If you’re a real pop culture nerd, chances are you get as excited when you see a supporting character with a familiar face as you do when one of your faves is the star. Let’s celebrate these heroes!…
Back in the early World Wide Web days, defunct site Fametracker had an awesome column called “Hey, It’s That Guy!”, celebrating character actors and actresses from all your favorite things. So we’re showing our love for that idea every so often in our Friday Five by doing the same, and this week we’re off on a quest for adventure armed with a Six Demon Bag! One of the biggest cult favorites of the 1980’s is John Carpenter’s action-comedy classic Big Trouble in Little China, the last in a trilogy of greatness (following Escape From New York and The Thing) made in that decade by the director and star Kurt Russell.
Eminently silly and yet completely smart in the ways that it pokes fun at martial arts film tropes while still delivering solid action, Big Trouble‘s greatest gag is that the lead – Russell’s trucker Jack Burton, a surfer/lumberjack hybrid with a distinctly John Wayne-like twang to his voice – is, for all intents and purposes, a sidekick in the midst of a centuries-coming spiritual war that he doesn’t understand and isn’t really a part of. Dude just wants his truck back, man. All around him, however, are a collection of some of the finest Asian actors assembled at that time in Western cinema: Major supporting roles played by longtime great character actors, new faces, and legends of action and stunt work in film. There are even a few non-Asian actors with great pedigrees who are along for the ride. Here are five worth singling out!
James Hong (David Lo-Pan)
In Big Trouble, the very old man who runs the Wing Kong import/export company in San Francisco is a hell of a lot older than he looks, and he looks ancient. It isn’t until the mystical sorcerer Lo-Pan appears in all his glory that we get a look at his true face… as well as the face of one of the most prolific Asian actors of the 20th century, James Hong, who as of this writing is 90 years old and still going strong! The Chinese-American Hong got his start in the 1950s and has played a staggering 400+ film and television roles, going from shows like Perry Mason and Hawaii Five-O to films like Flower Drum Song and Chinatown. Genre fans know him best from a killer run of roles Hong had in the 80’s and 90’s; besides arguably his most memorable role as the big bad in Big Trouble, he appeared in Airplane!, Blade Runner, The Golden Child, Wayne’s World 2, The Shadow… that’s just a few. Like we said, he’s still working, most recently turning up as Melinda May’s dad on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.!
Victor Wong (Egg-Shen)
One could definitely make the argument that during the decade Big Trouble in Little China was released, there were two nearly-ubiquitous Asian character actors; alongside Hong, it seemed like Victor Wong was in everything. (This isn’t the only time they appeared together, either; Wong is also in Eddie Murphy’s The Golden Child!) The easygoing kindness and laugh-out-loud, deadpan humor that Wong brings to the role of Egg-Shen – the mild-mannered tour bus driver who is secretly a sorcerer fighting for good – might make one assume that he’d been doing this for decades, as well. Not the case; amazingly, Wong had a long career as a journalist in Northern California before only turning to acting 1980. He quickly went from stage to screen, racking up roles in favorites like Carpenter’s horror follow-up The Prince of Darkness; 3 Ninjas; Tremors, and a small role in best picture winner The Last Emperor. Sadly, Wong died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 74.
Dennis Dun (Wang-Chi)
As noted at the top of this piece, the grace note of this film is the fact that Jack Burton is sort of a guest-star in his own story. The real hero of the tale is Jack’s friend Wang-Chi, the handsome kid from Chinatown with more than a little martial arts skill whose emotional reunion with his Chinese fiancee is disrupted by a kidnapping, a gang fight in an alley, and Lo-Pan’s dastardly plan to regain his mortal soul. Dennis Dun brings a lot of charisma to Wang-Chi, as well as plenty of fight scene fire and terrific buddy-duo chemistry with Kurt Russell. (Some of those dialogue volleys, man: “These guys, these Sing-Dings?….” “Chang-Sings!”… “They got enemies?”… “Wing-Kong.”… “Who wear red turbans?”… “HOLY S%#*!”) Dun also had a solid run of roles in the 80’s-90’s, including Year of the Dragon; Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness; The Last Emperor and Warriors of Virtue, but one of his highest profile roles was actually on the small screen; he played Billy Po on the Gary Cole-starring drama Midnight Caller for three years on NBC.
Gerald Okamura (Wing Kong Hatchet Man)
The evil and utterly bad-ass Wing Kong faction features two tough customers heading up their forces, dubbed the “Hatchet Men.” One of them is played by the great Al Leong, who we previously featured in our Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure edition of this column; the other is Gerald Okamura, who is every bit as legendary as his cohort with a storied CV in martial arts stunt work, movies and TV. Okamura began his career in the mid 50’s as a practitioner of judo; he’s not only since mastered kung fu, kendo, aikido and taekwondo, but he also designs various types of Asian-influenced weaponry that have been featured in dozens of films (!!). From the mid-1970’s onward, his incredible run of supporting roles and stunt work in movies kicked off; besides Big Trouble, you’ve seen him in Samurai Cop 1 & 2, Ninja Academy, Blade, Mortal Kombat, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra and many more.
Kate Burton (Margo Litzenburger)
Now, if we’re going to be honest… while Big Trouble is better than most films of its era for its representation of Asian actors (and, though it pokes fun at some stock tropes of Asian cultures in American films, most of the roles are pretty well developed), it still does a bit of a disservice to its female characters. There are really only three female roles in the film, and one of them (Wang-Chi’s fiancee, Miao-Yin) is central to the plot but she barely has two lines. Kim Cattrall’s fast-talking heroine Gracie Law steers the ship, but there’s also the cheerfully uninformed and, gradually, fascinated-while-terrified presence of rookie reporter Margo, who is trying to dig up the dirt on Lo-Pan’s operation. Kate Burton is charming as the journalist who gets a hell of a bigger story than she bargained for; most recently, Burton has been well-known to TV drama fans for her two Shondaland appearances, on both Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, and many more guest roles including pretty much every iteration of Law & Order. Plus, trivia!: She is the daughter of the late stage and screen legend Richard Burton and his first wife, Sybil Williams.