Whatever your relationship to cinema is, whether casual fan or rabid aficionado, Bruce Lee is one name you are guaranteed to have heard of. As more than one person has said to me, he is the reason a lot of people have expanded their film watching from English language films to subtitled ones.
In film history, pop culture, and cultural terms, he is a vital presence and justifiably a legend, despite his all-too-short five film career. The good die young as they say, and in Lee that is most definitely the case. But just why is he such an iconic figure, to not only Eastern audiences, but to Western ones equally? How did this one man fuse together disparate cultures in a time frame noted for its hostility to opposing world views? As the noted critic Stephen Teo states, “Lee is all things to all men”.
Born in San Francisco in 1940 to Chinese parents, but raised in Hong Kong until he was 18, Lee was the product of two worlds. A Chinese nationalist who was an American citizen, he bridged the divide with almost effortless grace.
The son of noted Cantonese actor Lee Hoi-chuen, Lee grew up in post-war Hong Kong following his father’s decision to move back shortly after Bruce’s birth.
Despite relative privilege, he could not avoid the fact that the Hong Kong of this era was a dangerous place, overrun with gangs and violence. Lee embraced this physical and combative environment from an early age, and eventually concerned his parents so much that they decided to have him trained in martial arts in order to help him. Trained by the legendary Yip Man, Lee proved a natural at the art of Wing Chun.
Because of his father, Lee also pursued an acting career at the same time, notching up several credits before eventually deciding to move back to the USA. Despite toying with the idea of practicing martial arts full time, he eventually landed the now iconic role of Kato in the one (and only) series of The Green Hornet.
However, it was not the success he had dreamed of, and Lee moved back to Hong Kong disillusioned with his supporting roles. It was to prove a masterstroke, as his fame as Kato led to The Big Boss and Fist Of Fury, which broke box office records in Asia.
Then came Way Of The Dragon, the Lee directed, written, choreographed tour-de-force which launched him internationally. Lee was able to complete just one more film, the Warner Bros. produced Enter The Dragon before his tragically young death at age 32, and just before his launch into superstardom. Another movie, Game Of Death, was left unfinished, and later released with additional footage shot by Robert Clouse in 1978.
Lee’s is a fame which has proven enduring in all corners of the world, but particularly in the two countries he called home, which coincidentally represent both East and West in many people’s minds – China and America. Lee contradictorily represents both an inherent and resurgent Chinese nationalism, but also a reaction against racism, in which his nationalism plays no part. The two are separate but equal parts of his appeal, and it is worth exploring them in a little more detail.
To Asian and especially Chinese audiences, Lee is a national folklore hero. He is the epitome of modern heroes, and can be seen to represent two types of nationalism. For post-Japanese occupied China, the need to reassert a strong sense of identity was paramount. Lee understood this, and embodied it. Fist Of Fury is in fact all about this as his character Chen Zhen avenges the death of his master and win honour for his martial arts school against the rival Japanese.
It is not exactly subtle in its themes and allegorical nature, but it certainly does the trick. In between hurling down anti-Chinese propaganda and kicking Japanese ass, he is restoring honour for the motherland. The motif of regaining honour lost in the face of Japan and other colonial powers is in fact freeze-framed at the end, as Lee hurls himself at pistol firing foreigners calling for his blood.
The second type of nationalism is a far more vague one, which can be classed as apolitical even. It is the evoking of pride in Chinese culture for all those of Chinese origin, and allowing all those in the diaspora to identify with the homeland, even though they may have little to do with it.
It is a nationalism deeply rooted in Chinese culture, although not exclusive to it, and has its origins in Confucian philosophies, and the idea of cultural remaining separate to the state – thereby allowing people to identify with their culture and not country.
Bruce Lee harnessed this pride, and by representing both Eastern and Western values in his films, allowed the Chinese minority in other countries to embrace him as one of their own.
However, Lee can also be seen to represent the American dream, the story of the immigrant made good. Ignoring the xenophobic streak apparent in his work, instead Lee can be an American hero – proof that Asians can be Americans.
He is standing up for the rights of all men, and that is what draws Western audiences to him, and makes many admire the man. It is his refusal to give up and tolerate injustice, and his will to fight for what he believes in. It is this personal motivation which critics believe elevate Lee’s films from being merely tub-thumping works for the Chinese state. Way Of The Dragon is as much about Lee the man as it is about the Lee the cultural hero.
The famous shot of him stripped to the waist in front of a mirror surely positions the film as being about Lee and his personal struggles, as does his constant failure to understand or be understood in a foreign culture (in this case, Rome).
The film is all about Lee’s fight to be accepted for who he is, while also displaying his raw sex appeal for the audiences. It has been deemed as narcissistic even by some critics, who deem this film and the following Enter The Dragon as all about ‘the outer struggle’, as opposed to the spiritual one within.
Lee can be seen to only appeal to a Western audience as an action hero, which I think is a little harsh, for the reasons concerning his struggle to ‘become’ American explained above.
Whatever the reasons for his popularity, it is undiminished to this day. Lee can be co-opted by anyone and everyone, much in the same way Che Guevara has been.There have even been trainers based upon his famous yellow and black tracksuit (from Game Of Death, fact fans).
For an actor once rejected by mainstream American audiences for having too thick an accent, this is an incredible triumph. Making it even more rewarding is the fact it is not based on just his physicality and skill, but the philosophy and spirituality of the man behind the body.
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