Analysing the cult status of John Carpenter’s ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ (1986)

“You people sit tight, hold the fort and keep the home fires burning. And if we’re not back by dawn… call the president.” 

     This essay aims to establish why John Carpenter’s 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China could be considered a cult film. The essay will take mainly an ontological approach to the film while also mentioning the phenomenological following the film has received in later years.

     Directed by John Carpenter, Big Trouble in Little China followed a similar route to cultdom to a lot of other cult films. It wasn’t a commercial or critical success when first released but with the rise of video and due in part to midnight screenings, the film started to gain a following of dedicated fans in its later years. But the film arguably contained many cult signifiers within it from the beginning. As outlined by Mathijs, cult films contain many paradoxes; he writes ‘Failures can be successes, bad can be good (or so bad it’s good), and innovations can be very retro.’ This is certainly true of Big Trouble In Little China, whose innovation comes from its foregrounding of both ‘retro’ and more modern genres. The film is part old-fashioned Hong Kong action film, part Western, part newer science fiction, part 80’s action film, and it is set in modern day 1986. The film’s innovation is its desire to revel in retro film genres not widely known. And the film certainly was innovative in this regard; in his 2007 review for Empire magazine Kim Newman wrote; ‘It now seems well ahead of the game in introducing Chinese-style wirework and mythology to the Hollywood action film. While the film wasn’t the first to be named cult purely on the basis of mixing genre’s it was the first film, or the first noticed film, that mixed the retro Chinese and Hong Kong action cinema genres with modern day, western action film genres. This innovation is one of the reasons the film is considered ‘Cult.’ The way the film pushes the genres it uses is also something Mathijs mentions, he writes; ‘[Cult films] blur and push the generic conventions… They do this by mixing genres, exposing and/or mocking a genre’s unwritten rules satirically, or hyperbolically exaggerating those rules.’ Arguably, Big Trouble In Little China does all three of these things. It’s already been mentioned how the film mixes genres, but the film also mocks these genres, namely that of the Hong Kong action movie. The film uses exaggerated wire work, ludicrous fight scenes, complicated magic and obvious exposition to do this. An example of this is the extended fight during the film’s climax where Wang launches himself at an enemy and the enemy does the same. They fly through the air towards each other for a ridiculous amount of time before fighting while still in mid-air. This ‘hyperbolic exaggeration’ of the rules of Hong Kong cinema is repeated throughout, and is an example of what Mathijs was talking about when describing signifiers of cult cinema.

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     Big Trouble in Little Chinas knowing use of multiple genres in reference to cult cinema is also something Umberto Eco has written on cult cinema about. He writes in relation to Casablanca; Casablanca became a cult movie because it is not one movie. It is “movies”.’ This idea can also be applied to Big Trouble in Little China as, from the very opening moments, the film shows itself to be made up of multiple other films. For example, the first thing we see in the film is Egg Shen (played by Victor Wong) presumably talking to the police after the events of the film. By starting with the end of the film it sets up the film as mystery that will be slowly unravelled. He goes on to cryptically talks about things we have yet to see and the scene ends with him conjuring black magic lightning between his hands. This then sets the film up as a fantasy film. The audience is then introduced to Kurt Russell’s character Jack Burton, driving his eighteen-wheeled truck, talking into the radio in a faux-John Wayne voice, while wearing a baseball cap and a denim jacket. This short scene sets the film up to be an all American action film. This mix of genres is part of what Eco claims makes a film truly ‘cult’. This mixture of genres also informs another part of Eco’s writing on cult cinema; the idea that a cult film must; ‘provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fans private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games.’ This is again certainly true of Big Trouble In Little China¸ and is especially true of cult cinema in the age of the internet. Various fan websites dedicated to the film have multiple pages where a fan of the film can buy merchandise with quotes on, play games, download material related to the film, talk to other fans, and question the mysteries the film left unanswered. These aspects of cult film fandom; where a fan may buy merchandise with a quote on, or may draw fan art of a particular scene or character is linked to what Eco writes on a cult films important ability to be ‘unhinged’. He writes; ‘I think that in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can only remember parts of it.’ In relation to Big Trouble In Little China which switches from a scene of typical Hong Kong action to a scene out of a 1950’s American ‘yellow peril’ mystery film in the first ten minutes, the film is a key example of this notion of cult films as being ‘unhinged.’ The mixed genre nature that the film has leads to fans remembering scenes individually rather than the film as a whole. This can be seen through various examples; from merchandise being sold with specific quotes on them, to internet discussion of the film. One fan may mention the death of Thunder who explodes in a gory and grotesque way, typical of a horror film, while another fan may mention one of the fantastical martial arts scenes, typical of wuxia cinema.

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     Eco also wrote of cult films containing ‘magic frames’, which similarly to Eco’s concept of ‘unhinging’ allow for cult films to be broken up into, in the case of magical frames, scenes which can be separated from the film as a whole. In Big Trouble in Little China there are multiple frames which could be, and have been, separated from the film such as the over-the-top and grotesque creatures and their deaths. The death of Thunder for example, where he inflates and then explodes has been immortalised in picture form on the internet and used out of context in reaction to various things. People can use the scene in this way but may never have even seen the film, but this magical frame exists outside of the film as a whole. As previously mentioned, the film could be approached from a phenomenological viewpoint as well as an ontological one. This essay has already mentioned the fact the Big Trouble in Little China has a following in the midnight movie market; even now in the era of internet and home cinema the film is still frequently shown at midnight in local cinemas. The film isn’t just simply shown for the participants of these midnight screenings; they are also encouraged to dress up and take part in ritualistic activities during portions of the film such as throwing things at the screen and, more specifically to Asian influences in the film, opening fortune cookies. One contributor for the event at the Ken Cinema in San Diego writes; ‘I’ll have some prizes and some fortune cookies to hand out. Anyone got any costumes for this? I’d love to see some Jack Burtons or Lo Pans in the theatre. This interaction with the film, making it more than just a viewing experience, is another aspect of what makes the film cult.The fact that the film itself has ontological cult film elements arguably isn’t important, as it is as much the event of it being a midnight movie which makes the film cult as it is the content of the actual film. Austin writes; ‘it is the event that attracts and continues to support the popularity of a cult film.’ So while the film is a cult film from an ontological point of view, it is the midnight movie screenings and the actions around the film that make it a cult film from a phenomenological point of view.

     In conclusion, Big Trouble in Little China can definitely be classified a cult film, especially from an ontological viewpoint. The film contains things typical of cult cinema as outlined by Mathijs and Eco; namely a mixing of genres and the presence of the film containing an ability to be ‘unhinged’. The films ‘magic frames’ that have been taken on by fans, especially on the internet is also important to it being classified as a cult film. But from a phenomenological perspective, it is the events outside the film, such as midnight screenings and audience participation which makes it a cult film. If looked at from either an ontological or a phenomenological view, Big Trouble in Little China is a film deserving cult status.

By Tom

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Bibliography

Austin, Brian, ‘Portrait of a Cult Film Audience: The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, Journal of Communication, vol. 31, no. 2, 1981, p53

Eco, Umberto, ‘Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage in Ernest Mathijs, Xavier MendikThe Cult Film Reader (New York: McGraw-Hill International, 2007),

Mathijs, Ernest and Xavier Mendik, ‘Introduction’, in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, The Cult Film Reader (Maidenhead, Berkshire: Open University Press, 2008)

Webography

Accomando, Beth, Midnight Screening: ‘Big Trouble In Little China” (2012) http://www.kpbs.org/news/2012/aug/02/midnight-screening-big-trouble-little-china/ [accessed 5 November 2014].

Big Trouble in Little China Fan Site, http://www.wingkong.net/ [accessed 4 November 2014]

Big Trouble in Little China Reaction Gifs, http://giphy.com/gifs/reactiongifs-jtAOuoFiP5NxS [accessed 4 November 2014]

Mathijs, Ernest, ‘Film: A Critical Symposium (Web Edition)’,Cineaste Magazine, 34.1, (2008), , in <http://www.cineaste.com/articles/cult-film-a-critical-symposium&gt; [accessed 4 November 2014].

Newman, Kim, Empire’s Big Trouble in Little China Movie Review (2009) <http://www.empireonline.com/reviews/reviewcomplete.asp?DVDID=119655&gt; [accessed 4 November 2014].

Vazquez, Tiffany, Midnight Movies are Back! (2013) <http://www.filmlinc.com/daily/entry/midnight-movies-john-carpenter-wes-craven-the-thing-the-omen&gt; [accessed 4 November 2014]

Filmography

Big Trouble In Little China, dir. by John Carpenter (20th Century Fox, 1986).

Casablanca, dir. by Michael Curtiz (Warner Bros., 1942).

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