Big Trouble in Little China Revisited

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As with all my fan theories, take them with a grain of salt. My theories are generally poorly thought out, brought on by consuming too much genre film and diet soda.  Bear with me though, at the very least it is something to discuss on our Facebook page or in the comments.

Big Trouble in Little China takes the form of a classic Yellow Peril film. A stereotyped Fu Manchu villain (played by the amazing James Hong), a white hero who is so American that he apes John Wayne, a mystic and martial arts.  All the right pieces of dozens of offensive films that came before it.  I think John Carpenter was being a little sly though when he released this gem to the American public, it plays like your average buddy film sprinkled with a good bit of gonzo storytelling so if you are not paying too much attention it is easy to digest, if not it is delightfully odd and refreshing compared to other movies of the time.

Egg Shen (the late Victor Wong) in the beginning of  the movie states that Jack Burton showed great courage, and to be fair, the character did, but after the umpteenth viewing I have a couple of thoughts:

Jack Burton

  • As the hero, he basically does nothing.  He does eventually defeat the big baddie, but mostly by luck.
  • He pretends to have wisdom, which boils down to meaningless quotes with no practical application.
  • He attempts to be a ladies man, mostly fails, chickens out in the end.
  • Jack doesn’t really have any income prospects outside of the truck, he gambles, doesn’t really have a home and is most likely an alcoholic.
  • In a film centered around Chinese lore Jack is wearing a Japanese t-shirt.  Possibly to show how disconnected he is.
  • Jack gets knocked out for most of the main fight.
  • Jack continually increases the danger of several situations more than necessary because he is an idiot.
  • He more than likely becomes wild man lunch after the credits.

Despite the above I think Jack is terrific and loads of fun to watch. When I was growing up I thought he was impossibly cool, but I think the point that Carpenter may have been trying to make was that the typical Yellow Peril protagonist is a fool and the local community never really needed him.  In fact, he probably made things worse in the end.

Egg Shen

  • Pretends to be a lowly tour bus driver, but is much more.
  • He is the only one who really knows what is going on.
  • Egg has trained his entire life to defeat Lo Pan.
  • He looks out not only for his companions but is there to protect all of China town and the world.
  • Egg has magic and supplies ready that he has gathered for years in preparation of the coming threat.
  • His wisdom is actual wisdom, when he speaks his words carry weight and meaning.
  • No one would have survived without him.

Compared to Jack, Egg is the real deal.

When I originally saw the sequence in the beginning when Egg is speaking with his lawyer I had thought that it was a bit of exposition tacked on to the movie to guide the audience through some difficult concepts.  Now I think that the sequence was originally planned.  Egg does a couple of interesting things here.  He continually pushes for Jack to be recognized as a hero but takes no credit for himself.  Egg seems to want to cast Jack as the savior even though Egg watched him bumble through the entire adventure.

During the lawyer sequence he demonstrates his magic ability to the skeptical attorney.  If you notice, the powers that Egg displays are similar to the lightning powers of the deities that Lo Pan controls throughout the movie.  I suggest that after the enemies were defeated that Egg Shen inherited the powers of the Three Storms and possibly Lo Pan himself as a guardian of the city. (as opposed to one who exploits it like Lo Pan)  From what I remember there is no other place in the film where Egg displays these types of powers, if he had them you would think he would use them in the final battle.

Egg may have been trying to protect Chinatown from outsiders and interference, but his full motivations are a bit of a mystery.  In my mind Mr. Shen is the hero of the film and he does everything he can to stay in the background.  When there is no more to do he quietly slips away. (I assume to be captured later to have meetings with lawyers) Little China is safe and his job is done.
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