By Ethan de Seife
Like his idol Howard Hawks, John Carpenter has dabbled in multiple film genres. Though most of his films can be classified as either science fiction or horror, Carpenter has been successful in blurring generic lines: Dark Star (1975) and Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992) are sci-fi comedies; Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is a western-inspired policier; Starman (1984) presents a unusual blend of science fiction and romance. With his 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter went a step farther. Using the Hong Kong kung fu genre as his general inspiration — and a single film as his specific source material — Carpenter was able to come up with a movie that blurred not only genre lines, but cultural lines. Big Trouble in Little China is a kung fu-comedy-fantasy-science fiction-action film that fuses elements from 1980s Hong Kong cinema with Hollywood conventions. The result is a sometimes uneasy, sometimes exuberant, mix of styles, cultures, and filmic traditions that, for the most part, left audiences either baffled or annoyed, though it has since earned a cult following. The film earned only $11.1 million at the American box office, failing to make back its cost. (1)
But Big Trouble does hold an important place in recent American cinema, if for no other reason than it presented us with Hollywood’s most overt — and a relatively early — homage to the vibrant Hong Kong cinema of the 1980s. There is strong evidence to suggest that Big Trouble was inspired by Tsui Hark’s 1983 kung fu-fantasy epic Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. (2) Was Big Trouble’s failure a result of its being ahead of its time? Hollywood today embraces Hong Kong directors like John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Tsui himself — why couldn’t it support the work of one of its own in his reasonably successful endeavor to capture the “look” and action of a Hong Kong film? I am not necessarily interested in Hollywood’s acceptance of the stylistic traditions of the Hong Kong cinema, but I am interested in the fact that those traditions traveled across the Pacific well before Quentin Tarantino took Lam’s City on Fire (1987) as his inspiration for Reservoir Dogs (1992).
In an interview with SFX magazine, Carpenter, in reference to Big Trouble, said, “Ah! I remember that with enormous fondness. I got to make a Hong Kong movie. What else is there to say?” (3) There is more to say, and Carpenter has said it. Bey Logan, in his book Hong Kong Action Cinema, asserts that Zu “provided much of the inspiration” for Big Trouble. Logan also quotes Carpenter: “‘I was always a fan of kung fu movies. … Zu gave me a lot of ideas with regard to depicting the nature of Chinese monsters and the supernatural in Big Trouble.'” (4) I will point out what I believe to be several important similarities between the two films before I go on to a larger-scale stylistic analysis and comparison. My focus is on three principal areas: how both Tsui and Carpenter generate a sense of rhythm and pace in their films, how they depict action, and how they establish and identify physical space. Contained within these three general stylistic subject headings are discussions on figure movement, action staging (particularly fight scenes), editing technique, and camera movement and placement.
Though a comparison of general thematic and narrative tendencies of Big Trouble in Little China and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain will not take us very far in an understanding of how the films operate on a stylistic level, it is nevertheless worthwhile to look at some of these superficial similarities, for they are often emblematic of deeper connections. One way in which a director can refer to another director’s work is to pepper his or her film with objects, characters, color schemes, set pieces, general themes, and other surface-level devices that specifically evoke the source material. While this may be a slightly more sophisticated method of reference than the actual depiction of the source film or a representation thereof in the homage film (such as the clip from Red River  in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show  or Jean-Luc Godard’s casting of Sam Fuller in Pierrot le Fou ), it is slightly less “sophisticated” than an echoing of the source film’s thematic, emotional, or tonal qualities in the homage film (such as the evocation of The Searchers  in Taxi Driver ). Carpenter avoids direct visual “quoting” of Zu, but includes numerous surface-level references to it in Big Trouble. Bear with me, as some of these connections appear to be on the level of fanboy fandom.
The superficial similarity that first tipped me off to the larger connections between the two films is a green/purple color scheme that shows up in both films. In Zu, the only way to ensure that good will triumph over evil is for the two mystical, all-powerful swords — one green, one purple — to unite. Each sword glows with a colored haze, or force field, that represents its great power. (Figure 1) In the last large-scale fight scene in Big Trouble, Egg Shen (Victor Wong), who represents the forces of good, and David Lo-Pan (James Hong), who represents the forces of evil, wage a peculiar struggle in the midst of a great battle. (5) Shen, drawing on his skill in “Chinese black magic,” emits from his hand a beam of purple energy; Lo-Pan, the dark wizard, crosses his pinkies and generates a beam of green energy. These two beams meet and, in one of the film’s most unusual moments, transform themselves into the silhouettes of gigantic, imaginary, sword-bearing warriors whose battle echoes that of Shen and Lo-Pan themselves. (Figure 2)
Figure 1: Figure 2:
The central hero in both films — Yuen Biao’s Private in Zu, Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton in Big Trouble — is a man who somewhat reluctantly, albeit earnestly, joins a battle waged by Good against Evil. Though each initially appears inept (especially Burton), he ultimately makes invaluable contributions to Good’s victory: Private controls one of the swords that defeats the Blood Monster; Burton kills Lo-Pan. I realize that this is an especially questionable claim of similarity, as the uncertain-hero-who-learns-along-the-way is such a clichéd figure, but I feel it is worth mentioning, for it helps to shape the films’ narrative structures.
Zu, in its opening and closing sequences, shows brightly colored armies waging war against one another. The film’s first fight scene features a mint-green army, a pylon-orange army, and a buttercup-yellow army clashing on a single battlefield. Amidst and between these color-coded warriors, Yuen Biao, dressed in royal blue, and Samo Hung, dressed in stop-sign red, wage fake battle as a means of camouflaged survival. The fight scenes are thus given a garish, comic-book quality, through which Tsui remarks, rather bluntly, on the nature of warfare. The film’s message, such as it is, is that all people need to band together, not fight one another. Dressing each army in different, bold colors makes it seem like the armies are warring precisely because they wear different colors. (6) (Figure 3) Such a quality also exists in Big Trouble, whose first fight scene also features color-coded armies. As Burton and his friend Wang (Dennis Dun) observe from the cab of Burton’s semi, the red-turbaned Lords of Death (bad guys) instigate a violent battle with the yellow-turbaned Wing Chen (good guys). (Figures 4a & 4b) Though Burton and Wang are not clad in garb whose colors carry any particular meaning (and, in fact, they do not participate in the battle) they are, at least, dressed unlike the others.
Figure 3: Figure 4a: Figure 4b:
One more superficial similarity is worth noting: In Zu, Brigitte Lin, as the mysterious Countess, dwells in a subterranean chamber, one room of which is decorated in a manner that is specifically evoked in Big Trouble. This room features numerous golden statues of identical serene-looking figures (not quite as beatific as Buddhas, but close) lining three of its four walls. In the center of this array of statues, which swivel with magic when the Countess summons her healing power, is a mystical, circular portal, in front of which the Countess often sits. (Figure 5) In Big Trouble in Little China, the subterranean chamber of David Lo-Pan features a strikingly similar room. Three of its four walls, too, are lined with numerous identical, tall, golden statues, these resembling more closely the Buddha. In the center of the array is a large, circular gong, whose shape evokes that of the Countess’s portal. (Figure 6)
Figure 5: Figure 6:
It is important to acknowledge a general linkage between the two films if one wants to examine their styles. If we accept the idea that Zu was at least part of the inspiration for Big Trouble, then our stylistic red flags should go up: If Carpenter claims to have been inspired by Zu, how successful was he in adapting its style? But, before we answer that one, we must ask another: Was Carpenter even interested in evoking the style of Zu, or did he just take from it its attitude toward monsters and the supernatural? Certainly a director can be inspired by a film and not replicate its style; even in Carpenter’s direct remakes of Howard Hawks films — Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing (1982) — his style is dramatically different from that of Howard Hawks.
Whether he meant to or not, Carpenter has, in portions of Big Trouble, directed scenes that are stylistically similar to scenes in Zu. Battle scenes (which I distinguish from “fight scenes” merely by virtue of the number of participants) in Big Trouble, in particular, bear resemblance to their counterparts in Zu, and those scenes will provide the focus of this paper.
But each time it seems that Carpenter is specifically evoking Tsui, he will do something a little bit differently. The differences lie, for the most part, in matters of camera movement, definition of physical space, and establishing not just a rhythm but a sense of the temporal nature of the diegesis. Generally speaking, Tsui fits into the broad heading of “montage directors,” and Carpenter might be called a “mise-en-scène director.” Of course, neither man will be placed into either of those rather limiting boxes without a fight; nonetheless, this can be a useful method of understanding how the directors approach their material.
Rhythm, Camera Movement, and Expressivity in Zu
For a film so packed with motion, it is surprising to realize that Tsui Hark’s camera in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain rarely moves. Most of the shots in the film are static shots, and those shots which do feature a moving camera are the shots in which we least expect the camera to move. Instead of establishing his film’s rhythm through a mobile camera, Tsui, broadly speaking, chooses to create rhythm through the pace of his editing and the motion of characters and objects on the screen.
An action scene — which in this film can and often does involve swordplay, flying, supernatural special effects, or some combination of the three — is first broken down into its component units, and then those units are broken down into a series of shots that bear the weight of the film’s energy and rhythm. In most cases, motion is depicted in these shots not by the movement of the camera, but by the movement of the figures, objects, and effects within the frame. And these shots, in most of the action scenes, are cut together quite rapidly. This rapid method of editing, combined with the quickly moving figures on the screen, gives the film its blazingly fast pace.
I take as a representative sequence the first major action scene in the film, which occurs when Yuen and Samo Hung, after fleeing the yellow army, pause at a campfire, become friends, and amble off into the woods together. There, they get caught in the middle of a huge battle between the aforementioned green, yellow, and orange armies, and must play-fight their way out of it. The scene ends with Samo stuck in battle and Yuen falling down the cliffside, at whose bottom he finds the entrance to the subterranean world of the magic mountain, where most of the film’s action takes place.
Though a good deal of narrative information is conveyed in this scene, I regard it as one scene rather than two or three due to the observable unity of time and space. And since this scene has a clear narrative parallel in Big Trouble, the two make for an interesting comparison. The scene lasts for 235.5 seconds (three minutes, 55.5 seconds) and contains 81 shots, making the average shot length just over 2.9 seconds. (7) Of the 81 shots, 14 feature some camera movement, and an additional five feature only the barest minimum of camera movements, by which I mean the movements are so slight as to be barely discernible, unless one rewinds endlessly and looks for them. Precisely one shot in this sequence features an unmotivated camera move; in the rest of the mobile-camera shots, the camera moves to accommodate or follow action as it progresses along its natural trajectory.
(Percentages have been rounded off to the nearest whole number.)
- Static shots: 62 (77%)
- Shots w/minimal camera movement: 5 (6%)
- Shots w/motivated camera movement: 13 (16%)
- Shots w/unmotivated camera movement: 1 (1%)
- Shot total: 81 (100%)
- Scene duration: 235.5 sec. / ASL = 2.9 sec. (8)
What conclusions can we draw from these numbers? First, fully three-fourths of the scene’s shots are taken with a static camera, which seems at first glance to be precisely the way not to film an action scene. Our instinct tells us that a scene which features a large amount of figure movement and action would best be depicted by a camera that is also on the move. The logic for this assumption is fairly straightforward: A moving camera can do a better job of capturing and accentuating the non-static qualities of moving figures than can a static camera, for there is a greater sense of kinetic force conveyed when a camera moves either with or against a moving figure than there is where a static camera merely “watches” the movement go past it. The difference between this assumption and the reality of Tsui’s camerawork is the difference between two different methods of creating rhythm and pacing on the screen.
Though a moving camera can indeed be a structurer of filmic rhythm (as we shall see with John Carpenter), Tsui uses other methods. In Zu, rhythm and pace are controlled principally by editing and figure movement, in that order, with camera movement coming in a distant third.
In his essay “Aesthetics in Action: Kung Fu, Gunplay, and Cinematic Expressivity,” David Bordwell writes, “After you walk out of the best Hong Kong movies you are charged up,” referring to the films’ often breathlessly fast pace and high levels of energy that can stir up something akin to physical reactions in spectators. (9) I would also add that the best Hong Kong movies — a category into which I wholeheartedly place Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain — are also able to wear out their viewers. That same breathless pace that might inspire Bordwell to leap over cars in the movie theater parking lot also has the power to make the viewer feel that he or she has just participated in all of the high-flying stunts and fight scenes which he or she has just seen. The result is a sort of blissful exhaustion, a vicarious kung fu workout. Whether the viewer feels charged up or exhausted, I would argue that part of the reason for it is the rate at which the film is cut.
An average shot length of 2.9 seconds indicates that images are flickering by rather quickly in Zu. And since camera positions from shot to shot are almost never repeated (not even in scenes where there is a back-and-forth give-and-take between two characters; even there, the camera angle is generally altered, albeit slightly), the screen image is “refreshed” at a rapid rate. This means that the viewer is constantly required to digest new screen information and make sense of it in a relatively brief period of time. But the human eye cannot take in images in their entirety as fast as Tsui’s camera would have us do it. Tsui, of course, is completely aware of this inadequacy of the eye, and he uses it to his advantage.
By constantly changing the images on the screen, Tsui establishes a breakneck pace that guides his film along. Instead of manipulating the size and motion of the images by using a mobile camera, he manipulates their duration, perhaps the “purest” way of creating a sense of rhythm, outside of featuring a drummer in every shot. And the rhythm he creates is one which barely permits viewers to observe all of the visual material presented in each shot. By cutting so rapidly as to nearly obscure the visual content of some of the shots, Tsui establishes a rhythmic hierarchy: the duration of the shots is actually more important, visually, than the content of the shots. By presenting us with short take after short take, Tsui pushes us along, bit by rapidly moving bit, into his narrative. Since the narrative is anything but complicated, this rapid editing serves to establish a tension and create a sense of drama and excitement where the story lacks it.
This is not to say, however, that Tsui has a total disregard for the visual content of his images; just that they are less important in establishing a sense of rhythm than is the pace of the editing. The film’s groundbreaking special effects, vibrant color scheme, and elaborate set design are just a few of the rather obvious clues that a sense of visual strikingness is of utmost importance to Tsui. But these devices are used to leave the viewer with a visual impression, not a temporal one. Tsui uses the motion of characters, objects, and effects (all of which I will place under the heading “figures” for my purposes) not only to create visually memorable images, but as an additional means of establishing a rhythm. For the most part, characters in Zu, when they are in motion, which is most of the time, move rather rapidly. Or, as we will see, they give the appearance of moving rapidly.
Rapid figure movement is, at times, achieved through special effects. And it is important to note that Zu reëstablished visual effects in the Hong Kong cinema. Logan quotes Ma Xian Liang, technical director of the Cinefex Workshop, as saying, “‘Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain is an important milestone in Hong Kong film special effects. … Tsui Hark brought many experienced optical effects and animation experts over to Hong Kong to help the local staff working on Zu. We began to learn about optical SFX, about films as animation … how we can do similar effects to those in such American films as Star Wars.'” (10) Logan adds, “Zu led to the formation of the first real Hong Kong special effects house, with different departments for animation, make-up and stop-motion.” (11)
Tsui uses special effects is several instances to show us characters who move significantly faster than human beings can actually move. When we are introduced to Master Ting (Adam Cheng), for instance, he is made to execute a rather astounding fan-like spin move that defies what we understand to be the normal limits of human speed. And, later, in a big battle scene with the Evil Disciples in an underground temple, one Disciple is made to carom rapidly like a pinball (complete with arcade sound effects) from rafter to rafter, high in the air. Part of the effect of shots such as these is to astonish us with technical proficiency; part is to make actions look otherworldly or supernatural; part is to keep things moving. These figures’ movements are so rapid as to deny us a point of focus — we are not altogether certain exactly what is going on in front of our eyes, precisely because it happens so fast. Just as Tsui cuts rapidly to prohibit the eye from taking in all of a shot’s visual elements, he will sometimes have a character move so quickly as to prohibit us from making sense of his movements.
Tsui has another tactic for creating a sense of rhythm through figure movement. Just as he will break down a scene into its component units, he will break up one of those units — say, a specific character’s discrete physical action — into component shots, and will then edit those shots together in such a way as to convey more motion than there actually is. An excellent example of this device comes early in the film, in the scene in which Yuen is fleeing from his own rather schizophrenic army, which has decided to kill him.
|#||Shot Action / Camera Movement||Seconds|
|1||MLS Yuen at center of a roughly circular array of soldiers, all of whom want to kill him. Yuen leaps out of frame at frame left. Static shot.||2.5|
|2||MS We look over a horse’s back as Yuen leaps into frame and kicks a soldier. Static shot.||1.0|
|3||MS We look over a horse’s rump as Yuen lands on it, then leaps offscreen again. Static shot.||0.5|
|4||MS Yuen enters frame from top right corner, leaping completely over a :01 soldier on his horse. Static shot.||1.0|
|5||MS Yuen descends, entering at the top of the frame and passing completely through it. Static shot.||0.5|
|6||MS Yuen lands on a horse and rides away toward frame right. Soldiers charge. Static shot.||2.0|
In six shots, which last seven-and-a-half seconds, Yuen exhibits a superhuman, and supertemporal, ability to move from one place to another. He moves from being at the center of a rather dire circumstance — the whole army surrounding him — to leaping to Horse A to Horse B to Horse C, kicking the daylights out of a soldier along the way, all in 7.5 seconds. The ground he covers in this brief time, while unquantifiable, since we do not have any sort of master shot, is large enough to encompass a battlefield and three horses within leaping distance of one another.
By having his actor move quickly through these seven distinct setups, Tsui allows us to believe that Yuen can actually cover the distance implied by the camera. He also creates a kind of temporal flow which works with the rapid pace of the editing to establish a rhythm in the scene. In all but one of the above shots (Shot 5), there is a distinct beginning and end to each of Yuen’s movements, no matter how brief. Though the middles of the actions (i.e., the amount of space each leap covers) are often missing, the beginnings and ends are definitely there. In other words, we get only the bookends of each action, while the books themselves — the portion of the movement which contains the bulk of the actual action — are elided. By keeping only the portions of the action in which his characters are able to start and to stop — as opposed to engaging in continuous, uninterrupted motion — Tsui inserts a smaller rhythm into the larger rhythm that has been established by the pace of the editing. The characters’ motions have beginnings and ends that are closely related to the edits in the scene; the two rhythms work in tandem to create a scene that, in lieu of continuous motion, highlights motion as it progresses in fits and starts. The effect of these synchronous rhythms is to help establish a pace for the film as a whole.
Returning now to the initial 81-shot sequence, some mention must be made of the 19 shots which do feature camera movement. As I mentioned in the initial shot breakdown, only one of these shots features a camera that moves independently of the motion of the character which it depicts — in this case, Yuen Biao, once again. The other 18 shots feature a camera that moves in conjunction with or to accommodate the motion of a particular figure. In shot 16 of the sequence, for instance, Yuen, having just tripped, crouches on the ground, brushing himself off. As Samo Hung enters the shot, the camera pans and tilts to accommodate him within the frame. The two men talk in a medium shot; when they leave together at frame right, the camera pans to follow them. This shot is indicative of the other mobile-camera shots in the sequence, and in the film. Tsui’s camera generally moves only when motivated by figure movement.
I have no such neat explanation for the one shot with unmotivated camera movement. It is the 59th shot of the sequence, and it is a smooth, rounded track from left to right that shows Yuen battling several of the yellow soldiers at once. Samo enters the frame from the left, and the two men run offscreen right. The gap they leave behind is instantly filled with yellow and orange soldiers, who fight one another blindly. The shot lasts five seconds.
This is not only the first unmotivated shot in the sequence, but it is the first unmotivated shot in the film. It is the 148th shot of the film, and comes roughly eight minutes after the Golden Harvest logo. Though such unmotivated shots do occur again in the film, they are few and far between in its action sequences. There is nothing particularly striking about this one, other than the fact that it is there at all. Its very rarity, though, supports the idea that camera movement is of tertiary (or lesser) importance in establishing a sense of pacing in Zu.
The ratio of static shots to mobile shots is not unique to the scene described above; most of the other action scenes in the film operate along the same lines. But only a small number of the mobile-camera shots in the film are not brought about by figure movement. There are a few notable exceptions which I will discuss, but, generally speaking, it is a rare shot in Zu that features camera movement that is unmotivated by a specific physical action.
The overall effect of this general dearth of unmotivated camera movement (a tactic that Carpenter employs quite frequently, not only in Big Trouble, but in numerous of his other films, as well) is that, when an unmotivated shot is employed, it tends to lend unusual urgency or seriousness to the narrative moment it depicts. By “saving” the shots with unmotivated camera movement for narrative moments whose impact is derived from emotional — as opposed to physical — content, Tsui is able to increase their expressive impact. (12)
One of the more obvious examples of an unmotivated camera movement being used to heighten a narrative moment’s expressive qualities occurs when the three heroes of the film — Yuen Biao, Meng Hoi, and Moon Lee — escape from the Countess’s temple, which she has just encased with ice in a failed attempt to contain the evil within it. The temple destroyed, the three leave through an underground waterway, and are presently sitting together on a mountainside, pondering their next step.
The way the scene is handled stylistically is almost diametrically opposite from the way in which Tsui handles the battle scene described above, in that the majority of the shots within this sequence feature unmotivated camera movement, and only one is static. Not only that, but the average shot length increases significantly, to 6.9 seconds/shot, four seconds greater than the battle scene. Of course, there are many fewer shots in this sequence than in any of Zu’s action scenes, but we may attribute this figure to Tsui’s tendency to offer only the briefest of pauses between high-energy action scenes. This short (approximately 48.5 seconds) sequence serves as a palpable pause between scenes of great kinetic force and, as such, fits into the overarching rhythmic pattern Tsui has crafted for the film. I will go into greater detail on this subject presently.
First, though, the scene, the final seven shots of which I have broken down into their component parts. (YB = Yuen Biao, MH = Meng Hoi, ML = Moon Lee)
|#||Shot Action / Camera Movement Dialogue (subtitles)||Seconds|
|1||XLS -> CU lengthy track in as YB, standing on a YB: I was forced to become a West rock, speaks. Zu soldier. I was waiting for some-one to end the war. I ran into my Music swells. teacher and thought he’s the one. But the so-called righteous refuse to be united.||12.0|
|2||CU crane sweeps down and right past the YB (VO): The Swords haven’t been face of MH, whose head turns against found. And I’ve lost touch with my the lateral grain of the camera movement. teacher.||4.0|
|3||MLS -> MS as YB speaks and steps closer to camera, YB: He, like your teacher, only cares camera begins a small low-angle track in to about his own school, not the world. meet him halfway. In final frame, YB stands If we follow their examples… at frame right.||9.0|
|4||CU continuation of crane shot in shot 2. YB (VO, cont’d): … we won’t even be when cam stops moving, MH moves to rise. able to save ourselves.||6.0|
|5||LS (3-shot) MH rises and addresses YB in a static shot. MH: You’re right. They refused to team up, so the devils won.||5.0|
|6||CU -> CU start as CU on MH when he speaks his line; MH: We can’t follow their examples. track left to ML, pause, then she speaks. ML: What shall we do then?||6.0|
|7||LS -> MS start as LS of all three figures on the cliff. YB: Let’s go to Heaven’s Blade Peak. YB steps down and toward camera, which quickly tracks in, again meeting him half-way. YB stands at frame right and looks offscreen to upper left. When camera tracks in, ML moves right to fill the gap left between YB and MH. Their heads form a straight diagonal line. MH and ML turn at the same instant to look offscreen to upper left. Music reaches dramatic four-note crescendo.||6.5|
Of these seven shots, six feature camera movement of some kind; of those six camera movements, none is motivated by the movement of a character. Actually, that needs refining, as the camera movements in shots 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7 are obviously related to the movements of the characters they depict, but the direction of the movement is precisely the opposite of the direction in which the characters are moving. Yuen steps toward the camera, and the camera, in return, tracks in toward him; Meng swivels his head from left to right, and the camera cranes from right to left. Instead of moving in the direction of action to accommodate the flow of the action, which is the general trend in the action scenes, the camera moves against the grain of the direction of the action. Instead of allowing an action to continue on its natural trajectory, the camera heightens the impact of the action by offering a counter-movement to it. The effect is the creation of tension between character movement and figure movement, which serves, in this case, to heighten the emotional content of the scene. Each of the character’s actions is given an equal and opposite counter-action from the camera, which makes it tempting but resistible to link Tsui Hark and Sir Isaac Newton. When, in the action scenes, the camera moves in tandem with the action, the overall impression is a feeling of smoothness or continuity; Tsui cleverly conceals any discontinuities that exist from shot to shot by “glossing over” them, in a sense, with a camera that moves along the same trajectory as its subject. Here, in a scene which has minimal actual figure movement (that is, in “real space,” the actors move very little), Tsui creates an overall impression of increasing tension and conveys the seriousness of the characters’ situation.
Shot 7 is particularly important in this regard. Figure 10, below, is the starting frame of that shot; Figure 11 is the end frame. Observe the distance covered by the camera’s track in. Also notice how, in the Figure 10, the characters’ heads form a roughly diagonal line, but that there is a significant amount of “empty” space in the frame. In Figure 11, the diagonal line is very clear, and the characters occupy a larger percentage of the frame space. They hold this pose for a full two seconds of this six-and-a-half second shot, gazing dramatically offscreen to the upper left, as the music reaches its crescendo.
Figure 10: Figure 11:
Narratively speaking, Shot 7 is the precise moment when the three characters decide, once and for all, to finally abandon the petty squabbling that has felled all three of their masters. Heaven’s Blade Peak, their announced destination, is the dangerous locale that sits on the physical border between Good and Evil forces, and for them to decide to go there and seek out the Green and Purple Swords is a significantly bold step in their characters’ growth. Until this point in the film, each of the three has been depicted as an eager, if callow, apprentice to a wise and skilled master; in this shot, they summon up their collective courage and act on their own. As a moment of character development, the shot is crucial. The expressive qualities of the scene are established through the content of the dialogue, Yuen’s earnest delivery of his lines (especially the last one), the swelling of the heroic musical theme, and the two-second pause held by the characters, which itself establishes a spatial rigor (hard linear form) and an action-free temporal pause. Tsui, in moving his camera without motivation, places additional emphasis on the emotional and narrational magnitude of the moment. This is precisely the opposite of what he does in the action scenes, where he is primarily interested in piecing together a smoothly flowing whole out of numerous, discrete component parts. The expressive qualities of Tsui’s action scenes, save for a few instances, are relatively unimportant and, as such, do not require unmotivated camera movements.
Establishing Rhythm in Big Trouble in Little China
The first major battle scene in Big Trouble in Little China occurs when Burton and Wang find themselves in Burton’s semi in an alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They unwittingly stumble across a gang war which quickly takes a turn for the supernatural. But before David Lo-Pan’s three-man big-hatted supernatural goon squad shows up to tip the balance of power, Carpenter shows us a huge, man-to-man, free-for-all battle waged between the Wing Chen and the Lords of Death. This is the sequence I referred to earlier that is narratively similar to the battle scene in Zu which I have already discussed. The similarities are clear: the two heroes find themselves in the middle of a color-coded battle in which they have no stake; nevertheless, they are forced to become participants in it. While Burton and Wang do not join the fray at its free-for-all stage, instead getting involved only when the supernatural elements start taking over, the fight itself is the crucial link between the scenes.
For my purposes, I have started the scene when we first get Burton’s point of view of the funeral procession that immediately precedes the battle, and have ended it when the first big-hatted minion of evil somersaults out of a cloud of smoke, effectively ending the traditional fight scene and introducing a new wave of supernatural terror into the proceedings. The prelude to Big Trouble’s alley fight — the funeral procession — is roughly narratively equivalent to the brief scene with Yuen and Samo talking in the woods; that is, they both serve as pauses between two action scenes, and they are spatially continuous with the action that immediately follows them. For purposes of comparison, then, only the “battle” elements of the two scenes are compared.
Just when you think that Tsui Hark edits his films quickly, John Carpenter comes along and gives you a whole new sense of perspective. The battle scene, which at 245 seconds is only nine-and-a-half seconds longer than its counterpart in Zu, contains no fewer than 180 shots, making the average shot length a staggeringly brief 1.36 seconds. (13) Carpenter may have taken the quick-moving aesthetic sense of Hong Kong cinema to its extreme.
But the machine-gun pace established by the remarkably rapid editing is not Carpenter’s only means of establishing a rhythm. He has added to the mix a handheld camera that is constantly on the move, using it to do much the same thing that Tsui does with figure movement. That is, the handheld camera creates an overall rhythm based on the movement of the visual material in each shot. In this case, not only are the figures moving, but the camera darts around constantly, too. In Zu, as I have proposed, there seems to be a hierarchy of devices that are used to establish the film’s pace: editing (the most prominent), then figure movement, then camera movement. There does not appear to be such a hierarchy in Big Trouble in Little China, at least in this scene.
Here is how the scene breaks down, according to the categories I established in the earlier breakdown. There are several notable differences: First, I have eliminated the “minimal camera movement” category, since in this scene, the camera either moves or it doesn’t. Also, the Big Trouble scene contains almost no dialogue, whereas the Zu scene has plenty. It is also worth noting that, while there are absolutely no point-of-view shots in the battle scene in Zu, Carpenter uses several. Carpenter also repeats camera set-ups, whereas virtually every shot in Tsui’s battle scenes (and, indeed, in the movie) is unique.
Figure 10: (14)
(Percentages have been rounded off to the nearest whole number.)
- Static shots: 85 (47%)
- Shots w/motivated camera movement: 90 (50%)
- Shots w/unmotivated camera movement: 5 (3%)
- Shot total: 180 (100%)
- Scene duration: 245 sec. / ASL = 1.36 sec.
The “unmotivated camera movement” category must also be explained, since it consists solely of two instantaneous flash frames meant to represent gunfire and three whip pans intended to convey the incredible speed of the battle. (One of these whip pans might even be called motivated, as it occurs when a character “kicks” the camera lens.) There are no shots with “traditional” unmotivated camera movement. And every time the camera moves in this sequence, it is motivated by action.
What can we gather from the scene by looking at these numbers? The thing that jumps out is that the ratio of static shots to moving shots is nearly 1:1, and the only thing that throws it off is the inclusion of the five “gimmick” shots. Carpenter relies just as much on rapid editing as he does on camera movement in order to create a sense of rushed activity and rhythm, whereas Tsui certainly relies much more on editing. But this does not hold true for the rest of the film. The battle scenes are edited much more rapidly is the rest of the picture, in which Carpenter relies much more heavily on camera movement to reveal and/or obscure visual information.
More interesting is a statistic that is not covered in Figure 12: 75 of the shots (42%) in this sequence can be classified as either close-ups or medium close-ups. (Obviously, these are subjective terms. This figure includes every shot whose scale is chest-to-head or smaller.) Unlike Tsui, Carpenter brings his action in to the personal level. We are significantly closer to the point of impact for every blow in this scene than we are in its counterpart in Zu. In that scene, only 14 of the shots (17%) fall into this category. While Tsui is more interested in showing us the flow of the action, Carpenter is more interested in showing us the participants of the action, and the individual motions that comprise it. Indeed, some of the shots are so close that it is difficult to discern what exactly is going on. Legs, arms, and weapons fly across the screen, sometimes connecting, sometimes not. Where Tsui uses rapid editing to intensify and partially obscure action, Carpenter uses not only rapid editing but a generally close shot scale in order to increase the kinetic qualities of his action, as well as to partially obscure its true nature.
By framing many of the individual actions quite tightly, Carpenter breaks down the action into its component movements: a kick, a scowl, a leap. This same tendency to break down a larger action unit into its smaller units can be seen in the same sequence on a somewhat larger scale in the way in which Carpenter shows us individual fights between two or three men within the context of the larger battle itself. The pattern of Carpenter’s battle scene is for him to devote between four and ten shots to a single facet of the battle, setting it up and allowing it to come to a mini-resolution, and then moving on to devote four to ten shots to another unit of the battle. For instance, shots 131 through 134 detail a yellow soldier kicking and then snapping the arm of a red soldier; shots 135 through 139 show Al Leong, one of the principal red soldiers, running a yellow soldier’s head into a brick wall; and so on. Tsui does not break up his battles in the same way. Instead, he generally cuts together semi-related images from all over the battle, allowing the general action of the battle to take precedence over its smaller component parts.
Despite Carpenter’s breaking of the larger battle into smaller fight scenes, we still get an overall sense of what is happening in the battle as a whole: the yellow soldiers are winning. We come to understand this due to the fact that in most of the individual fights Carpenter shows us, the yellow guys are beating holy hell out of the red guys. In a sense, then, Carpenter uses a more strictly narrative-oriented technique — showing us who is winning each of the component fights within the battle — to establish a general sense of what’s going on in the battle as a whole. Tsui, on the other hand, will cut from discrete battle element to discrete battle element, thus preventing us from understanding exactly how the tide of the battle is turning.
To return to camera movement, it is apparent in these contrasting scenes that the two directors take rather different stances on it. Both use it to create a rhythm within a scene, but while Carpenter speeds up the frenzied rhythm of his battle by using a steady but constantly moving handheld camera, Tsui creates a rhythm by the absence of a moving camera, allowing instead editing and figure movement to give the scene and the film a sense of pacing. Another area of contrast between the films, also rooted in the notion of camera movement, is that of the establishment of space. Carpenter’s battle scene is indicative of a larger trend in his directorial style: he moves his camera quite a bit. And he uses his mobile camera to establish and define physical space, whereas Tsui has a totally different method.
Carpenter uses a Steadicam for several shots in Big Trouble in Little China, a device absent from Zu. Generally speaking, Carpenter uses his Steadicam to follow his characters from one space to another. An excellent example occurs just after the aforementioned battle scene. Burton and Wang, afraid of being killed by the supernatural bad guys, leave the truck’s cab and run through a series of alleys. The Steadicam follows them at about a dozen paces, keeping the actors in medium long shot all the while. As Burton and Wang run around corners and into new alleys, we see the space unfold before our eyes just as they see the space unfold before their eyes. We are aware of their surroundings at the same moment they are, and we are able to maintain a sense of directionality, since the action is shown in a single take. And, though the new alley contains additional trouble for them — namely, more Lords of Death — we are made aware of it right at the same moment that they are. Neither the characters nor the audience is “privileged” with certain information; they both learn it at precisely the same moment, thanks to the single-shot, space-defining Steadicam. Other Steadicam shots — notably a couple in the subterranean chambers of David Lo-Pan — function in precisely the same way.
In Zu, Tsui also aligns us with his characters in the area of spatial definition, but he accomplishes this in precisely the opposite way as does Carpenter. Instead of providing important spatial information for the audience and the characters at the same moment, Tsui keeps both groups in the dark for as long as possible. We are therefore linked to the characters not by our shared knowledge about the surroundings, but by our shared lack of knowledge about them. In this way, Tsui can increase the tension of the scene, and the film.
Tsui establishes space bit by bit, not all at once, like Carpenter. A clear example of Tsui’s piecemeal establishment of space occurs when the three heroes journey to Heaven’s Blade Peak, the frontier town between Good and Evil territories. There, they meet Heaven’s Blade himself, the guardian of the passageway between the two territories, and are soon joined by the evil version of Private’s former sifu, Ting.
In the sequence that follows, Tsui uses literally scores of different camera positions to depict the action, which involves Ting attempting to cross into Evil Territory, and Private and Heaven’s Blade trying to stop him. We are shown different facets of the action — boulders flying, massive chains snapping, the fires of Hell burning, and a sword/spirit battle between Private and Ting — but are never once given a master shot that shows us the relationship between any one playing area and any other. Furthermore, there are no POV shots to establish directionality. Tsui defines the space only as he needs to; when characters pass into a space, he shows the part of the space which the characters inhabit, never any more. When they move from that space to another, the new space, too, is defined only by how the characters move within it. The advantage this gives Tsui is that he can make literally anything happen. If he needs a boulder to fly out of the sky and land between Ting and Private, he can do that. No one can object by saying that, given the boulder’s relative position to the actors that was established in the previous shot, it could not have fallen where it does — there is no possible way to establish a prior relationship between the boulder and the actors.
Certainly, this sense that anything can happen is appropriate for a movie whose subject matter is based almost entirely on the supernatural. But Tsui, as can be seen in his most recent American film, Knock-Off (1998), is still up to his old tricks. In that film, which takes place in the real world during the present day, there is an extended fight scene in a fruit warehouse — a finite space if ever there was one — which is lent surreal dimensions by the destruction of all spatial relationships. We are not surprised at all when, at the point of greatest desperation, Jean-Claude Van Damme merely gets on a previously obscured motorcycle and speeds away. Where did the motorcycle come from? A better question might be: Where didn’t it come from? In no way has Tsui established any portion of the space so that a motorcycle could not conceivably have been hidden within it.
The action in Big Trouble in Little China, notably the climactic battle in the great hall of Lo-Pan’s underground world, takes place in spaces that are clearly defined through camera movement and through master shots. The effect is to involve the audience in the action at the very moment it involves the characters; tension is derived from the obstacles and surprises revealed around every corner. Since both of these devices are all but absent from Tsui’s action scenes, and since these are the principal methods of defining physical space, Tsui just abandons the idea altogether. He would rather let his deliberately ill-defined space create narrative tension.
Another important distinction in the establishment of space is the use of the point-of-view shot, which Carpenter uses quite often and Tsui barely uses at all. Carpenter uses the POV shot as another means to ally us with his characters, and to have us see what they are seeing at the exact moment they are seeing it. Carpenter thus allows us not only to get a privileged view of the action as it unfolds, but to stitch together a mental image of the entirety of a space based on the pieces of that space we are allowed to see through a character’s eyes. Carpenter will occasionally use this tactic in conjunction with the use of a master, or establishing shot, giving the viewer an altogether lucid idea of the characters’ physical surroundings.
The clearest example in the film of the use of POV to establish space comes early in the film, when we see Burton and Wang in the San Francisco Airport, waiting for Wang’s fiancée, Miao Yin, to get off the plane from China. An American woman, Gracie, is present, also waiting for a friend, Tara, to disembark. Then the Lords of Death enter the equation. They grab Tara, let her go after Jack accosts them, then grab Miao Yin and run out the door.
Looking at 45 shots from that sequence (there are more, but they are not specifically concerned with the action detailed above), we find that 18 are POV shots. A variety of characters share the camera’s gaze: Burton, Wang, Gracie, Miao Yin, even the Lords of Death. But the central figure in the sequence is Burton: of the 18 POV shots, ten are his, and the rest are split up fairly evenly. For an additional seven shots in the sequence, Carpenter cuts to a single close-up setup of Burton, who, in each case, turns his body and/or his head to follow the movements of all of the other characters. Not only do we see what Burton sees, but we see him in the act of looking. Before we cut to his POV, Carpenter makes sure to establish that the shot we are about to see is, in fact, Burton’s POV, and he does this by constantly showing Burton swiveling his head to keep up with the characters’ various courses of action.
The effect of the camera placement is the establishment of a space, piece by piece. But unlike Tsui, whose piecemeal space establishment creates only a series of disjointed areas that are loosely connected by figure movement, Carpenter’s gradual establishment of space allows us to put the pieces together and construct a whole in our heads. Furthermore, by frequently aligning his camera with one or another of the characters, and by allowing us to observe Burton, the central figure, in the act of looking, Carpenter proffers a space that is understood at once by both the characters and the viewers. The tension in the scene comes not from a sense of confusion about the physical surroundings, as it often does in Tsui. Rather, the tension is developed and maintained by showing each piece of the action as it spatially relates to its central point — Burton.
Tsui, as might be expected, does not allow us to see exactly what his characters see, precisely because he wants to keep some of the playing area hidden so as to increase the tension. We might be able to imagine what Yuen Biao is able to see, since we know his powers of sight are working and since he is placed in a finite physical space: he must be able to survey his surroundings. But we are never able to see exactly what Yuen — or any other character — sees, as he sees it.
In the stunning battle in the temple with the Evil Disciples, a scene which occupies three minutes and twenty seconds of screen time and consists of literally hundreds of shots, there is precisely one shot which might properly be called a POV shot: it is a medium shot from Ting’s POV of the monk preparing his magical flying disks. And even that shot may not technically be a POV shot, since the camera tracks in in the middle of it, but there is no evidence of Ting moving closer to the monk and thereby changing his perspective. The camera is never aligned with any single character, and the space continues to be defined — and I use that term loosely — only when a character happens to move into it.
I have referred to, but not fully discussed, my final point: the two films’ overall rhythmic patterns. In the case of Tsui, the rhythmic patterns developed in his battle scenes reflects the overall pace of Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain; in the case of Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter’s battle-scene rhythms are set in opposition to the film’s overall pace. In addition to exploring how these paces are achieved, I intend to link up the films’ overall rhythmic structures to their narrative depictions of the passage of time.
In Zu, Tsui maintains an incredibly fast pace throughout the film, by which I mean he strings together action sequence after action sequence, with only the most cursory pauses between them. Any dialogue scenes in the film are noticeably shorter than the action scenes, and, as noted earlier, maintain the film’s pace by means of unmotivated camera movement. It feels like the film never slows down, not even when the characters stop moving for a brief spell. For the most part, Tsui eschews the classic horror-movie method of increasing the film’s level of perceived tension: the slow and deliberate build-up to the moment of terror. This build-up is spiked along the way with moments that appear to break the tension but actually reinforce it — the generic example is the woman slowly making her way through the darkened house in which the killer is hiding. All of a sudden, she (and we) are startled by … the family cat leaping from atop the fridge. Tsui has no need for buildup; his action scenes are packed so tightly together that there is almost no room for it. Instead of pulling his audience through a series of palpable pauses in the rhythm of the film, he will place the action scenes so closely together that we barely have time to digest the result one supernatural battle before another unfolds.
For instance, between the first scene, in which Yuen is chased by his own army, and the second, in which he jumps onto a junk and engages in a sword battle with Samo Hung, there are eight shots, occupying just over twenty seconds, in which Yuen pauses, observes the junk from a cliff, and forcibly requests that the junk’s owner transport him anywhere else. Between the color-coded armies scene and the scene in which Yuen is pursued by malicious, blue-eyed flying demons in an underground cave, there are seven shots, totaling 44 seconds, in which Yuen slowly walks into the cave and pokes around before disturbing the demons.
Carpenter, horror movie veteran that he is, punctuates his scenes of action with reasonably lengthy pauses — longer than Zu’s, anyway. He quickly establishes a pattern of action-pause-action that is repeated throughout the film. After the battle in the alley, Burton, Wang, Gracie, and other minor characters gather at Wang’s restaurant for a three-and-a-half minute scene that immediately precedes a comical attempt to free the kidnapped Miao Yin. After about three minutes of that comedy scene, the big-hatted bad guys burst in, sparking another action scene. So we have gone about six-and-a-half minutes between action sequences — an unheard-of figure in Zu.
It is interesting to draw upon this general pattern of rhythm when looking at the films’ differing time frames. The action in Zu takes place over one month. We know this because Long Brows says that his Sky Mirror can hold the Blood Monster in check for only that length of time and no more; we see Long Brows’s struggle with the Blood Monster from the moment he turns on the Sky Mirror to the very moment that it fails: 30 days. The action in Big Trouble occurs, as best as I can figure it, in just over two days. Everything from Burton’s arrival to the first attempt to break into Lo-Pan’s hideout occurs in the first day, judging by verbal clues as well as whether exterior scenes takes place during the night or the day; the second day is primarily occupied with the second attempt to free Miao Yin and Gracie, who has also been kidnapped by this time. It is possible that there is a pause between the heroes’ eventual escape from Lo-Pan and Burton’s departure; the film does not make it clear. Probably, no more than three days are covered, during which time none of the characters ever sleeps, though Miao Yin is placed under a Sleeping Beauty-like spell.
As we have seen, Zu is packed nearly solid with action scenes, and the pauses between them are minimal. The impression left on the viewer is one of continuous, nearly uninterrupted action; the line about 30 days is actually almost laughable, since we have seen the characters do nothing besides wage nonstop war against the Evil Forces. At one point, the injured Ting tells Private that if he cannot be brought to the Countess’s temple within three days, he will surely die. We are set up, then, to expect Private to encounter numerous obstacles and to barely make it to the temple on time. Instead, Tsui cuts immediately to the temple, to which Private has brought Ting, apparently with time to spare. Whatever hints at a time-frame are present in the screenplay are summarily ignored by Tsui’s tendency to place action scenes close together without any significant pauses. If the characters never made reference to time passing, we could easily believe that this film’s action unfolds over a few hours, or a day at most. And, truth be told, it wouldn’t affect the narrative at all to reduce the time-frame from 30 days to one day.
With only one exception (Gracie refers to her trip to the airport “this morning”), Carpenter does not give any clues as to the amount of time that passes in Big Trouble. We get a general sense that the action takes place over a few days … we think. Carpenter deliberately allows the time-frame to get hazy during the scenes which take place in Lo-Pan’s underground lair. Since Carpenter’s primary means of showing the passage of time is by staging some exterior scenes at night and some during the day, we lose track of time when our heroes go underground. It feels like a couple of days, but we can’t be sure, since the bounds of the space is never firmly established.
In this way, Zu and Big Trouble are similar: the time-frame goes out of whack when the principal characters physically enter a world of the supernatural. Tsui’s temporal system is extended beyond credibility; Carpenter’s is simply removed from points of real-world reference.
Though the two films are perhaps more different than they are alike, a number of telling stylistic parallels can be drawn between Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and Big Trouble in Little China. While Carpenter may not have fully succeeded in his quest to make a Hong Kong movie, it is undeniable that he picked up on some of Zu’s narrative, design, and stylistic devices in the creation of Big Trouble.
In discussing the films’ differences, I have identified some of the How, but have not explored the Why. That is, while I have pointed out how the films’ styles converge and diverge, I can offer no real explanation for those differences. Are American audiences more interested in classic suspense structure than are Hong Kong audiences? Were Tsui’s many camera setups indicative of a restless cameraman, or of an aesthetic that demands “refreshing” the image as often as possible? Why did Carpenter choose to visually quote some scenes from Zu but enforce his own unique sense of rhythm onto others? For each question answered, many more arise. There comes a point when we must sit back and merely enjoy the two distinct styles of these directors. And I feel that that is just what they would want us to do.
2. The Internet Movie Database gives a number of alternate titles: Shu Shan, Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Zu Time Warriors, Zu Warriors, and Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain. “The Internet Movie Database.²”13 Dec. 1998 (last update) <http://us.imdb.com/Title?Shu+Shan+(1983)>
3. Mark Bright. “John Carpenter Online Interviews.” 16 Oct. 1998 (last update). <http://circuits.cf.ac.uk/~spemsb/carp/interview/sfx.html> Though the source is given as “SFX Magazine,” no date is given.
4. Bey Logan, Hong Kong Action Cinema (Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press, 1995), pp. 101 & 106. Logan intimates, but does not exactly claim, that what Carpenter saw was the American release of Zu, which was titled Warriors from Mount Shock and contained a modern-day framing device. Thomas Weisser describes in some detail that framing device, which he says lasted 25 minutes: Yuen Biao plays a modern-day college student in Canada who is transported back to the mystical Chinese past after suffering a freak accident in a fencing match; the film ends with Yuen waking from a coma. (Thomas Weisser, Asian Cult Cinema [New York: Boulevard Books, 1997], p. 216.)
5. “Good” and “evil” must be used quite generally when discussing the narratives of these films, as the films themselves never present these notions on anything other than a superficial level. They are abstract concepts, at best, in both of the films. For example, there is a moment of either poor screenwriting or oversimplified subtitling (or both) in Zu when the newly nasty Ting declares, “The evil force is the best!”
6. Later in the film, Private meets Long Brows, also played by Samo Hung, this time cloaked in a pure white robe. “Are you a good guy?” a puzzled Private asks Long Brows. Long Brows replies, “Of course I am. Bad guys don’t wear white.”
7. For the purposes of maintaining my sanity, and since I am doing this breakdown on video and not on film, the smallest unit I use is the half-second. Surely there are some shots even shorter than this, but their true durations are almost impossible to discern with a VCR. Still, I stand by the figures as being reasonably accurate representations of shot lengths.
8. The longest shot in the sequence lasts for 11 seconds; three shots tie for this honor, and all of them are shot with a static camera. The shortest is well under one-half of one second — my guess would be one-quarter of a second.
12. However, since the film’s depictions of Good and Evil are so uncomplicated, this quality of added seriousness may actually undermine the expressive impact of the shot simply by being “too much.” The impact of an unmotivated camera movement — or any device — that is intended to highlight the urgency of a particular emotion may be lessened when the notion in question is something so rudimentary as “Good” or “Teamwork.” I suspect that the burden for this failure lies in great part with the film’s translators and/or subtitlers.
13. Once again, my shortest unit of discernible measurement is the half-second; many of the shots I have clocked at 0.5 seconds are actually shorter, making the average shot length figure even smaller.