Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China ★★★★½

Forgive me if I sound upset, but over the past few years I've seen a lot of takes from non-asians talking about asian film and asian people in an awful and, quite frankly, weirdly fetishistic way. Why do I keep seeing people talk about how it's "so so sad and upsetting to me as a foreigner what china has become today BUT(!!!) omg that's totally not a good reason to harass and brutally assault asians even though the criticisms against the country are sooo valid! btw asian films are so special and their country is so beautiful~~" Now, this is of course a grossly exaggerated example, but this is the DNA of a lot of the """discourse""" from the pandemic onwards. I can't believe I'm asking people to just say assaulting Chinese people is bad as if that's some brave, complex epiphany, but here we are: just say, "assaulting Chinese people is bad" and leave it at that, leave China out because juxtaposing the two creates an insidious association that, oh well we shouldn't be violently racist against them, but "never forget that China bad and btw Chinese people come from China ;)) haha maybe it's okay to have a little racism, as a treat." We shouldn't idealize embellished, historical depictions of Chinese society in fictional film as 'better' than what it is now because that essentializes an entire nation of people as remnants of the past, a comfortable fantasy of a neutered Other that's so stuck in time they couldn't possibly pose a threat to Great Western Society. This full-on xenophobia is really not that different from the yellow peril from before, the concept of asia (in this case China) as an existential danger to the West that must be met with a capitalist, neoliberal-approved discrimination which appeases both non-asians's racist fears as well as their desire to appear (but not necessarily be) politically correct, an incongruity that I hope I don't have to explain is, quite frankly, fucking stupid. There's still so much more to say, but I do want to actually get around to talking about the movie so just... fuck man, do better.

Anyways, Big Trouble in Little China is possibly one of the best films at constructing and subsequently tearing down the image of this hypocritical white ally, at least in regards to an orientalist approach. Kurt Russell plays Jack Landon, a well-meaning all-american white guy who has an asian friend so he's practically an expert in their culture, and when things go south for his friend Wang Chi that involves Chinese polities, Jack takes every opportunity to intervene because of course he knows what he's talking about.

And if it was intentional, the utterly jarring narrative that seems to skip over and/or misplace entire scenes is one of the most genius decisions ever. Jack doesn't know jack shit, he's completely out of his element in every single way and this is reflected in the story-telling itself. He is the White Male Interloper who must insert himself into every scene possible in order to fuel his hero fantasy and everyone else is just too polite to say no. So it works brilliantly on a meta-narrative level that the story almost makes sense but doesn't, because Jack uses the racist symbology he's internalized to create a story that's congruent to the stereotypes he expects. Except... it doesn't make sense. Because these racist symbols don't make sense. The narrative from Jack's perspective is a complete wash and at some point he gives up trying to think critically about it, because Jack himself doesn't want to critically re-examine his internalized sinophobia and come to terms with the fact that he's not the 'asian ally' he thinks he is.

Which, on that note, is vividly brought to life. The absolutely anachronistic potpourri of asian signs with no signifiers is a blast to watch, making the film feel like the video-game it is to both the audience and Jack, who searches for his princess in another pagoda before his sexual insecurities manifested as an evil Fu Manchu figure 'conquers' her. And because it's a game he sees himself as the protagonist, but he is rendered totally incompetent in nearly every scene he is while his 'side-kick' Wang does the actual heroics. It would be pathetically sad if it wasn't so funny just how in over his head Jack really is – he sees himself as a John Wayne figure, when in reality he's just the guy who thinks he's John Wayne: a delusional joke.

If there is one flaw, it is that perhaps the satire wasn't clear enough. Big Trouble in Little China has the gall to continually ridicule and deconstruct this 'white savior ally' from the viewpoint of the well-meaning bigot, committing to this perspective so totally that even the movie poster is in on it. And perhaps that's why I see some people take this film at face-value, viewing it as nothing more than just another straightforward action-adventure romp set in the ancient mystical faraway land of Chinatown, San Francisco. It's a shame really, but fitting I suppose, that they see the film the same way as Jack.

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