble In Little China
"My problem is this place. It is my tomb. I'm buried here. A young man, a king, a warrior, is entombed within this.. old man's crippled body. And all I need is a woman, Mr. Burton. A special kind of woman with dragon green eyes to make me whole again. Young again. So that I may rule the universe from beyond this grave."
While it has been nearly a week since word came out that Dwayne Johnson was excited to star in a remake of one of my all-time favorites, the reactions, while to be expected, needed a little extra time to ferment. And while this feels like yet another case of Hollywood simply gambling on reliable IP to stay afloat, this attempt to make eyebrows perk up left me with an even more troubled mind. Especially in lieu of 2011's lukewarm pre-boot of John Carpenter's other less than financially stellar studio offering, The Thing(1982). Both being massive personal favorites despite their initial performances, I'm far more understanding of the former's existence. Over the last several years, remakes have grown to become a de-facto response to diminishing box office returns, often ironically to the tune of even greater losses. And many of the largest, most important cult film properties of the 1980s, have already seen themselves reconstituted and sold as hollow, zombified versions of themselves, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before the spotty hands of Hollywood would reach for the hidden gem bag yet again. But perhaps this time, they have reached the nadir of confusion. Desperation and disconnect so grand, that the end product could only reveal greater problems within an antiquated business model.
There are a myriad of reasons beyond mere love for the Carpenter film on a surface level that inform this bushel of feelings. Many of them stemming from just how unusual Big Trouble In Little China was on the film landscape at the time. In an era where just about any manner of pop culture mashup can be realized to the cheers of many, it simply was unthinkable in 1986. An era just awash in Vietnam revisionism, macho fantasy, and a longing for a 1950s simplicity of life. Hybrid culture had yet to gestate, and for the average moviegoer, the very idea that one film would be willing to embrace everything from kung-fu cinema, hard action, manga, video game silly, screwball comedy, and ensemble acting was simply too hard to accept. And then, there was a strange willingness on the part of the film to treat chinese characters as just characters, with the lesser known co-star being the film's stealth hero.
That's right. Big Trouble In Little China is special in that it subverts everything about the era in which it was made. It exists as both a marker of 1980s still brewing american xenophobia, and a growing movement toward seeing a more inclusive and understanding national identity. It utilizes the ideal of the individualistic proto-action icon in the All-American blowhard, Jack Burton. We are whisked alongside him in a vision of our own cultural glaucoma as it runs head on with the baggage of those tasked with making an american ideal possible. Burton's hapless buddy, Wang Chi(Dennis Dun) represents the then next generation's consciousness, tackling both tradition and burgeoning community sensibilities as his bride-to-be is kidnapped by street toughs, only to have her handed off to a centuries old evil sorcerer bent on becoming immortal through the use of her own unique physical qualities. He has no intention to marry Miao Yin for love, but rather for her green eyes. Not unlike Jack's need for his stolen truck to get by, the villainous Lo Pan is hellbent on this dehumanizing task to help enable his need to keep matters the same as so long ago.
In a very clever way, Lo Pan, while he has found himself to be a very saavy and occasionally witty businessman, running San Francisco Chinatown's underworld with a tightened claw, he seems more than happy to maintain the universe as it had long before the advent of the american ideal.
Burton, for all his friendliness toward people of all stripes, seems like a John Wayne gone Hanna-Barbera cartoon. A flag-waving tough guy with a head full of rocks. And as he voyages through the mounting weirdness that is this tale, his understanding of the world is endlessly rocked, leading to personal revelations about not only his own masculine prowess, but his own part in a larger community. And while he doesn't fully learn his lesson by the finale, there is indeed a hint that he knows himself far better now that he had at the beginning of the adventure. It's an endearing trick that Carpenter and Kurt Russell pulled off with the character, as all of Hollywood was basking in the instant gratification machinations of the Stallones, and now Schwarzeneggers of the world. It takes a great deal of self-effacement, and lack of seriousness to pull such a thing off, which only makes the character that much more charming.
On the side of good, there is also a cast of side characters who seem more than up to the task in changing perceptions in a film landscape that was still far too comfortable in treating certain characters without the respect they deserved. Just take Victor Wong's Egg Shen as a prime example. A local tour bus driver/local businessman/secret sorcery expert and wizard, with a smart mouth the likes few had seen in a major motion picture at that point. He's not only a man of numerous talents and abilities, he's also well-connected, and a natural wit who knows his ancient and San Francisco lore. And what of Uncle Chu, Eddie, The Chang Sing? Just treating characters as people goes such a long way, and BTLC never stoops low to sell us stale archetypes or ideas. In a film that so easily could have gone this way, every move seems calculated to avoid such turns, and remains perpetually ahead of the cultural curve. It knows we can be better, and drives for it every time, even as we are besieged by monsters, magic, kung-fu battles, and ghosts.
Big Trouble In Little China, is a perpetual cornerstone of popular culture that defies even the simplest of description, and as thus is without easy import. It's not a simple chassis with which to play with in some form of hyper-simplistic retooling. So if they truly wish to take us headlong into another go-round with Jack, Wang, and pals, the impetus is on today's filmmakers to delve deep into the murk of now, see exactly where we are as filmgoers, as well as social beings. It's not in Big Trouble's nature to retread what has been traveled before. It embraces the unexpected. And for befuddled studios to finally see this as a last ditch chip to cash in, seems not unlike a wily old sorcerer longing for the glory days. Partaking in the packaging, without a single inkling of the soul that lies beneath.
But much like his own undoing, it's all in the reflexes.