I love Big Trouble in Little China, it’s one of my favorite movies. Immensely quote-able, fantastically choreographed, phenomenal set design– if you haven’t watched this film yet, go do so now. It’s on Netflix Instant, you have no excuse.
It’s also a fantasy film, as you see in that opening clip. All sorts of Chinese magics come into play: spirits, monsters, curses, wuxia. Related to that, it has a great conceit where your POV character, a trucker named Jack Burton (played by Kurt Russell), is not the hero of the story, and also has no idea what’s going on. The title of this post comes from one of his lines right at the end of the first act: “Now, I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.” He has a hard time believing what has just happened, namely, a group of Chinese demigods called the Three Storms crashing through the roof of a brothel and spiriting a major character away. And yes, if you saw that in real life, that would be pretty incredible. But you’re watching a movie. You believe that it happened within the context of that movie. Ever wonder why?
Why do we believe a man can fly?
It’s based in something called the “Willing Suspension of Disbelief”. Coined by Samuel Coleridge (the Romantic-era poet), it’s a phrase that describes why people can understand that Lord of the Rings isn’t real, but still argue semantics about Elvish grammar. It’s also why people found Legolas’ shield-surfing battle technique silly in a movie that also featured talking trees, a man aging backwards 40 years in a moment, and Elijah Wood face-planting into swamp water. We believe the last three things, because the movie has set up a world where such things make sense. The shield-surfing made less sense, and so people rejected it.
Big Trouble in Little China walks a fine line. Because it is to some extent satire of its genre, it pokes fun at some of the sillier things– mainly through special effects and cinematography. But like Egg Shen says in that opening scene, “that’s how it starts. Very small.” The movie builds its magic incrementally, after the initial scene, we go to a semi-realistic San Francisco. The only real hints of magic are a passing comment by Wang Chi about how his “mind and spirit are going North and South”. But things still are distinctively not normal– pulling a knife or gun at an airport was no more okay in the 80’s than it is now. The fact that Wang Chi’s fiance is a girl who is Chinese, yet has green eyes. Even Jack Burton, the baseline for normal in this movie, has faster than normal reflexes. John Carpenter (the movie’s director) places this world in a hyper-reality that we as the audience accept because it is setting up the kind of world that this movie takes place in. Magic gets its proper introduction when Jack and Wang chase the Lords of Death into an alley and come across a Chinese Standoff (no, seriously, that’s what the movie calls it) between two local gangs. Everybody starts kung-fu fighting, but it’s nothing that you wouldn’t see outside of a standard Jackie Chan film until the Three Storms show up and literally start throwing lighting. It gets a little bit frightening. Something, something expert timing.
The big guy with the very impressive hat is Lo Pan. For me, this is the point where you either believe what the movie is about to tell you, or you don’t. Sure, you got Egg’s small demonstration at the beginning, but if you can’t believe that Jack can drive a truck cab through/over a man without that man ending up as a pancake, then you might have problems with this movie.
The TV Tropes page for Willing Suspension of Disbelief has this quote at the top:
“An eagle-eyed viewer might be able to see the wires. A pedant might be able to see the wires. But I think if you’re looking at the wires you’re ignoring the story. If you go to a puppet show you can see the wires. But it’s about the puppets, it’s not about the string. If you go to a Punch and Judy show and you’re only watching the wires, you’re a freak.”
— Dean Learner
This is surprisingly apt for Big Trouble in Little China, because it is a wuxia film– a genre which is known for literally putting actors and props on wires. Me, I see the wires. Sometimes I even look for them. My experience with suspension of disbelief has very little to do with seeing the wires, because I can stop looking at them if the story is engaging enough. I watch this movie, and I don’t see Kurt Russel and that girl from Star Trek 6, I see Jack Burton and Gracie Law. Because the movie is a satire, it also draws your attention to some of the wires– like that knife trick that the Three Storms did in the previous clip. But even if you don’t know that the film is a satire, like I didn’t when I first saw it, you can still appreciate the story and the writing without being thrown off by the nature of the magic because John Carpenter set this hyper-reality up so that it seems like the logical conclusion.
This shot captures the movie in a nutshell. Traditional Chinese symbols and ornaments, surrounded by neon. The blend of ancient legends and contemporary sensibility is this films aesthetic, but this shot is also the start of the third act. Carpenter builds incrementally upon what he’s already shown you, through expositional dialogue and demonstrations, in order to build up to this. You can’t start a movie with a 7ft man on an escalator surrounded by Chinese artifacts and neon, you have to build to it. You have to properly draw your audience into your world before they’re able to look you right square in the eye and say “Gimme your best shot, pal, I can take it.”
Besides that, it’s all in the reflexes.