“You know what ol’ Rafe always says in an essay like this?”
An Essay on John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China”
By Raphael Falkoff
“You just listen to the old pork chop express here now and take his advice on a dark and stormy night, when the lightning’s crashing and the thunder’s rolling and the rain’s coming down in sheets thick as lead. Just remember what old Jack Burton does when the earth quakes and the poison arrows fall from the sky and the pillars of heaven shake. Yeah, Jack Burton just looks that big old storm right square in the eye and he says, ‘Gimmie your best shot pal, I can take it.’” When John Carpenter directed Kurt Russell to say that line, he had a few religions in mind. He wanted to show that with a bit of oomph, Americans could actually understand and work with Chinese religions. He used the character of Jack Burton in the film Big Trouble in Little China as a representation of the American response to the Chinese religions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. While this may be a difficult thing to show, I will try to bring order out of chaos.
Before I can go further into Big Trouble in Little China, I must substantiate this claim by showing John Carpenter’s motivation. John Carpenter has used religion as a major aspect of his other films. Best known for Halloween(1987), the famous Sci-Fi Horror director, has done plenty of films which include, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Village of the Damned (1995), Vampires (1998), and many others. The more obviously religious films he has done are Ghosts of Mars (2001), Escape from Los Angeles (1996) and Prince of Darkness (1987).
I start with Ghosts of Mars for two reasons. First, I am going in reverse chronological order so as to get closer and closer to my point. Second, and more importantly, so that one can see how while many completely ignore the religious tones of hit movies, they still are there. This film takes place 200 years in the future. A cop Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) has been assigned the task of moving a criminal, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube), to a prison on Mars. Unknown to Officer Ballard, a mining team has found the ancient Martian defense device which lets loose the spirits of former Martian warriors which then possess the miners. The group of officers and their prisoner must work together to fight off these vengeful specters and escape the planet. This film raises many topics which are very important to the religious movie-goer. The entire concept of the possessed is clearly a religious aspect within our American culture, as shown in such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Exorcist, and Night of the Living Dead. In this film he tries to tell us that the devil can be anywhere. He even goes so far as to describe Mars with aspects one might attribute to hell in an interview with Fred Topel. “Well, Mars has always been, since when I was a kid, was always the place where meanest monsters came from, the place that H.G. Welles wrote about the invasion from. In the history of civilization it represents human emotions, blood and war and sex, lust. The Roman God of war was Mars.” He even mentions the Roman Pagan God of War. The religious tones of this movie are not accidental.
Escape from Los Angeles however, is religious from a different standpoint. The premise of this film is that in the year 2013 not only is the island of Manhattan a prison, but all of Los Angeles has broken off from California in an earthquake, predicted by the president of the United States (Cliff Robertson), and has been turned into a moral prison. Anyone who commits an act of ‘questionable morality’ is sent there with no opportunity for parole or escape. These acts include smoking, eating red meat, and being a Muslim. The president’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), has fled with a disc which connects to a device which can shut down any electric machine at a push of a button, and gives it to her lover, the biggest gang leader in L.A., Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface). So captured warrior Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), is sent in against his will to kill Utopia and get back the disc. In another interview, this one with Violet Veil Magazine, John Carpenter says, “…LA is Babylon… it’s after the big one, and earthquake… it’s an island. And anybody guilty of a moral crime in the United States is deported. That includes a good deal of the population. There are gangs here, it’s very similar. But there’s a lot more that takes place in LA, LA has a lot of disasters. It’s kind of a place where people can’t seem to leave. You always ask people well why don’t you just leave?! And people say, ‘Well I don’t know, it’s paradise.’ So that’s the kind of thing that Kurt and I are going for. Nobody wants to leave this place.” Just as with the historical and religiously referenced Babylon, it is a place of sin and disaster, however, it’s also very appealing in comparison to the alternative of following extremely strict rules which lead to “salvation.”
Another Carpenter film begins in the basement of a Los Angeles church, where a small vial containing a green liquid has been kept safe for hundreds of years. When the priest in charge dies, the new head of the church finds this vial and gives it to a group of physics graduate students to analyze and figure out just what it is. Their frightening findings show that it contains Satan and he wants to release his own father, Anti-God. Though this liquid represents the purest essence of evil itself, as it shows through making zombies of everyone, the students try to stop it. If this idea isn’t religiously themed enough, the name of the film is Prince of Darkness. Made only about two years after Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness holds so many religious themes it would be difficult to deny that the ideas of religion must have been floating around in John Carpenter’s mind as he was working on all of the works he made in this era. As for Prince of Darkness, it’s in the script. The professor, Dr. Edward Birack (Victor Wong) teaches his class saying, “From Job’s friends insisting that the good are rewarded and the wicked punished, to the scientists of the 1930’s proving to their horror the theorem that not everything can be proved, we’ve sought to impose order on the universe. But we’ve discovered something very surprising: while order does exist in the universe, it is not at all what we had in mind!” Quoting Job is just the beginning. He has Father Loomis (Donald Pleasence) say, while hiding from evil and reciting verses from the Bible, “Where are you…? Christ?” The religious aspects aren’t subtle at all here. And its lack of subtlety shows just how much John Carpenter would be thinking and working with religion in his other films.
As these three films illustrate, John Carpenter as a religious director took on his best film before them. Big Trouble in Little China is often described as a film far before its time. If it came out today critics speculate that it would be a major hit. They, however, do not see it as religious as I do. The story is that Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), an American and Californian, and his friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), accidentally become involved with the Chang Sings, when they kidnap Wang’s bride to be, Miao Yin. The Chang Sings run by David Lo Pan (James Hong), a cursed spirit, take Miao Yin to him so that she may be sacrificed, to lift his curse and allow him to go on to rule the universe from beyond the grave. Jack, Wang, and others including Egg Shen (Victor Wong), have to rescue Miao Yin and, later, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and along with getting back Jack’s truck. While this film may be a bit weird, it clearly shows aspects of the three major Chinese religions. As Egg Shen says in chapter 18, “Of course the Chinese mix everything up, look at what they have to work with, huh? There’s Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.”
While Confucianism does play a role in this film it is the least of those three mentioned. In a scene (chapter 16) with Egg Shen and Gracie Law, he and Uncle Chu (Chao Li Chi), are throwing coins for the I Ching. This is a Confucian text and form of divination originating shortly before the Chou dynasty. They can also do the same divination with animal bones, another method of throwing the I Ching. Egg goes on to explain which hexagram this divination provided him. He says there are clouds and thunder, which if read as a hexagram is number thirty-four, Ta Kwang, and I suspect that there is a break in the third line. According to the James Legge translation, Tâ Kwang reads, “Tâ Kwang indicates that it will be advantageous to be firm and correct.” And a break in the third line from the bottom says, “The third NINE, undivided, shows, in the case of a small man, one using all his strength; and in the case of a superior man, one whose rule is not to do so. Even with firm correctness the position would be perilous. (The exercise of strength in it might be compared to the case of) a ram butting against a fence, and getting his horns entangled.” When researching this it came as a complete shock but fit with my thesis because the first thing that Egg Shen says to Gracie as she meets him, while he is throwing, is, “Goat butts against the hedge and his horns become entangled.” He later goes on to explain that while Gracie wants to just beat down the door and take back Mao Yin, as Tâ Kwang says one shouldn’t, “We have to gather our strength.” Uncle Chu describes it as “the image of difficulty at the beginning.” Egg then confirms that “…finally, we shall bring order out of chaos.” Now in comparison the situation described in the I Ching, is, aside from translational differences, exactly the same as the situation in the film. Such a striking similarity is nearly impossible to make without a conscious effort.
Now as for Buddhism, there are all different kinds of references. First the martial arts in the movie are mostly Shaolin Kung Fu, a style predominately practiced by Buddhist monks. This is evident in every fight scene. The movement is straight lined and focuses on hard and soft strikes following one another. The weapons used in the film are also almost all part of the Shaolin Buddha style collection. The Buddha or Five Animals of Shaolin were pivotal in keeping Buddhism alive through out its travels through China and ultimately the rest of the world. In a scene where Thunder (Carter Wong) does a demonstration of the old style wind and fire wheels, he is in a room surrounded by Buddhas (chapter 30). Shortly after that scene (chapter 32), there is a description of what happened to Lo Pan to make him an evil spirit. Egg refers to the Bodhisattva of the underworld, Dizang, and that they will have to be against him. Traditionally male, Dizang is both a Buddhist Bodhisattva and Taoist Immortal, who is closely related, in a comforting manner, to those afflicted or tortured. Lo Pan, a being who is in transition and is constantly tortured by his curse of no flesh, must be stopped and that involves going against Dizang.
Dizang, as a Taoist Immortal was related to Hells. Hells originated with Buddhism but many believe it was more folk-related so its integration into Taoism ultimately became more natural. Mentioned indirectly in the Ksitigarbha Sutra, which is attributed to Dizang, are the names of many different Hells, including: the Hell of boiling oil (where oil is heated and sinners are forced to bath in it), the Hell where people are skinned alive (self explanatory), and “Inside such Hells there are various kinds of small ones, either one, two, three, four or even up to hundreds and thousands of smaller Hells with different names” (Ksitigarbha Sutra, Chapter 5). Hells mentioned in the film are: the Hell of being cut to pieces, the Hell of boiling oil, the Hell of the Holy Dragon, the Hell of the upside-down sinners, and the Hell where people are skinned alive. And as Eddie Lee (Donald Li) says, “Chinese have a lot of Hells.” Before I move on, I should mention that it was extremely hard to find the original sutra. The Chinese don’t like to talk about this much but it does influence their views. They here the stories of this sutra and Taoist tales are told to Chinese as kids and they grow up as Wang puts it, “[they] try not to believe it.”
Similarly in Taoism we find all kinds of references both in the philosophic and folk religious aspects. As Lao Tzu writes in chapter two of the Tao Te Ching, “Everyone recognizes beauty only because of ugliness. Everyone recognizes virtue only because of sin. Life and death are born together, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low – all these exist together, arrive together, sound and silences blend together. Before and after.” The Taoist interpretation of this is that all things in the universe are created with a balance of positive and negative forces or furies. Once again from the divining scene with Egg, Gracie and Uncle Chu there is a direct association with this concept. Uncle Chu explains, “…There’s one thing even David Lo Pan must acknowledge, all movement in the universe is caused by tension between positive and negative furies.” (Chapter 18) This concept is not only shown in this scene. Later in chapter 36, there is a battle common of many Asian films, but uncommon in the west. Its idea is a battle of these positive and negative furies in an energy battle. This battle is between Egg Shen, whose name includes the word Shen referring to the highest level of purity in energy, and Lo Pan, the ultimate evil spirit. In their battle, they balance out and neither one could beat the other. Taoists know that there is never a way for good to beat evil nor evil beat good since they both are forced to co-exist as opposites. They simply must balance.
Having balanced both John Carpenter’s religious film background and the Chinese religious references within Big Trouble in Little China, the only thing left to balance is the American, Jack Burton. While the rest of the characters seem to know what’s going on in one way or another, Jack, has come into this with not even a glimmer of understanding. He learns, as does the American audience, all about these Chinese religions throughout the movie.
As Jack first enters Chinatown, in his truck he does say, “Now, well, you see I’m not saying that I’ve been everywhere and I’ve done everything, but I do know it’s a pretty amazing planet we live on here and a man would have to be some kind of fool to think we’re all alone in this universe.” He shows that he’s somewhat aware of his ignorance but thinks he has seen indeed quite a bit. A familiar tone when it comes to the view of many Americans. This is remedied quite quickly as he first has to drive into a back alley of Chinatown (chapter 8). He comes across a traditional Chinese Buddhist/Taoist funeral being performed by the Chang Sings. Of course he doesn’t care much at first. But then he spies in his rearview mirror a rival gang, the Wing Kong. Showing the lack of concern of other cultures, a common thread in Americans, he says, “These guys, these Sing Dings…” Wang is forced to correct him and tell him it’s pronounced, “Chang Sings.” The scene continues with a Chinese stand off, and finally the appearance of Lo Pan and the Three Storms, the evil spirits who protect him. Jack, after experiencing this unbelievable situation talks with Uncle Chu and tells him in chapter 11, “All I know is this Lo Pan character comes out of thin air in the middle of a God-damn alley, while his buddies are flying around on wires cutting everybody to shreds and he just stands there, waiting for me to drive my truck straight through him, with light coming out of his mouth!” He tells him that even though he saw it with his own eyes, he refuses to believe it. However all of the Chinese people, including Wang and Uncle Chu are fully aware that they are completely real and are terribly frightened by them. As Jack goes back to his phone call he says to his insurance company, “I’m gonna tell you about an accident and I don’t wanna hear act of God, ok?” If he wasn’t insisting that it wasn’t real already, that would put the icing on the cake. He insists that even though these guys were killing people in front of him, they were not real.
This view changes as the film progresses in chapter 13 where in Jack meets up personally with the Three Storms. He meets Rain (Peter Kwong) and tries to punch him as hard as he can, twice. Rain then jumps in the air and kicks Jack with both feet, after which he flies out of the roof of the building. This blows Jack away. “I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things…so somebody, I don’t care who, tell me what is going on here,” He says as Wang and Gracie take him back to her apartment. Jack wants to call the cops but Wang tells him, “Cops [have] got better things to do than get killed.” The group decides that Wang and Jack are going to the Wing Kong Exchange to try to get Mao Yin and Jack’s truck back. As they are leaving Jack is still unaware of what really is going on, much like many Americans when it comes to Eastern religions even upon real study. He now has interest but no one trusts him to tell him the truth.
Jack doesn’t get a real lesson in the truth until he and Wang are held captive in a metal room. That’s when Jack forces as much as he can out of Wang. Even then he insists it’s unreal. Jack says, “You know something you’re not telling me Wang.” (Chapter 22) To which Wang responds, “Myths and legends, I didn’t want to insult you.” Jack’s reply: “Go ahead, insult me.” Wang then gives him the first part of the legend of Lo Pan to which Jack gives the response hoping it’s not real, “No horse shit, Wang?” Wang assures him it’s the truth.
You can see Jack is learning as he and Wang prepare to go back in when he replies to the accusation that he is not a one man army, “Cops [have] got better things to do than get killed.” (Chapter 27) Repeating verbatim what Wang said shows that he is truly learning and understanding what is and is not real.
This is not again explored until deep inside the emergency provisions storeroom (Chapter 32). Jack learns from Egg the second part of Lo Pan’s legend, at this point, he makes no jokes and has full belief in what Egg is saying. Jack asks, “What’s in the flask, Egg? Magic Potion?” “Yeah.” “Thought so, good. What do we do drink it?” “Yeah!” “Good, I thought so.” This interaction shows that Jack is finally getting it and believes it fully. After seeing all he has seen and being completely immersed in the culture and the religions, he has no qualms about how real this is anymore.
As the film comes to its climax, Jack becomes ready for anything. He realizes and accepts all of these strange beliefs as reality. At this point, Wang proposes a toast pulling it all back to Jack as the American. Wang says, “Here’s to the army and the navy and the battles they have won. Here’s to America’s colors, the colors that never run!” Jack finishes the toast by saying, “May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.” This would be an odd thing to have in a film about Chinese religions, but Jack has finally learned to appreciate this foreign concept and Wang, too, is glad he has. John Carpenter shows how even though it was difficult for Jack to grasp; he was indeed able to seize the faith in the Chinese religions as his own.
It is a strange journey, indeed, on which John Carpenter has taken us. Through the underground of San Francisco’s Chinatown and through Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, he has taught us, as Americans, all about things which were before completely unreal to us. Now you see things no one else can see thanks to John Carpenter. He really shook the Pillars of Heaven, didn’t he?
August, Kim. “Escape with John Carpenter”
Violet Veil Magazine Aug. 1995.
Hsi, Fu. “I Ching.” Trans. James Legge.
Tzu, Lao. “Tao Te Ching.” Trans. Jonathan Star.
New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001
“Sutra on the Original Vows The Attainment of Merits of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.” Trans. Pitt Chin Hui
Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.
Big Trouble In Little China. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong. DVD. Twentieth Century Fox, 2001.
Escape From Los Angeles. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Fonda. Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.
Ghosts of Mars. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, and Pam Grier. Twentieth Century Fox, 2001.
Prince of Darkness. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, and Dennis Dun. Twentieth Century Fox, 1987.