The Golden Child is one of my favorite movies, and I have this tradition of watching it every year on my birthday (December 13). This is because I first enjoyed it around midnight on December 13, 1994, when I turned 12. My family and I were still living in Philadelphia at the time, and there was this local ABC station (Channel 6) that would show a “Million Dollar Movie” every night after midnight. The films they showed during this time slot were almost always genre films from the 1980s, including such choice cuts as Tremors, The Hitcher, Dead Calm, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th Part VI. I found it interesting that when Channel 6 cut to commercial breaks during this program, they didn’t just fade to black like most commercial TV stations do; they abruptly cut to the “Million Dollar Movie” title card as if someone had accidentally bumped the “Stop” button. I don’t know if Channel 6 still shows “Million Dollar Movies” these days (it doesn’t seem likely), but I have so many fond memories of staying up late on Friday and Saturday nights to watch these films.
The original 1986 poster art for The Golden Child
The Golden Child begins at a Buddhist monastery somewhere in Tibet, where there’s this little boy who can bring deceased critters back to life. But the monastery is soon stormed by some truly bizarre evildoers who are led by a demon called Sardo Numspa (Charles Dance). The bad guys kill everyone in sight and kidnap the kid; then we go to Los Angeles, where we meet Chandler Jarrell (Eddie Murphy). Chandler’s a social worker who searches for missing children, and who’s currently involved in a case where a girl has been kidnapped by a motorcycle gang. He’s approached by a mysterious Buddhist supermodel named Kee Nang (Charlotte Lewis) who talks like a fortune cookie and asks for his help in searching for the boy who was kidnapped in Nepal. She claims that Chandler is the “Chosen One” whose role in rescuing “the Golden Child” has been foretold in some ancient prophecy. At first, Chandler just makes fun of her and dismisses her story; but when he learns that his child abduction case is somehow linked to hers, he finds himself caught in a world full of magic daggers, Islamic demons, crooked Buddhist monks, and shady Hindu serpent women who watch daytime soaps.
The Golden Child is one of several sci-fi, horror and/or fantasy films that were released in the mid- to late-1980s and that deal with themes from Eastern spirituality and folklore. In fact, it most particularly resembles John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, which was released in the same year. In the DVD commentary for that film, Carpenter explains that he was originally scheduled to direct The Golden Child, but that things didn’t work out and he ended up directing Big Trouble instead. There are quite a few similarities between both films; both have skeptical American smartasses for their unlikely heroes, and both immerse these characters in situations where Eastern mysticism and magic turn out to be objectively real. Both also involve cosmic battles between the forces of good and evil, and both deal with these subjects in a light-hearted and humorous way. However, there are also some important differences. Big Trouble features an ensemble cast, which means the actors are each assigned roughly equal amounts of screen time and work together as a team. The Golden Child, on the other hand, is really just a vehicle for Eddie Murphy; all the other characters simply react to him. What’s more, Big Trouble has some very tight pacing from beginning to end, while the last 20 minutes of Golden Child seem fairly rushed (no doubt due to re-edits during post-production).
Another difference is that Golden Child randomly blurs Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and even Islamic lore together without bothering to identify where any of these things come from. There’s even a scene where Sardo Numspa rolls out a carpet and kneels on it so he can pray to Satan. I think I can see where the filmmakers were trying to go with this; it makes sense to me that Islamic demons would probably pray to Satan in a reversed but similar way to how Muslims worship Allah (just as Satanists are “supposed” to practice inverted versions of the Catholic Mass). However, I can also see why Muslim viewers might take offense to this. I’ve heard that some Chinese Americans are similarly offended by certain things in Big Trouble, but that film is a self-aware homage to old-fashioned kung fu movies that were imported to the West from Hong Kong. This means it’s following a template that was established by Chinese filmmakers (and I happen to think it does this pretty respectfully). With Golden Child, it’s more like they decided to take Kolchak: The Night Stalker and throw a bunch of ethnic elements into it without really understanding any of them. (“If it’s from across the Pacific, it’s all the same!”) In any case, Big Trouble is clearly the superior film of the two.
But despite all of its shortcomings, The Golden Child is still a great film. It may be a little culturally insensitive in some ways, but consider the time in which it was made. Prior to the 1980s, Asian stories, themes and actors were pretty much limited to independent grindhouse cinema. Aside from Bruce Lee’s one mainstream Hollywood success (i.e., 1973’s Enter the Dragon), the only films that really discussed Eastern philosophy or folklore were those that film critics and mainstream audiences refused to take seriously. But during the 1980s, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and Shinto ideas reached a unprecedented level of mainstream exposure here in the West. Granted, much of this exposure was still limited to action films of some kind (and much of it was horribly garbled). But this was the era of Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, the American Ninja movies, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and constant Godzilla marathons on local UHF TV stations. (Yes, you can find Shinto in Godzilla movies; just look at Mothra.) Even George Lucas and Steven Spielberg got into the action by giving us Star Wars (1977) – in which the Jedi are essentially Taoist kung fu masters in space – and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – in which the villains are Kali worshipers. (Though I might add that Temple of Doom – with its blatant misappropriation and demonization of Hinduism – is probably the single most offensive film of this sort to have been made.)
The Kīla or “Ajanti Dagger”
Bearing this in mind, films like The Golden Child presented many American children with their first exposure to any kind of religion or spirituality that wasn’t Abrahamic. Even if its understanding of Eastern religions is woefully superficial, at least it doesn’t go so far as to demonize them; in fact, one could argue that it actually validates them as being much more effective than Christianity (even if it doesn’t really understand them). For example, Chandler Jarrell doesn’t defeat Sardo Numspa by holding up a crucifix and invoking the name of Jesus; he defeats the demon by using a kīla (or, as the film calls it, “the Ajanti Dagger”), a ritual blade that’s used in Buddhist rituals and exorcisms. The only time I remember seeing anything like this in an American or European film from before The Golden Child was in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), a Hammer and Shaw Brothers co-production in which Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) discovers he must use Taoist holy objects to repel Chinese vampires.
Then there’s the fact that the hero in this film isn’t a stereotypical white male hero, but an African-American dude. Prior to Murphy’s 1980s films (e.g., 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop), heroic African-American protagonists were mostly limited to 1970s “blaxpoitation” films (e.g., 1971’s Shaft), the cultural value of which are hotly debated by some. (I have to admit, I really enjoy Shaft myself.) Regardless of their actual quality, such films were generally B-movies – and like their Chinese kung fu counterparts, they too were marginalized by mainstream audiences. This began to change during the 1980s, with more African-American actors receiving prominent roles in A-list Hollywood films. Eddie Murphy was just one of the accomplished individuals who were at the forefront of this era, and The Golden Child represents a point in his career when he began to transition from making R-rated films to more family-friendly material. (The Golden Child isn’t completely family-friendly – there’s some language and some imagery that’s probably too disturbing for little kids – but being PG-13, it’s much more child-appropriate than something like 1982’s 48 Hours.) And Murphy really shines in this film. The funniest part for me is when he’s in Nepal and a local guy starts talking to him in Nepalese. Murphy doesn’t have any idea what this guy is talking about, but when the dude falls silent, Murphy says, “About 4:30, but I don’t think I’m gonna make it to the party.” And the Nepalese fellow just seems to accept this, as if Murphy somehow gave him the exact response he was looking for. This cracks me up every time I see it, and many other scenes have much the same effect.
And of course, since I find a way to tie damn near everything I enjoy in life to my God, I also think this film has a bit of Typhonian vibe to it. At a general level, The Golden Child makes me think of Typhon’s role as the God of foreign places and people. In Egypt, He presided over any situation in which (1) people from Kemet ventured into foreign lands and/or (2) people or things from foreign lands were brought into Kemet. In modern times, this means that Seth is involved whenever two or more worlds that are alien to each other begin to intersect. (Aside from being identified with the Big Dipper, the Egyptians also linked Him to the planet Mercury, which is astrologically associated with things like travel, communication and trade. This actually makes a great deal of sense.) In The Golden Child, we have the American world interacting with a romanticized version of the Asian world; and while it’s filled with some rather annoying Asian stereotypes, it also speaks to one of Seth’s greatest mysteries: the mystery of how stereotypes can sometimes sabotage themselves. For example, many kids who grew up watching films like this would later investigate Asian religions for themselves and learn what they’re really all about. As a result, there are now more Americans (of all ethnicities) who identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist or Shinto than there ever were before, and these people are now working to fix the damage that stereotypes about their faiths have caused. In my opinion, this entire process is a very Typhonian work of socio-cultural alchemy.
At a more specific level, The Golden Child makes me think of Big Red in terms of its plot. Here we have a story about a messianic child who personifies the forces of light and who can save the world (much like the newborn Ra at dawn). This child’s existence is threatened by the powers of evil (just as Ra is threatened by the Backward Face every morning), and if the bad guys win, the world will end (just as it will if the Backward Face devours Ra). There’s a community of people who are trying to help defeat the child’s enemies (just as the Netjeru all help to defend Ra from the Backward Face). There’s also a “Chosen One” who’s destined to save the child (just as Seth rescues Ra before dawn), but who is an alien among the other characters, and who is sarcastic and irreverent toward their way of life (just as Seth is the antagonistic “red-headed stepchild” of the Gods). Finally, this legendary hero is himself a minority within his own society (just as Typhon has been linked to minorities of all kinds, including desert peoples, Alexandrian Jews, and LGBTQ people). All of which is to say that The Golden Child is yet another variation of the old Typhonian theme of an outsider somehow becoming the most qualified person to avert the apocalypse. (Also, Kee Nang reminds me of the Goddess Ishtar, and “the Old Man” – played by Victor Wong – makes me think of Thoth.)
Eddie Murphy’s ready to drop-kick some qliphothic butt
So despite its various imperfections, The Golden Child is a fascinating movie that deserves repeated viewings. If you’re looking for a good film that many Gods must surely have used to reach some of Their modern followers today, I highly recommend checking it out (especially if you’ve never seen it before). And if you’ve seen it already, I recommend giving it another go with a fresh pair of eyes. It may not necessarily be Eddie Murphy’s greatest film, but it’s certainly my personal favorite, by Gods!