'Big Trouble in Little China," which features a white truck driver (Kurt Russell) rescuing San Francisco Chinatown from a wicked Chinese sorcerer, is stirring up more than a little trouble of its own.
Chinese for Affirmative Action and other members of Asian media groups say it is unlikely that a white man would come into an Asian community to save the day. They also say that director John Carpenter's comedy adventure, which had mediocre box office figures its first five days, ($3,827,185 according to Daily Variety) is racist and will encourage anti-Asian prejudices among young moviegoers.
Twentieth Century Fox, however, maintains that every Hollywood film has stereotypes and any reasonable viewer can tell that the movie is merely fantasy. And some Asians familiar with the issue concur.
To blunt charges that the film harms Asians, the studio recently held a benefit at its lot adjoining Century City to celebrate the movie's opening. Three Asian organizations participating in the fund raiser hoped to sell 400 tickets at $100 each, grossing $40,000. Because all donations have not yet been sent in, including a $5,000 check from 20th Century Fox, the total raised is unknown, an official of two of the groups that hope to benefit said.
After the screening, California Secretary of State March Fong Eu arrived at the benefit party and presented the Chinatown Senior Citizen Service Center with a $10,000 check. The money will help buy a van for the elderly. If any money is left over after party expenses estimated at about $12,000 are paid, it will be divided between the San Gabriel Valley Chinese Cultural Assn. and East West Players, a theater company.
More than 450 guests attended, including producer Larry Franco and actress Kim Cattrall, but neither Carpenter, the director, nor Russell, the star, showed up.
While many who went to the screening said they enjoyed the movie, some Asian organizations believe the film contains ethnic stereotypes that would offend many Asian-Americans.
"The main character is white. That's one thing we have to remember--it's a white script written for a white audience . . . the movie is still a white man's product," said Henry Der, executive director of San Francisco's Chinese for Affirmative Action.
The Assn. of Asian/Pacific American Artists, an actors organization, said 20th Century invited it to be one of the beneficiaries, but the group refused to endorse a movie which its members had not seen, president Ernest Harada said.
Daniel Kwan, marketing coordinator for the film, denied making such an invitation.
Due to time constraints, the three groups that participated said they committed to the benefit before seeing the finished movie.
The 90-minute action comedy, which takes place in the sewers beneath San Francisco Chinatown, explores a world of Chinese mysticism and the forces of good and evil.
"The movie can't be taken seriously--it's tongue and cheek," said actor Peter Kwong who plays Rain, one of the three storms in the film. "It can't be taken in the same genre as 'Year of the Dragon.' "
Michael Cimino's controversial "Year of the Dragon" triggered protests last year by Asian groups who labeled the movie as racist.
Der said Chinese for Affirmative Action, in letters and phone calls, asked Fox studios to let them review the "Big Trouble in Little China" script to determine if it was offensive to Asians. Der said Fox denied the requests.
"Why should they get a copy?" said Fox's Kwan. Scripts go through constant revisions and should not be released to the general public, Kwan said.
Last November, after organizations read an early draft of the movie's script, about 25 people appeared at a San Francisco film location to protest "Big Trouble in Little China."
"We only got a copy of the script through an informal contact, but certainly not from 20th Century or any of its agents," Der said.
Protesters distributed leaflets saying the movie features "a macho , smart-aleck white truck driver and his Chinese 'yes' man."
Kwan says that characterization is unjust. "Calling Dennis (Dun's character) a 'yes' man is a misleading and unfair generalization," Kwan said.
"He's a potential Asian-American hero. And only by accident does Kurt Russell get to eliminate Lo Pan (the villain played by James Hong)," Kwan added.
Kwan said he met in San Francisco with members of Chinese for Affirmative Action and the Chinese Progressive Assn. on the day of the protest and offered to listen to any objections to the script.
"They never provided any specifics of what they wanted changed. . . . they never gave me the effort," he said.
Kwan's arguments have not mollified the critics, however.
"We aren't objecting to specific lines, but the overall impression of the movie," said Janice Sakamoto of the National Asian American Telecommunications Assn., adding that "Kurt Russell still comes off as the hero at the end."
Pat Li, an Assn. of Asian/Pacific American Artists board member, said the script "had every old Chinese stereotype that you could drudge up--hatchetmen, tong wars, prostitutes, a madam, dragons, incense, hidden alley ways and dungeons.
"When I grew up the white kids used to think that of Chinatown . . . it's a figment of the white man's imagination," Li said.
"I think you have stereotypes in all films," Kwan countered. "The movie's not meant to be a social documentary about Chinese civilization."
However, Chinese for Affirmative Action's Robin Wu said the movie not only reinforces stereotypes, but also uses comedy at the "expense of the Chinese."
She noted that hardly any Oriental women speak in the movie, with the exception of the madam in the brothel and said that "doesn't portray Asian women in a good light."
Janet Mitsui, an administrator at East West Players, said, "I don't find the movie offensive. It's not as technically well made as 'Raiders' or 'Star Wars,' but you can't have everything."
Mitsui said her organization chose to participate in the benefit because "East West needs to make up certain deficits. We look at this as a fund raiser. . . . it's not the film we support, it's the Asian actors working."
Li said the issue is not that Asian actors got jobs, but that Asians be hired on the basis of their acting ability. "Just because a lot of Asians were hired doesn't mean it's quality stuff," Li said. "We'd like the opportunity to compete as actors, not people of color."
George Poon, project director of the Chinatown Senior Citizen Service Center in Los Angeles Chinatown, said getting funds for the van, which is part of a new escort service, was the main reason for taking part in the benefit. "It was not to boost box office sales for 20th Century Fox," Poon said. "I don't care about politics. My purpose is to help the community."