Pictured from left are co-screenwriter Gary Goldman and cast members James Lew, George Cheung, James Hong, Lia Chang, Gerald Okamura, Jeff Imada, Joycelyn Lew and Al Leong. The panelists agreed that the film was a rare opportunity for so many Asian American actors and stuntpeople to work together in Hollywood. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)
Pictured from left are co-screenwriter Gary Goldman and cast members James Lew, George Cheung, James Hong, Lia Chang, Gerald Okamura, Jeff Imada, Joycelyn Lew and Al Leong. The panelists agreed that the film was a rare opportunity for so many Asian American actors and stuntpeople to work together in Hollywood. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

A sold-out screening of John Carpenter’s 1986 cult classic “Big Trouble in Little China” was held April 8 at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum as part of the Big Trouble in Little Tokyo film series, co-presented by Angry Asian Man, First Pond Entertainment and Visual Communications.

The action-adventure film stars Kurt Russell as truck driver Jack Burton, who helps his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) rescue Wang’s green-eyed fiancee (Suzee Pai) from bandits beneath the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The story involves magic, monsters and martial arts. Kim Cattrall, Donald Li, Kate Burton and the late Victor Wong also star.

A panel following the screening featured 10 cast members and one of the screenwriters. Milton Liu of Visual Communications served as moderator.

Peter Kwong played Rain, one of three Storms with supernatural powers (James Pax was Lightning and Carter Wong was Thunder). To show that he hasn’t lost his touch, Kwong recreated a scene from the movie in which he wielded two swords.

Kwong noted that “Big Trouble in Little China” was made around the time that Asian American groups were condemning the 1985 movie “Year of the Dragon” for its negative depictions of Chinese Americans. Community leaders and media were invited to the set during filming to assure them that this was a different kind of movie.

Peter Kwong as Rain.
Peter Kwong as Rain.

“We of the crew and the cast had to do a lot of work on it in order for us to fight the protests that were going on at that time,” Kwong said. “Not only did it represent fun and games, but it represented a critical point of where the community met Hollywood. John Carpenter was really amazing because he really reached out to cast and crew. He really asked for all of us to put in our input.”

Kwong’s other credits include the movies “The Golden Child” and “Gleaming the Cube” and the TV shows “JAG” and “General Hospital.”

Gary Goldman, who co-wrote the original screenplay with David Weinstein, said he was inspired by such films as Tsui Hark’s “The Butterfly Murders,” Jimmy Wang Yu’s “Master of the Flying Guillotine” and the Zatoichi series from Japan. The story was conceived as a western set in a Chinatown in 1899, but the producers decided to change the setting to present-day San Francisco. The main characters, Jack Burton and Wang Chi, were retained.

The adaptation was done by W.D. Richter (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”).

James Lew (Chang Sing #1), whose other movie credits include “Red Sun Rising” and “GI Joe: Retaliation,” created the salute that the good guys used throughout “Big Trouble.” “I was trying to come up with something that would symbolize the respect and brotherhood of the Chang Sings … It actually came from one of my styles,” he explained. ” … People salute to me on the street sometimes.”

He added, “This was my first shot at becoming a martial arts coordinator. It was a great experience for me.”

George Cheung (Chang Sing #6), whose credits include “Rush Hour” and “Lethal Weapon 4,” said that many of his “Big Trouble” castmates have gone on to bigger and better things, including Jeff Imada (Needles), who was the fight/stunt coordinator for “Furious 7,” “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” and “The Bourne Supremacy,” among other films.

Cheung introduced James Hong, who played the main villain, David Lo Pan, as “my idol … I knew right from the beginning that I could never be James Hong, so I gave it up.”

Hong, 86, has been in show business for 61 years. His credits span the 1950s (he played No. 1 Son in “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan”) to the current “Kung Fu Panda” movies, in which he plays Po’s father.

“There will never be another ‘Big Trouble in Little China,’” he declared. Like East West Players, the Asian American theater company that he co-founded, the movie provided opportunities for a lot of Asian American actors and martial artists, he said. “A few of you here were stunt coordinators, choreographers, and you were promoted to associate producers by the end. That’s how hard they worked … Everybody here put 150 percent of effort into that movie, way beyond what they were paid.”

However, Hong continued, “Big Trouble” did not open the door wide enough and many Asian American actors have only been offered minor, stereotyped roles instead of principal roles. “Now it’s starting to come up. I hope you people will write the studios and speak up and open up the field for more Asian Americans.”

James Hong as David Lo Pan.
James Hong as David Lo Pan.

Although some of his films have been less than memorable, such as “R.I.P.D.,” Hong said, “Big Trouble” was among his favorites along with “Blade Runner” and “Chinatown.”

Lia Chang played a Wing Kong guard along with Dian Tanaka, Donna Noguchi and Shinko Isobe. She had previously appeared in another martial arts movie, “The Last Dragon.” Having studied karate and kung fu since the 7th grade, she said, “To be able to come and be part of this was an amazing dream … It was such a role of empowerment for women.”

Now a photographer and journalist as well as an actor, Chang added, “I’ve come across a lot of Asian American men for whom ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ and ‘The Last Dragon’ are their favorite films, because of how Asian American men and Asian Americans were portrayed.”

Gerald Okamura, who played one of the Wing Kong hatchet men, said that when he auditioned for Carpenter, he tried to make a good impression. “I did all my stuff, brought one of my students there. I threw him around, threw him on the ground.” But when he got the call and reported to 20th Century Fox Studios, “They give me two gold-plated six-shooters. What kind of martial arts is that? I couldn’t figure it out. They asked me, ‘Do you know how to use the gun?’ I said, ‘No, I’m a martial artist.’”

On top of that, he was fitted with bandoliers containing bullets that were much too big for the guns. “I’m glad I didn’t run out of bullets … I would have had a hard time trying to get those bullets into the six-shooters,” said Okamura, whose other credits include “Showdown in Little Tokyo” and “GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra.”

Imada, who has worked on over 400 films, TV shows, commercials and music videos, and was recently honored by East West Players for his body of work, said it was “a great opportunity” to work with an almost all-Asian cast on a Hollywood film. “And also getting together the greatest martial artists in the area, from Northern California to Southern California … We’d see each other at different events, but to spend a lot of time with everybody on the project, we got to become close, fast friends …

“I feel really fortunate that I’ve been part of the cast and was fortunate to have been beat up by a lot of the people. In the film, I played eight or 12 different characters … At the time, there weren’t a lot of Asian stuntpeople, so a lot of us did double duty and got beat up several times by each other.”

Almost 30 years later, Imada said that in his travels around the world, he is amazed to find that “Big Trouble” continues to have a “huge following.”

Imada is often asked if there will be a sequel to “Big Trouble,” and he mentions this to Carpenter every now and then. He quoted the director as saying, “Fox owns the rights to it, so why don’t you go to Fox and talk to them about it? If you can get them to do it, then I’ll do the project.”

Joycelyn Lew, whose other credits include “Battle Creek Brawl,” said that “Big Trouble” was the film “where I met all of my martial arts buddies” as well as the late Noel Toy, who gained fame in the 1940s as a fan dancer at San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub. In the film, Toy played a madam named Mrs. O’Toole.

Al Leong, who played a Wing Kong hatchet man, recalled, “John Carpenter actually hired me for the film because I couldn’t get a job on the film. Nobody wanted me on this film. The stunt coordinator, who is no longer alive, a great guy, didn’t know me very well. He knew my dad well, but he didn’t know who I was. I ended up getting a job through John Carpenter himself, which was great. It was fantastic, working with great people, a great story — that’s what makes a great film.”

Leong has also been seen in such films as “Die Hard” and “The Scorpion King” and such TV shows as “24” and “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.”

Another Wing Kong hatchet man, Eric Lee, said, “Without this great cast, without the writer here, this would not be possible. I hope we can make it again.”

Lee’s other credits include “The Master Demon” and “The Accidental Spy.”

The screening was followed by a Q&A session and an after party around the corner at Far Bar.

Big Trouble in Little Tokyo continues on Wednesday, May 13, at 7 p.m. with Marion Wong’s silent film “The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West” (1916-17). Info: www.janm.org.

TRIVIA CORNER: In addition to “Big Trouble in Little China,” Dennis Dun and Victor Wong both appeared in Michael Cimino’s controversial crime drama “Year of the Dragon,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s historical epic “The Last Emperor,” and John Carpenter’s horror film “Prince of Darkness,” much of which was shot at the old Union Church building in Little Tokyo, now known as Union Center for the Arts and home to East West Players and Visual Communications.

From left: George Cheung, Milton Liu, Lia Chang, Oliver Ike, Gerald Okamura, Peter Kwong, Eric Lee and Ewart Chin.
From left: George Cheung, Milton Liu, Lia Chang, Oliver Ike, Gerald Okamura, Peter Kwong, Eric Lee and Ewart Chin.

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