Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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Never pulpier than this – Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK, so I said there’s two pulpish adventure movies I’d never get tired of, but actually there’s another one.

Jack Burton: Well, ya 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 alone in THIS universe.

Big Trouble in Little China came out in 1986, an unusual forage in the fields of martial arts and wuxia by horror master John Carpenter.
The movie is both a homage to Hong Kong action cinema and to those pulps of old in which Chinatown was sort of a parallel reality made of opium dens, whorehouses, strange shops and warring triads.

In Big Trouble in Little China there is it all.
And then some.
A cartload of pulpy fun, really, and the movie that really started my curiosity about Hong Kong cinema.

The set up – Jack Burton only wants his stolen truck back. But in the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown he’ll meet beautiful women with green eyes, warring gangs, an evil immortal Chinese wizard and his three supernatural bodyguards. Jack and his unlikely allies will have to enter the Cinatown underground, and face even more strangeness*.

Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, Victor Wong as Eg...

Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, Victor Wong as Egg Shen and Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the standards of the 1980s, Big Trouble in Little China is fast – it’s one of the fastest actioneers ever shot, full of plot twists, fights and weirdness.
Carpenter plays his Hong Kong cards well, and Kurt Russel has a great time in the role of down-to-earth Jack.

Big Trouble in Little China is Pulp all the way through, and yet, it allows for some fun twists.
Carpenter switches the roles of hero and sidekick – so that Jack is a big-mouthed poser “whose heart is in the right place, but whose ass isn’t” (in the words of star Russell), while his sidekick Wang Chi is the fearless, competent fighter.
In the same way, the role of leading lady Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) breaks with the standard cliches, short-circuiting the classic hero-gets-the-girl mechanic, while adopting a hawksian comedy style.

There’s a lot of magic, a lot of martial arts, a big hairy monster, and enough wisecracks and quotable dialogue to make everybody happy.
And there’s quite a bit of Chinese history and Taoist magic thrown in, which is very good.

Finally, Big Trouble in Little China develops a wonderful, deep and meaty self-contained universe – the Chinatown of the title could house dozens of great stories, be the site of a score bloody battles, and outside of its borders none would be the wiser.

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* The story was co-authored by W.D. Richter. the script doctor that had directed in 1984 that other great pulp movie, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.
Which I do not rewatch every time I catch it on the telly simply because they never pass it on the telly.
But I’ll write a post about it, sooner or later.


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High Adventure – High Road to China

In the years following the huge success of the first Indiana Jones movie, something like a pulp renaissance seemed to be about to sweep the movie halls of the planet.
It never worked out properly, but a number of films actually hit the screens that were plain good fun.

Of the lot, there’s two of them I never tire of re-watching.
Today I think I’ll write about the first.

High Road to China

High Road to China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Released two years after Raiders, High Road to China was a strange beast from the start.
Based on a fine novel by an Australian novelist, set along the Silk Road, co-produced by Warner Bros. and by a Hong Kong company, directed by an American and shot in Yugoslavia by an international crew.

The set-up in a nutshell: flapper heiress Eve Tozer has to hire alcoholic pilot Patrick O’Malley to fly her from Istambul to somewhere in China, in order to save her father and/or protect her inheritance. Adventures ensue.

Pretty straightforward – an uncomplicated yarn, and quite enjoyable.
An Hawksian comedy of sorts, with adventure interludes.
It features good flight scenes, a great interpretation by Brian Blessed of tribal chieftain Suleman Khan, there’s an air duel, there’s some warlord-era Chinese action.
And then there’s the chemistry between the characters.
Just my cup of tea.
The 1977 Jon Cleary novel – which is highly recommended, if you can track down a copy – is much more complex, has a more varied cast, and has Eve’s flying circus starting from Paris, not from Istambul.
It is a perfect example of the paradigm of adventure being narrative applied to geography.
But the simplified plot is ok.
There’s a wonderful score by John Barry – which I posted on this blog in its earlier days.
Stars Tom Selleck and Bess Armstrong are more than adequate to their roles, and their endless bickering is believable and delivered with obvious fun – and yes, Bess Armstrong is beautiful.

Sure, director Brian G. Hutton abandoned his directing career after this movie, to become a plumber.
And after previews they had to add scenes featuring Robert Morley as a petulant bad guy.
And everybody considered this film to be a cheap attempt at riding the Raiders’ popularity – but High Road had been in the works since the late ’70s, and should have starred Roger Moore and Jacqueline Bisset, directed by either John Huston or Sidney J. Furie (that one would have been fun to see!)

And it surely failed in the attempt of establishing Tom Selleck as the new Clark Gable.

But despite what-might-have-beens, this is still one of those films I really enjoy whenever I have the opportunity of catching it on the TV (or, when the telly does not cooperate, popping my DVD in the DVD-machine).


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My (failed) Trans-Siberian Journey

In 1999 I was on the verge of taking my belated degree in geology, and I was working as quality control manager in a call center – doing nights.
To most, this mix may mean sleep deprivation, caffeine overdose and increasing hatred for our fellow humans.
But to me it also meant a small but steady income, and – soon – reason to celebrate.

And what’s the best way to celebrate the finalliberation from the increasingly oppressive University of Turin, but to plan and execute a long trip?

At the time, I had a good friend living in Hong Kong with the family.
So, what about saving money and taking a trip to that city?
After all, it had been one of my dream cities since I was ten or thereabouts.
And what about taking the trip by train? Continue reading