The vision of a Big Trouble in Little China sequel continues to loom like the ghostly glow of green fire above a Chinatown skyline. The original film, released in 1986 from director John Carpenter, was seen by very few in theaters (grossing less than half of its estimated $25 million budget), quickly becoming motion picture roadkill as it tried to merge onto a crowded racetrack between a high- octane Top Gun and a barreling Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, only to have James Cameron’s monstrous aliens jump into the race just two weeks later and crush it from behind.
Although Big Trouble in Little China was a box office failure, in the years since its release it has become something of an Antiques Roadshow treasure find for millions of movie lovers. Its unorthodox blend of martial arts, magical powers, monsters, humor, and heroic adventure have made it an enduring cult classic.
Since 2015, rumors have circulated about the possibility of a remake or sequel being championed by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and it still appears on IMDb as an “announced” project he’s involved with as both actor and producer. With the also-rumored complications revolving around property rights, there’s no telling if this intended project will ever get the chance to get off the ground.
But some might wonder whether a Big Trouble in Little China sequel getting off the ground would be…well, appropriate. When the movie came out in 1986, it was protested, and an article in the Los Angeles Times reported that groups like Chinese for Affirmative Action believed that the film was racist and would encourage anti-Asian prejudices. In today’s climate of acute racial sensitivity, many might agree. Wash the original Big Trouble in Little China, in fact, a racist film, disparaging one race while lifting up another?
Looking for Racism in Big Trouble in Little China
Much of the uproar in 1986 seems to have come on the heels of strong Asian-American backlash against the 1985 Michael Cimino film The Year of the Dragon, a crime drama starring Mickey Rourke which takes place in New York City’s Chinatown and was considered a very unflattering portrayal of Chinese-Americans. There’s no doubt the two films had several high-level similarities: A current-day Chinatown location, Chinese-American bad guys, plenty of on-screen gang violence, and a prominent white actor playing the lead role. Perhaps a quick condemnation of Big Trouble in Little China by concerned groups at the time is understandable.
But a closer look reveals some important differences. Big Trouble in Little China features as many Chinese-American good guys as bad guys, with three Chinese-American co-heroes pitted against three Chinese-American co-villains. And the Chinese-American actors, whether playing hero or villain — including the great James Hong, who has had steady roles in Hollywood since 1954 — have always defended the script, the working environment, the level of collaboration, and the director.
When looking at the visuals and dialogue of the film itself, it becomes very hard to see intentional slights to any character because of race, and if the jokes that mostly cut both ways aren’t perfectly balanced, they poke more fun at the white hero than anyone. It’s also a nearly impossible task to separate authentic Chinatown fashions from derogatory Chinese stereotypes. If a case were to be tried in court accusing Big Trouble in Little China of being a racist film, it would be an entirely circumstantial one.
Marketing and Studio Intervention in Big Trouble
A stronger case could be made for racism in the marketing of the film than in the film itself. Granted, this was a challenging movie to market. When John Carpenter can accurately call his movie an action-adventure-comedy-kung-fu-ghost-story-monster movie, a concise marketing strategy is going to be elusive. The trailer rightly emphasized the action and humor, but the movie posters were criminally misleading.
It has been argued that the real hero of the story, the hero who rises above the rest, is Jack Burton’s best friend Wang Chi, played with likable charm by actor Dennis Dun: “How do you think I feel? I lost a whole girl!” And yet, if there was a Big Trouble in Little China ‘Find Dennis Dun in the Movie Posters’ contest, no one would win. Not because people wouldn’t recognize Dun; it’s simply that he’s just not in any of the movie posters. at all. The arguable true hero of the movie is completely missing. To call that an incompetent oversight would be insulting, but the alternative suggests it was something calculated.
It was also rumored that the studio insisted on the last-minute addition of the introductory interview scene, which features the wonderful Victor Wong as Chinese-American tour-guide and part-time wizard Egg Shen, who clarifies up front that Jack Burton is the true hero who saved the world. It’s not at all hard to envision the film without this scene, which actually violates the ‘show-don’t-tell’ rule crucial to good story writing. So, why is it there? Why do we have to start with one of the Chinese-American heroes putting the white hero on a pedestal? There are answers, and they may be built upon assumptions of racism, but if so, they are sadly surrendering to assumptions of racism in the audiences, not in the film.
Looking for Anti-Racism in Big Trouble in Little China
It is easier to see a love for Chinese people, culture, and mythology in Big Trouble in Little China than it is to see a disdain for them. Is it possible, then, that Big Trouble in Little China is a movie that actively opposes — even attacks — the legacy of racism in the film industry? There is evidence that deserves consideration in both the story that’s being told and testimony from behind the scenes.
In the story, each time would-be ‘white savior’ Jack Burton swaggers into a scene, played delightfully by actor Kurt Russell, a favorite of director John Carpenter, more often than not he ends up failing at whatever he was trying to accomplish, sometimes making matters worse. ‘White clown with heart of gold’ better describes the Jack Burton character than ‘white savior.’ While the unwarranted confidence of Jack Burton keeps him at the center of the story, his only real outstanding contribution comes in a split-second of not thinking. If anyone should be offended by the way this white hero is portrayed, it should probably be the racists.
It’s also obvious that the true leadership of the protagonists comes from the wisdom and resources of the oldest Chinese-American hero, Egg Shen, who leads the final assault and is the only one who can equip the good warriors for battle against a supernatural enemy. In the end, the victory is a team effort, but progress is made mostly by the courage and martial arts skills of Wang Chi, who is often forced to tackle things single-handedly because of Jack Burton’s latest fumble. This seems more like a recipe for mocking racism than showing racial supremacy.
What was going on behind the scenes also suggests that the filmmakers were sensitive to racial issues and trying to avoid racist mistakes. Actor Peter Kwong, who played the villain Rain, expressed appreciation for the inclusive efforts of director John Carpenter, who encouraged the input of the Chinese-American actors to keep the film racially authentic and inoffensive. But does simply avoiding racism equate to anti-racism?
Movies Like Big Trouble in Little China Just Want to Have Fun
It’s entirely possible that artists have as much right to eschew social agendas and causes as they do to champion them. If a director’s highest priority was to entertain an audience with a fun story, could that movie fly below or rise above the need to acknowledge racial issues and make social statements? It seems like the possibility exists that a film could be made that is neither racist, nor anti-racist.
if that is possible, the original Big Trouble in Little China could be just such a movie. There is an impressive amount of human neutrality that drives the plot. Ultimately, Jack Burton and Wang Chi help each other because they’re friends. Ultimately, Egg Shen just wants to live in peace. Ultimately, the arch-villain Lo Pan isn’t trying to conquer the world for China — he just doesn’t want to die, and that takes power.
When considering the purposes of the film, the answer to a question like, “Why Chinatown?” could be as simple as, “Because Chinatown is awesome and seems magical.” Or the answer to, “Why include a character so much like John Wayne?” could be, “Because it’s more fun to watch that stereotype stumble.” There doesn’t seem to be a question that only ends in a racially-motivated answer. “Because green eyes are rare and pretty.” “Because gangs are scary.” It could be argued that Big Trouble in Little China really is neither racist nor anti-racist.
The difficulty with the idea of Big Trouble in Little China being nothing more than fun entertainment is that it’s a movie about people, and all people are part of a relational world. If race isn’t just a concept created to legitimize the dominance of white people over non-white people, as some contend, every film that takes place in a real world setting will have real races in it, and will be saying and teaching something to their audiences about those races.
It’s All in the Reflexes
So, what can be concluded? Is Big Trouble in Little China a racist movie? An anti-racist movie? A racially indifferent movie that’s just plain ol’ dumb fun?
Perhaps it’s all three. There’s certainly evidence for each. Although the evidence for it being a racist film is the weakest, a definitive answer isn’t obvious. And as the movie’s 1986 marketing department seemed to recognize, the audience brings their own racial perspectives to the show. Today, movie lovers are being asked to judge racially-charged films of the past — from movies like the unapologetic comedy of Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles to the intense drama of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino — through the lenses of some very current and urgent social ideologies. As new audiences discover Big Trouble in Little China, it will be seen by some as racist, by some as anti-racist, and by some as just dumb fun, all of which was probably decided long before they chose to watch it.
As Jack Burton would say, “It’s all in the reflexes.”