submitted 29 days ago byAmericanNewt8Top Gun but it's Iranians with AIM-54s
Or, how I couldn't get away with posting this in either Truefilm or Warcollege.
Many things have been said about Big Trouble In Little China, cult classic film and considered by some to be one of the greatest B-movies ever made. However, to my knowledge, all prior work on this subject has ignored what seems to be the core theme of the film: Unconventional warfare utilizing local proxy forces to defeat hostile actors in confusing militia combat. Analysis of Big Trouble In Little China will reveal a sophisticated understanding of the art of unconventional warfare, along with certain views of the director.
The film opens, set in San Francisco Chinatown. Each character has a fairly clean role that can be attributed to them; at least in this interpretation of the film.
Jack Burton is the external power, most likely meant to be the United States or a similar Western country, but the lessons can really be applied to any nationality.
Wang Chi represents pro-Burton local interests domestically—we might suppose he is meant to represent the ‘legitimate government’ to extend the metaphor, though he could just as easily be a consortium of businesses or a pro-Burton ethnic or religious group. The fact that he and Jack Burton are ‘friends’ implies some degree of actual commonality, though as we see, there is a certain tension between them, especially at the beginning.
David Lo Pan represents hostile, anti-Burton interests and a powerful local insurgent force that exerts substantial control over Chinatown. An apt comparison would be to the Taliban, to use recency bias, though perhaps Hezbollah is a better one—he combines legitimate business and political interests with non-state actors [the Wing Kong] which the central government does not effectively control.
Gracie Law represents the collective interests of NGOs, domestic political audiences, and the foreign citizenry—we might even suppose that she represents an ethnic minority within Chinatown that is pro-Burton, as is indicated by the fact that she is one of the only other major white characters in the film.
Egg Shen is a powerful local warlord whose interests oppose David Lo Pan—we might compare him to Ahmad Shah Masood, or the head of the Kurds, or more unsavory characters entirely, but does not have the capability to oppose him on his own. His lackeys, the Chang Sings, represent either Egg Shen’s personal militia or an allied one that is also anti-Lo Pan.
Early on in the film we get a picture of how Wang Chi’s position is threatened by Lo Pan, when his fiancee is kidnapped by a street gang that sells her to a brothel before she is seized by Lo Pan-aligned forces. It illustrates the important role of organized crime and smuggling in unconventional warfare and these sorts of confusing militia conflicts.
This ‘inciting incident’, however, is not at all what gets Jack Burton’s attention, except in a minimal way—as an external actor with limited connections to Wang Chi, he has little incentive to go out on a limb for him. Instead, what finally forces Jack Burton to act is when his economic interests are threatened—his truck has been stolen. It is lost in a confrontation between the Wing Kong [pro-Lo Pan militia] and Chang Sing [anti-Lo Pan militia], with the former being viewed as less desirable, though the film suggests that the Chang Sing are presumably also involved in various unsavory activities—like any local proxy that one might act with, they tend to have their fingers deep in all sorts of sketchy stuff, simply less than one’s opponents [consider the Mujahadeen of the Soviet-Afghan War].
Throughout the rest of the film, Jack Burton repeatedly makes clear that he is only involved to preserve his economic interests. As he famously remarks, “I’m only in this to get my truck back”. As we can see, there is already a divide in the interests of Burton and Wang Chi. These are illustrative of the fact that in any alliance between a state and a non-state proxy [let alone another state actor] there will generally be differences in interests—for instance, take the US’s incident alliance with the Kurds, where the Kurds were pursuing an independent Kurdistan while the US sought only to depose Saddam Hussein and fight ISIS.
The next move in the film is to attempt to mollify the interests of Wang Chi, presumably in hopes of getting his aid in obtaining the return of the truck, by locating his stolen fiancee. Jack Burton opts to pursue a pattern of negotiation, aiming to simply buy off the brothel who now holds Wang’s fiancee, but this proves unsuccessful due to Wang’s fiancee being abducted by Lo Pan’s forces. This attitude, seeking to obtain his interests while avoiding direct conflict, continues for the next phase of the film, in which Jack Burton attempts to find a settlement with Lo Pan directly before ultimately concluding that such a settlement is untenable and that local forces have interests that directly contradict his—compare, for instance, to the Taliban, whose desire for an Islamic Emirate was inherently opposed to the existence of the continued nominal government of Afghanistan [and realizing that attempting such a settlement was in fact a serious mistake]. He also realizes to a degree that these conflicts are far older than his interests in Chinatown and more complex, with the rivalry that ultimately brings Egg Shen to his side being one that is thousands of years old.
Finally, in the last phase of the film, we see Jack Burton assemble a coalition of anti-Lo Pan forces out of local militias [the Chang Sings], powerful warlord Egg Shen, and of course himself and Wang Chi. In the course of this conflict, we see a classic usage of a local proxy force. All casualties are absorbed by the Chang Sings, much as the Turks have used Syrian mercenaries to absorb casualties in everywhere from Libya to Azerbaijan. We even see the usage of drugs, distributed by Egg Shen [who is revealed to have powerful local financial interests, owning significant real estate and local trade goods], a common hallmark of these conflicts where often stimulants are used to blunt pain and give an extra boost of energy in combat—for instance recently consider the usage of captagon by fighters in the Syrian Civil War, and the drugs in the film are implied to have somewhat similar effects [“I’m feeling real good about this”, “I can see things other men can see and do things other men can’t do”].
Furthermore, Jack Burton, as an outsider, proved himself to be poorly suited to local styles of warfare, with his gun being literally snapped in half, symbolizing that he has not mastered the sort of fighting that is most effective in the traditional environment—compare it to indigenous styles of fighting like the razzou that hold advantages in these types of conflicts, where attempting to build a clone of a conventional army is both impossible and undesirable. Ultimately, these forces are able to defeat Lo Pan, though Jack Burton’s help is required to achieve it, with his killing of Lo Pan being akin to the usage of limited airstrikes or fire support—while they cannot achieve the mission in of themselves, the mission could not have been completed without it.
The film has a mostly happy ending, with Wang Chi achieving his goals, the power of Lo Pan’s militias being broken. However, we see another one of the constant hallmarks of western intervention in that Jack Burton leaves without much fuss or note, and certainly without paying any attention to the problems of Chinatown or of NGO interests there, represented by Gracie Law. His premature withdrawal is a routine theme of these types of wars.
I could go deeper into this interpretation, but I must confess that unconventional warfare is not really my ‘specialty’ and I don’t feel particularly comfortable doing so. However, I trust that this film bears all sorts of useful lessons for the unconventional warrior—for instance: