In deciding what films to pull for this viewing series, I have had many conversations with people about what is and is not “essential”. There have been many a point taken about what I should really call “a blind spot”, and what I don’t need to specifically need to see. Many of this year’s selections have a high level of film literacy. The choices are stacked with lots of black and white, and there is a high quotient of subtitles/intercards. Hell, only two of them were released in my lifetime!
For many, these are the sorts of films that define “essential”…titles directed by Kurosawa, Bergman, Chaplin, Hitchcock, and so on. However, as I’ve mentioned before, Blind Spots can also be lower brow. They can involve watching something for the sole purpose of having fun and getting a few laughs. What I’m trying to say is that the overall idea is to try new things – but “trying new things” isn’t only about eating my vegetables.
Amazingly, seventeen entries into this series, John Carpenter is my first repeat director. After kicking off the whole experiment with THE THING, I decided to return to Carpenter’s work for a film my friends have always pointed to as one that is a lot of fun; BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA from 1986.
In case you’re like me and you haven’t already seen the film, the story is all about a trucker named Jack Burton (Kurt Russell). After agreeing to take his friend Wang Chi to the airport, he gets caught up in what appears to be a crime ring bent on kidnapping Wang’s fiancée. Little does he know, that there is more to these dastardly deed than meets the eye. Burton and Wang form a little posse, rounded out by a lawyer named Gracie Law (Kim Catrell). Together they go deep into a hidden fortress in the bowels of Chinatown.
It’s there where they are forced to confront forces so evil, they have to be seen to be believed.
The beauty of a film like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is the way it finds the sweet spot between thrilling and campy. It’s a tone that a lot of modern movies have a lot of trouble striking, perhaps because so few modern films of its ilk are helmed by directors with as clear a vision as John Carpenter.
Carpenter had amassed himself a solid resume of thrillers by the time he unleashed BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, so there was no doubt that the man who’d given the world HALLOWEEN and THE THING could bring excitement and tension. Looking back on it now, what’s wonderful to see is the film’s confidence in static photography and deliberate editing. Were this film to be remade (it’ll happen – just you wait), the martial arts sequences would be ramped up to play like a Jet Li film. While this could work out to the story’s advantage, it’s also possible that in the wrong hands it could become a quick-cutting mess that leaves the audience berated and bemused.
Instead, Carpenter shows restraint, and we’re allowed to soak up every wonderful punch, chop, and kick at a reasonable pace.
What allows this less frenetic staging to work is the way it occasionally gives way to the kooky. Carpenter pauses the kung-fu now and again to spend time with a floating spherical blob made up primarily of eyeballs. If that creature isn’t on-screen, it has given way to a furry orange monster that looks like a muppet gone rogue. Seeing these oddities clearly underlines that we are in a fantastical world, so we aren’t just interested in whether out heroes can kick ass…we’re also worried just how they will get around these freaks.
Another detail that makes the movie work so well is Burton’s cynical nature. While Kurt Russell seems to be playing a lot of scene like the long-lost descendent of John Wayne, I hear a particular tone in his voice that is rather important…call it a Han Solo tendency.
It’s this snark that allows us to really dig our talons into a fantastical tale like this. Whenever a genre film drops us into a world, the tendency is to make the characters speak with great reverence in hushed tones about the mythos of its universe and the challenges they present. If the film spends too long speaking with reverence in hushed tones, we have a hard time believing it ourselves (think THE MATRIX). What works well to ground us – we, the heathens in the audience – is to have a champion to represent us. It’s what makes us love scoundrels like Burton, or Han Solo, or LOST’s Sawyer so very much. They have no reservations around pointing out what doesn’t make sense, and it saves us the trouble.
I can’t really say why, but it feels like twenty-five years on, when storytellers create these worlds and these character dynamics, they have started to leave out the blue-collar skeptic. The unforeseen side-effect is the way that has made us the skeptics, and denied us the joy of really drowning in these stories.
So while nobody is about to mention BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA in the same breath as IKIRU, or upcoming selections like PERSONA, I see it every bit as enlightening as those two and feel that much better for dragging it out of my blindspot.
Besides its cheeky story and its snide hero, it gives the viewer a great deal of fun and does so with a high level of craft. We surrounded these days with action adventures determined to paint pictures using a grimy, desaturated palette. Compare that to what Carpenter does here, in the way he splashes in vibrant reds, oranges, and greens amongst the drab greys and browns of Chinatown’s underworld. As I read this back to myself, it seems as though I’m saying “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”…which is exactly what I mean to say.
If pressed, I could likely name great modern martial arts films, great fantastical films, or great stories of reluctant bravado. Getting mt to name a film that combines all three is a different animal.
The joys of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA are plain to see. They do not require group-think, or context, long explanation, or perspective. Its joy and silliness are right up there on the screen, and they dare you not to like them. There’s great value in that sort of filmmaking – especially in an age where so many big budgeted films arrive devoid of any silliness or joy.
I post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for May…
Will watched THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI
Sean Kelly watched RUN LOLA RUN
Amir Soltani watched GROUNDHOG DAY
Jake Cole watched ELEPHANT
Dan Heaton watched MR. BROOKS
Andrew “GMan” Robinson watched ALL ABOUT EVE
Courtney Small watched GUN CRAZY
Andy Hart cheated and watched KISS KISS BANG BANG
**UPDATE: I feel like a pretty big twerp. Back in December, Josh from The Cinematic Spectacle posted about his intention to join in on this project. Somehow, I managed to completely forget he was doing so and never linked to a single entry he’s put up so far – and he’s five-for-five in 2013.
So, take a moment and flip through all five of his entries in the series so far: THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, THE RULES OF THE GAME, THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, PICKPOCKET, and this month’s entry WALTZ WITH BASHIR.
Many apologies Josh.
Steve Flores watched THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE
The Snowflake Has Fallen! Bob “What’s a Fortnight Between Friends” Turnbull watched both SHANE and THE GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL
Allison watched I AM CUBA