“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”
– Bruce Lee
How do you even begin to write an article about Bruce Lee? The man led such an extraordinary life that a single paragraph containing references to various legendary exploits would still only barely scratch the surface of what he achieved both personally and professionally…
Born in San Francisco in 1940 with various physical disadvantages (one leg shorter than the other, one undescended testicle and incredibly poor eyesight), but raised in Hong Kong, Lee was a child actor, a cha-cha champion and a street brawler. His emigration back to the United States in 1959 saw him face various challenges during the ‘60s due to his Chinese heritage. Instead of hiding amongst his own however, he sought social integration and broke down racial barriers by teaching his methods of ‘gung-fu’ (the term ‘kung-fu’ was not widely used until the debut of the ‘70s television series of the same name, starring David Carradine) to anybody who wished to learn, regardless of their race. The sheer willpower required to craft his phenomenal physique and to operate outside of the social inequalities of his day is admirable in its own right, but Lee went on to do so much more. His philosophical theories (‘be water, my friend’) have since passed into legend, as has his fighting style of no styles, Jeet Kune Do, or the Way of the Intercepting Fist. His physical feats as a martial artist, both in real life (the one-inch punch) and on screen, still have a mythical aurora about them. All in all he spoke a universal language, understood by all.
Much has been written about Lee’s life during this month, which marks the 40thanniversary of his death. Effortlessly cool, a hero to many thousands worldwide and one of the most influential people of the 20th century, the late, great Little Dragon was certainly more than a film star. But it was as a film star that he had the greatest impact, especially in Hong Kong. His films were so successful, and he himself a super star of such epic proportions in the eyes of the local people, that his death in 1973 left a void in Hong Kong action cinema that would remain until the emergence of Jackie Chan and the beginnings of the comedy/kung-fu boom in 1978.
So why did it take so long for someone to take up Lee’s mantle as the mega star of Hong Kong cinema…to finally step out of the great man’s shadow? The reaction of the Hong Kong film industry to Lee’s sudden passing contributed significantly. What was it doing during these years of transition? How did it fare? This next chapter in the history of Hong Kong cinema will be the focus of the second part of this article. Firstly, in order to appreciate how high the bar had been set by Lee, which in turn created the subsequent challenges faced by the industry following his death, one has to analyse the success of his Hong Kong based films. What was it that set them aside from the other films being made at the time? Why was Lee himself such a huge success?
Having been persuaded to return to Hong Kong to make films by producer Raymond Chow, Lee arrived on location in Thailand in July 1971 to shoot his first film for Golden Harvest studios, The Big Boss (a.k.a. Fists of Fury in the United States). At that time, the major studios in Hong Kong were in the process of switching from fantasy based swordplay pictures, such as The Invincible Eight and The Blade Spares None (both 1971), to empty handed martial arts films. Earlier in the year one such film, Jimmy Wang Yu’s One Armed Boxer, broke HK $1 million at the local box office, making it a sizeable hit for an early ‘70s Hong Kong production. The Big Boss was originally just another film for Golden Harvest, but with a new market opening up for empty handed combat films it took on greater levels of importance. Bruce Lee was cast, replacing James Tien at the top of the bill, while the original director, Chia-Hsiang Wu, was replaced by the young studio’s most high profile and experienced director, Lo Wei. Seasoned action actor, stunt coordinator and fight choreographer Hon Ying Git was brought in to be the action director, as well as the titular villain, the Big Boss himself.
This combination was certainly a productive one. The Big Boss became the highest grossing film ever in Hong Kong, taking over HK $3.1 million. The second film the trio made together, Fist of Fury (1972, a.k.a. The Chinese Connection), broke the record again, taking upwards of HK $4.4 million. It’s easy to see why when one compares the action in these films to others being made during the same era, such as The Boxer from Shantung and The Bloody Fight (both 1972). Although they were both reasonable hits, the action in the latter two films consisted, as Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan put it, of “the traditional ‘70s swingy-arm style of fighting, where the fighters simply swung their arms and legs at each other until one of them fell down”. There were exceptions of course, such as Korean director Chang-hwa Chung’s classic King Boxer (1972, a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death), which was produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studios and became the first martial arts film to break into the American market. Hapkido (1972) was another, a neat little film starring Angelo Mao, Wong In Sik and a very young Sammo Hung. Such exceptions were rare however, especially when The Big Boss and Fist of Fury are used as the benchmark.
Lee’s films were unique in that they contained a completely new kind of action. Both The Big Boss and Fist of Fury featured groundbreaking fight scenes for that era. Superior fight choreography and timing, well thought out camera placement and instinctive, clearly defined edit points were all in evidence whenever Lee himself was in front of the camera. His own tremendous on screen charisma did the rest. Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong audiences were completely blown away by his performances. Despite having been away from his homeland for twelve years, Lee knew his audience and played to them perfectly, establishing a connection almost instantly through charm, comedy and staunch patriotism. He was the ideal hero for Hong Kong, which duly embraced him as its new favourite son.
On paper, the triumvirate of Bruce Lee, Lo Wei and Hon Ying Git had been a triumph. In reality however, it was Lee who was responsible for this landmark shift in Hong Kong cinema and the unprecedented success that came with it. While Lo Wei and Hon Ying Git certainly did their bit during The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, the cutting edge elements mentioned above were down to Lee. Although he isn’t credited, it’s clear that whenever he was in action he was heavily involved with both the choreography and the actual shooting of the scenes themselves. Scenes where others were fighting, evidently directed solely by Hon Ying Git, were more traditional, nowhere near as interesting and appear sloppy in comparison.
Concerning the overall direction of the films, it’s abundantly clear that it was Lee who brought about the unique, pioneering cinematic aspects. You only have to compare Lo Wei’s next film, A Man Called Tiger (1973), to Lee’s directorial debut, Way of the Dragon (1972, a.k.a. Return of the Dragon), to see that it’s not even up for debate.Tiger had Jimmy Wang Yu, a big star in his own right, and various members of the casts from the first two films, but Lo Wei’s effort reverted to type without Lee on board. It was supposed to have been the third collaboration between the pair, but a falling out following Fist of Fury severed the working relationship. Lee in turn formed his own production company, Concord, in partnership with Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest. Tiger is a fun film to look to back on and has some nice moments, but in comparison to Dragon it appears dated, whilst Lee’s film remains a renowned classic of the genre. It raised the bar Lee himself had set still further action-wise, and contains the single greatest cinematic martial arts fight ever filmed; Bruce Lee verses Chuck Norris in the Coliseum. The people of Hong Kong gave their verdict at the box office. While Tiger took just over HK $2 million, Dragon made a staggering HK $5.3 million, smashing the record for the third time in two years.
Quite simply, Lee was way ahead of his time. A decade in the United States, where he spent the latter part of the ‘60s working in Hollywood on numerous film and television productions, gave him access to various acting and direction techniques that were light years ahead of those being used in Hong Kong. He was friends with some of the top actors of the day, such as James Coburn and Steve McQueen, and regularly got to see them at work as he hung around on the set. Lee himself was heavily involved, playing the vigilante sidekick role of Kato in the 1966 series The Green Hornet (which wasn’t a major success, but did crossover with Batman! for three episodes!), as well as bit parts in various other television productions and a quite frankly awesome, office-trashing cameo in the James Garner detective film, Marlowe (1969). All of this enabled Lee to build on the basic training he’d received as an experienced child/teenage screen actor in Hong Kong prior to his departure in 1959 (the 1977 filmBruce Lee, the Legend documents many of his early roles and is well worth a watch). He therefore returned to Hong Kong in 1971 not only with knowledge of how domestic productions were made and where the bar was set in terms of talent and ability both in front of, and behind the camera, but also with a fresh, unique perspective on filmmaking based on his work in the States, a mixture as yet unseen in his homeland.
American filmmakers were not the only kind that was ahead of those in Hong Kong. Lee was also a huge fan of the Japanese chanbara (swordplay) films of directors such as Akira Kurosowa. He recognised the advanced technical nature of Japanese cinema and was greatly influenced by it. This is evident in his Hong Kong produced films. The positioning of the camera and the staging of some of the fight scenes in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury are both reminiscent of various chanbara action sequences, particularly those where Lee is encircled by his enemies. Not content with simply employing techniques influenced by Japanese filmmakers, Lee went a step further when directing his own films by bringing in a Japanese cinematographer, Tadashi Nishimoto, to shoot both Way of the Dragon and what was originally planned to be his next film for Concord/Golden Harvest, Game of Death (including his epic final fight with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
With subtle advantages such as these, coupled with his unique perspective and natural ability when it came to filmmaking; it’s no wonder that Lee was ahead of his counterparts in Hong Kong. His sheer energy as a performer was nothing short of mesmerising. His sense of spectacle as a director; unrivalled. For sure, his films aren’t perfect by modern standards. Some of the all round acting is questionable, as befits any early ‘70s Hong Kong film, and some of the scenes feel a little clumsy, particularly those involving no action in Way of the Dragon. It must be remembered however that Lee only starred in three complete films in Hong Kong, while Dragon was his directorial debut. Had he lived longer and gone on to complete Game of Death, The Silent Flute and other projects that he had in mind, his ability as a director would surely have grown and matured. Dragon was not supposed to be a be-all, end-all classic; it was simply supposed to be a quick fire production to get a film under his belt as director. However, the film is recognised as a classic, along with The Big Boss andFist of Fury, with all three containing action sequences that still stand the test of time in comparison to the majority of Hong Kong films from the same era. This shows just how far ahead of his time Lee actually was. It’s frightening to think of the quality of work he would have produced had he lived.
Game of Death went into production in late 1972, but was put on hold by Lee when the opportunity arose to make the first Hollywood-backed Chinese martial arts picture, Enter the Dragon (1973). It would make him a global icon, but Lee never saw the premier. He died four weeks prior, on 20th July 1973, following an allergic reaction to the painkiller Equagesic, which caused his brain to swell, killing him. He was 32. Whilst it was a monumental success in the United States and put both Lee and martial arts cinema on the map (thanks in part to that ‘battle with the guards’), Enter the Dragon was not as big a hit in Hong Kong as Lee’s previous films had been. Local audiences simply didn’t warm to it as much, perhaps because it was made to appeal to a worldwide audience and was thus missing the elements aimed at them in Lee’s first three films. The film was comfortably beaten into second place at the 1973 Hong Kong box office by Chor Yuen’s comedy classic, The House of 72 Tenants. As Hong Kong mourned the death of its favourite son, so began a period of action cinema which struggled to replicate his success. It would be five years before the next super star in the making would first make his mark…
Part two, which will discuss the state of the Hong Kong film industry in the five years following Bruce Lee’s death, the subsequent rise of various members of the Seven Little Fortunes, led by Jackie Chan, and the revolution that was the comedy/kung-fu boom.