Water and Vessel: The Kung-Fu Movies of Bruce Lee

Water and Vessel: The Kung-Fu Movies of Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee seemed born to be on-screen. At three months old, he appeared as an infant in a Hong Kong movie called Golden Gate Girl (1941). After he died suddenly of cerebral edema in 1973 at the age of thirty-two, the footage of his funeral became his last film. He gained his fame as a martial artist—some say the best of all time—but while he was known for the martial part, he was always training in order to become an artist.

The Cantonese term kung fu—the name for the multitude of schools and styles that make up the Chinese martial arts—implies hard work, time devoted to craft, and the distant promise of achievement. Bruce Lee was cut down in the prime of his life, just before the opening of his biggest film, Enter the Dragon, might have reaped him the benefits of his own hard work. This cruel interruption, this lack of resolution, is what makes his image persist as a kind of mass meditation.

That is to say, everyone seems to have their own Bruce Lee. In recent years, his aphorism to “be water” has become part of the flow of globalized pop culture. Even decades after his passing, he is still a liquid we pour into our own vessels. When he moves across the screen, he flows through with our memories and hopes.

To see him lower himself into a fighting stance is to recall countless hours engaged in joyful child’s play or, on the other hand, to remember the microdramas of bully and bullied, and reflect on all the ways we have learned and trained our bodies to protect and advance ourselves. To watch Lee move from ready position into action is to consider the everyday labor of life, in all its strains and contentions, and wonder whether we, too, proceed with grace, power, and purpose.

Bruce Lee famously described his approach to martial arts as “using no way as way.” As in his fighting, so he was in his performances of art and life. Lee seemed to give everything to the viewer. His presence was spontaneous, guileless, a pure transmission from the soul. His fighting and acting and living expressed his philosophy: rigorously prepare but do not overly premeditate; focus on closing the gap between thought and act, intention and impact. With his naturalistic, improvisatory approach—and not a small reservoir of confidence, even cockiness—Lee forged a remarkable life.

His tragic death and astonishing afterlife now lend the facts of his biography a kind of inevitability. But at the start of the sixties, when his acting career seemed to have already ended, it was unimaginable that someone like Bruce Lee might become one of the most recognizable global icons of our time. He had been on the verge of a new level of stardom in Hong Kong, but after getting in trouble for street fighting, he was sent by his parents back to America, the land of his birth. There he started all over again, seen through the eyes of a white majority as possessing the face of the perpetual stranger and the wartime enemy.

But in 1966, he began the magnificent second phase of his acting career. It would total just one season and a short list of appearances on the small screen, plus six films on the big. From being a virtually silent actor at the dawn of color television, when most Asian characters were still being played by whites, he came to control his own productions and create new images for Asians and Asian Americans. Eventually he would transcend even the screen, be celebrated as a hero for the global downtrodden, and help lay the foundation for the border-crossing global popular culture of the next century.

Top of post: Enter the Dragon
Above: The Big Boss

“In many ways, Bruce Lee really was the trigger-tempered rebel that he played on-screen.”

Lee was born at San Francisco’s Chinese Hospital in 1940 to a Hong Kong family of relative affluence. Cantonese opera—with its stylized physicality, classical stories, and mass appeal—was the family business. His father, Lee Hoi-chuen, was touring the United States with his company when his mother gave birth to him. She named him Bruce, after a midwife’s suggestion, and Jun Fan, a name whose poetic resonance—Jun means “to excite” while Fan could refer to a border or, more specifically, to San Francisco—suggested that his destiny lay in crossing the Pacific.

At the age of six, he landed his first credited role, playing a young thief in The Birth of Mankind, and quickly became a child star in Hong Kong’s booming industry. Before the age of nineteen, he had acted in at least twenty movies. Although he lived comfortably and attended private Catholic schools in Kowloon, Lee was often cast as a poor, abandoned, and streetwise youth, searching for a father figure and acting out—sometimes comedically, sometimes violently. He played his parts with an exuberant sensuality, whether leading a partner across a dance floor or flashing a threatening knife at an elder. He possessed the charisma of a potential leading man and the charm of a born entertainer.

His ability to convey both rage and vulnerability persuaded director Lee Sun-fung to cast him as the star of The Orphan, a performance that would rouse the filmmaker Chang Cheh to compare him favorably to James Dean. Offscreen, Lee lived a striking duality. He was the colony’s champion cha-cha dancer, admired by the ladies. But at the same time, he was roaming the teeming Kowloon streets with his gang of roughnecks, searching for fights. In many ways, he really was the trigger-tempered rebel that he played on-screen.

The Orphan was well-received, but it would be the last of Lee’s teen roles. By the time the movie premiered in 1960, Lee was living in Seattle, after being sent to the U.S. by his parents to keep him out of trouble. He moved into a small bedroom, which he paid for in part by working as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant. Humbled, he went to school and practiced his English and his martial arts.

American servicemen had brought back from the Pacific front a fascination with Asian martial arts. Japanese karate and judo schools were opening across the country. Samuel Fuller’s 1959 movie The Crimson Kimono, which featured James Shigeta in an extremely rare Asian American male lead role, even included kendo and karate scenes. But few in the U.S. outside of Chinese and Asian American communities had heard then of kung fu.

Although Lee had trained in the Wing Chun style of kung fu under the modern master (and subject of many subsequent Hong Kong movies) Ip Man, he had not done so for long. But what Lee lacked in formal study he made up for in skill, curiosity, and practice. He would go on to challenge martial-arts orthodoxy, distilling Northern Shaolin kung fu, karate, judo, fencing, and boxing techniques into a style he called Jeet Kune Do, or “the way of the intercepting fist.”

In Seattle, he began doing demonstrations at schools and street fairs, and made unlikely converts of young African American, Japanese American, Mexican American, and white men. When The Orphan opened at a small Chinatown theater, he invited his new gang of friends to come see it. They couldn’t believe it was him on-screen. For Lee, his movie life must have then seemed distant.

He wrote a friend in Hong Kong, “Ideas have made America what she is, and one good idea will make a man what he wants to be.” Lee planned to support himself; his young wife, Linda; and his growing family by opening kung-fu schools. In a 1963 essay, he called kung fu “the concentrated essence of wisdom and profound thought on the art of self-defense.” He dreamed of harmonizing his life’s two thrusts, fighting and acting, to promote martial arts and its grounding Asian philosophies in the U.S.

Because of his tireless advocacy of kung fu, Hollywood came calling. After an impressive appearance at a Long Beach martial-arts tournament in 1964, he was asked to audition for television, first for a Charlie Chan vehicle that thankfully never aired, and then for The Green Hornet, a campy show in the mold of Batman. Winning the role of the Chinese valet Kato, Lee was paid an extra’s wages for a costarring role in which he at first was given more physical instructions than lines to speak. As his fight scenes became a major attraction, Lee pressed the show’s management to humanize his character. But the show lasted just one season.

Lee busied himself by teaching kung fu to stars like Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His TV appearances slowed to a trickle, and after a severe training accident, he was stuck in painful rehabilitation. When the sixties came to a close, he had only one American film credit, for a James Garner vehicle called Marlowe (1969), playing an explosive but farcically dumb high-kicking villain. The character had been written for him by a close friend, the screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who was also developing a film project with Lee and Coburn called The Silent Flute and working hard to place Lee on an ABC television series called Longstreet. And yet, both Lee and Silliphant surely understood that the Marlowe part only underscored how few places Hollywood had for an Asian American actor who valued his dignity.

In 1970, Lee told a U.S. journalist it was time for an Asian hero. “Never mind some guy bouncing around the country in a pigtail or something,” he said. “I have to be a real human being. No cook. No laundryman.”

Like his Seattle contemporary Jimi Hendrix, Lee felt he had nothing to lose by leaving America. In Hong Kong, reruns of what the locals called The Kato Show had made Lee a superstar. He was invited to appear on the island’s biggest television variety shows to demonstrate his martial-arts prowess. Lee let it be known to film moguls that he was willing to entertain offers.

His timing was perfect. Hong Kong’s movie­going audience was rapidly growing. In 1970, Hong Kong made 118 movies, more than all of Great Britain. The island colony’s per capita film production and consumption were the highest in the world, as enthusiastic young audiences filled the cinemas week after week. The Shaw Brothers studio maintained its position at the top by pivoting from romances into wuxia, breathing new energy into a genre already four decades old. Innovative movies such as King Hu’s Come Drink with Me (1966) and Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman (1967), made or dubbed in Mandarin for distribution across Southeast Asia, reflected a darkening mood.

Built by a burgeoning working class, Hong Kong had become a world-class trading city. But it was also racked by strife. Deadly squatter fires exposed the British colonial administration’s neglect. Young leftists marched down Nathan Road, past the Lee family home, into riotous clashes with the authorities. Cold War militarism spread across the region. The postwar generation ached to define itself.

Fist of Fury

The risk-taking Lee chose to roll the dice with producer Raymond Chow, a disgruntled Shaw Brothers studio veteran who had formed a rival company called Golden Harvest. Lee signed for two movies, The Big Boss (1971, released in the U.S. as Fists of Fury) and Fist of Fury (1972, retitled The Chinese Connection in the U.S., the story goes, after someone mixed up the shipping labels for the two movies). These films made him a working-class hero who confronted oppressive foreign bosses or authorities. Where he had once played street orphans in need of salvation, he was now the leader of their resistance, sent to avenge and redeem their suffering.

In The Big Boss, Lee was Cheng Chao-an, a naive hick sent to labor at a Thailand ice factory with his fellow ethnic Chinese. The factory is a front for a heroin-trafficking operation. When his cousins discover this, they begin to disappear one by one. Sworn to nonviolence by his mother, Chao-an does not fight until he is provoked.

The original director of The Big Boss, Wu Chia-hsiang, and fight choreographer Han Ying-chieh, a wuxia vet who also played the titular boss, wanted Lee to perform traditional stylized fight scenes influenced by Cantonese opera and kung fu. Lee preferred the efficient brutality of a street fight. The film’s action scenes ended up being more Han than Lee, with lots of big punches and high kicks. But Lee forced Wu out as director, and Raymond Chow brought in Lo Wei to replace him.

Lee thought Lo Wei amateurish. At one point, Chao-an kicks a villain through an icehouse wall, leaving a man-shaped hole more suitable for Wile E. Coyote than a Thai drug smuggler. Over Lee’s loud objections, Lo insisted upon keeping it. For his part, Lo bragged about making the movie with only a few pages of an outline and resented the actor’s incursions into his domain. Lo pitted Lee against his costar James Tien; the first act of the film gives the impression that Lo was still working out who would be the lead.

Forty-five minutes in, Chao-an finally intervenes to help his fellow ice-factory workers, and the movie takes off. Lee unleashes all his electric gestures—the fighting crouch, the lip-quivering stare, the thumb wipe, the blood-tasting, the continual spin kicks. By comparison, American fight scenes of the time that didn’t involve bullets seem slow, clumsy, and over too soon. Lee introduced tempo, velocity, and realism. To him, fights were not merely plot accelerants or spectacular distractions, they delivered emotional content.

On The Big Boss, Lee’s work was paradigm-setting. His wildcat scream at the ice factory heralds his first explosion of motion and blood. His tortured face and shaking body after his second fight there disclose anguish at the murders he has just committed. He would continue to refine and elaborate on these gestures. Chao-an’s final fight with the boss—with its stylistic clash of Lee’s and Han’s choreographies as subtext—set the stage for Lee’s rapid rise. The movie became the highest-grossing film in Hong Kong to that point.

In Fist of Fury, Lee plays Chen Zhen, star student of the famed Jing Wu martial-arts school, who seeks revenge for the murder of his teacher Huo Yuanjia at the hands of Japanese imperialists. For a generation born into war and Japanese occupation and raised under British rule, the story lent Lee’s heroic identity more Hong Kong specificity. When Chen Zhen declared to the judoka, “We Chinese aren’t the sick men,” Hong Kong audiences practically tore out the theater seats.

Packed with emotion and action from the start, Fist of Fury is tight and propulsive where The Big Boss was loose and meandering. Lee teamed again with Lo Wei and many from the cast of The Big Boss. Han Ying-chieh was again credited as fight choreographer. But now Lee was clearly in charge. His vision is illustrated in the opening clash. The camera swirls, then darts, then swirls again, pivoting between overhead and waist-level views. After Chen Zhen disposes of the entire dojo, he poses with his nunchaku like a Roman god.

For comic relief, Chen Zhen disguises himself as a rickshaw driver, newspaper hawker, and phone repairman. But he is also a loner at odds with his own community. He will not even disclose his plans to his lover. Chen Zhen’s cause is righteous, but by going it alone, he brings about the destruction of the entire school and himself.

Fist of Fury did even better than The Big Boss. In the two years since he had returned to Hong Kong, Lee had been looking for a way back to Hollywood. But even as he had become the biggest star in all of Asia, he was turned down for the lead in a Warner Bros.–produced TV series called Kung Fu, whose concept resembled a show he had pitched called The Warrior. Even worse, the job had gone to a white man in yellowface, David Carradine. White execs said Lee was “too authentic.”

But he had also signed a deal with Chow to form a partnership in Concord Productions. Under this arrangement, Lee gained complete artistic control over his films. He threw his efforts into a new movie called The Way of the Dragon (1972, retitled Return of the Dragon in the U.S. and released there in 1974, after Enter the Dragon). It would be the first Hong Kong feature set in Europe. The concept was unique: an exotic foreign locale, a little bit of comedy, and fight scenes in which Lee would get to beat up more white guys, as he joked privately to his Chinese American friends.

Working again with many of the actors from his previous two movies, Lee rushed to make the film, digesting a dozen books on filmmaking, then writing the script in a month. In the short time he had in Rome, he herded the cast and crew around to shoot dozens of scenes a day, while reserving long hours for his fight scene with Chuck Norris.

The Way of the Dragon focuses on Tang Lung, a Big Boss–style yokel sent to Rome to defend a restaurant run by Chinese immigrants, Chen Ching-hua (Nora Miao) and Uncle Wang (Huang Chung-hsin), from a gang boss who has marked their property for gentrification. Tang Lung fashions the restaurant staff into a passable fighting team, but the crime syndicate escalates the situation. Every time Miao’s cool, modern Ching-hua is on-screen with Lee’s impish country boy, she generates all of the sexual tension missing from Fist of Fury. Hong Kong audiences made The Way of the Dragon Lee’s biggest movie ever there, earning almost two-thirds more than The Big Boss.

The face-offs with martial artist Robert Wall and hapkido grandmaster Whang Ing-sik saw Lee moving fight scenes further away from their opera roots. The almost nine-minute battle between Lee and Norris is a powerful achievement in which the two become engaged in an intimate, primal, and irreducible physical dialogue. The characters of Tang Lung and Colt melt away—Norris has almost no lines in this, his first credited film role—leaving the purer performance of the fight. They begin by trading kicks along a straight line in three regular beats. Norris picks up on Lee’s rhythm, anticipates Lee’s spin kick, and counters, knocking him to the ground. Lee’s attacks are direct, rigid, and predictable, so Norris simply waits and counters. After being knocked down three times, Lee goes full Jeet Kune Do, signaling the shift with a shuffle and feints. Suddenly, Norris can’t locate Lee anymore.

Footwork, Lee preached to his students, is key to everything, and now he attacks with what he called “broken rhythm.” Now it’s Norris who becomes rigid and less patient. The fight turns, and Lee overpowers Norris. But Norris refuses to bow, and Lee finishes him quickly and mercifully. He covers Norris’s body out of deference.

Lee had achieved what he aspired to accomplish, melding fighting and acting into teaching. The fight scene can be read through Lee’s Jeet Kune Do philosophy, as both a way to fight and a way to live: refuse orthodoxy, strike straight where it‘s empty, and be like water.

The Big Boss

“His flickering on-screen image, so vital and full of life, seemed to defy death.”

By the end of 1972, Lee had transformed the look and feel of martial arts in film, helped solidify Hong Kong identity in a crucial moment, and globalized and realigned the local movie industry. Yet he yearned to conquer the land of his birth.

He had made three record-breaking movies and was working on a fourth, Game of Death, for which he was choreographing and filming his most elaborate fight scenes yet. The movie was to culminate in a five-story pagoda, where he would confront highly skilled opponents of varying martial-arts styles and attempt to defeat them on their own terms.

He was able to complete only three of these scenes—a nunchaku fight with Dan Inosanto, a battle with hapkido expert Ji Han-jae, and an epic Jeet Kune Do showdown with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But he decided to put the production of Game of Death on hold. The call he had been waiting for had finally come.

In Hollywood, the old business model was imploding. Box-office revenues had plunged, major studios were in various states of disarray, and the industry was restructuring. The spotlight turned to new artistic voices and long-derided audiences.

MGM had been spared bankruptcy by its investment in Gordon Parks (1971’s Shaft). Warner Bros., which had had a hit with his son Gordon Parks Jr.’s Super Fly (1972), began more actively courting Black audiences, the most passionate U.S. moviegoing demographic. Because of white flight and racial segregation, inner-city theaters became the unlikely source of industry renewal. Cheap, dubbed kung-fu imports were being double-billed with blaxploitation flicks in those theaters.

As excitement began to build in the U.S. around kung-fu movies, Warner Bros. and Golden Harvest agreed to jointly fund a movie called Blood and Steel, beginning with a half-million-dollar investment, still a relatively small budget. But finally Lee had a vehicle for returning to the U.S. and the biggest stage yet on which to advance his martial arts and his teachings. The tragedy of Lee’s sudden death is that he never had a showcase that displayed the range of his talents and the height of his ambitions. Enter the Dragon arguably came the closest.

The idea for the story had come from producers Fred Weintraub and Paul Heller. They tapped a young screenwriter named Michael Allin and lined up director Robert Clouse. The premise was not unlike that of The Green Hornet, slightly updated for a postsixties world changed by war and revolution. The hero was a white American named Roper, who stops an evil sex and drug trafficker named Han with the help of a kung-fu-fighting British spy named, naturally, Lee.

In an edgier, revised version, Lee became the hero, supported by Roper and an African American character named Williams. Fight hero John Saxon signed on to play Roper. Jim Kelly was plucked out of his Los Angeles karate dojo to play Williams. Much of the American crew arrived in the colony untested, and culture clashes erupted with the Hong Kong crew.

After the movie was in the can, Lee proposed the title Enter the Dragon to Warner Bros. studio head Ted Ashley, who agreed. But right up to the premiere, other Warner execs remained unconvinced that an Asian actor could carry a film in the U.S. Lee worried that, in postproduction edits, the focus of the movie might shift to Saxon’s character. Instead he found himself fighting to prevent the studio from renaming the movie Han’s Island—and shifting the spotlight to the Fu Manchu–like villain—up until five weeks before his death.

In fact, worried that his Chinese audiences would think he wasn’t keeping it real, he had boycotted the start of principal photography until he could get rewrites he wanted. He prevailed. The early scenes, inserted at his insistence and supported by Lalo Schifrin’s exquisite score, bring together his philosophy and physicality. They have become some of Lee’s best-loved cinematic moments, from the opening sparring session with Sammo Hung to the intergenerational teaching sessions quoting Zen maxims.

The movie’s themes—corruption, oppression, freeing the enslaved—resonated with the era’s global Third World movement. Escaping the Vietnam War and American inner-city police brutality to confront the city of junks in Hong Kong’s harbor, Kelly’s character, Williams, utters the timeless line “Ghettos are the same all over the world.” Activists—especially Asian Americans—celebrated the movie as an example of ass-kicking social consciousness.

And then, of course, there are the fight scenes. The tournaments may not be as imaginatively filmed as in Fist of Fury, the choreography not as enthralling as in The Way of the Dragon, but then there are Lee’s unforgettable fight poses in the underground prison, his face when he kills Oharra to avenge his sister’s death, and the climactic scene in the hall of mirrors—hand versus spiked hand, foreground and background flattened onto an endless surface, Lee’s and Han’s fragmented and slashed bodies stalking each other, their movements riven and replicated into infinite pieces.

Game of Death

In 1973, the world shifted. Perhaps the moment was defined—as the film scholar David Desser has suggested of the sudden U.S. excitement for Hong Kong film that year—by the January Paris Peace Accords that eventually brought an end to the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese have called it, the American War). It was a time of worldwide upheaval, as young revolutionaries from Hong Kong and Saigon to Kingston, Jamaica, and the Bronx were focused on bringing down oppressive regimes.

From May through August, kung-fu films made in Hong Kong and overdubbed in English took over Variety’s chart of top-grossing movies. On May 16, 1973—a month after Bob Marley and the Wailers released their global debut album, Catch a Fire—the top three movies in the U.S. were Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (in release then as Fists of Fury), the Angela Mao vehicle Deep Thrust (a.k.a. Lady Whirlwind), and Shaw Brothers’ Five Fingers of Death (a.k.a. King Boxer). On August 19, Enter the Dragon premiered at Los Angeles’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, only eight days after DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy Campbell threw the West Bronx house party that launched the new arts movement that would be named hip-hop. In the summer of 1973, Bob Marley, hip-hop, and Bruce Lee changed global popular culture forever.

But Lee did not live to see the impact he would have. After his death on July 20, 1973, just before Enter the Dragon was to open, twenty thousand mourners filled the streets at the public service in Kowloon. Many thousands more from Saigon to San Francisco memorialized his passing. He was laid to rest in Seattle.

After it opened, Hong Kong audiences disdained Enter the Dragon’s distorting Orientalisms and its apparent retreat from realism. In the colony, the film grossed just a little more than The Big Boss had. But in the U.S., it hit number one in its first week of wide release and stayed in the top ten for over a month. His flickering on-screen image, so vital and full of life, seemed to defy death.

And still does. By now, each generation has had its own Bruce Lee. As the seventies lengthened into a long hangover, Jeet Kune Do schools and Bruceploitation flicks proliferated, as if hard work and disbelief were the best ways to honor Lee.

Game of Death, released five years after Lee’s passing, was the climax of the flood of kung-fu B movies starring look-alikes with similar stage names but none of his skill or screen-filling personality. The scenes Lee had shot before he left to do Enter the Dragon were so tantalizing, and the demand for Lee’s image so great after his death, that Chow and Golden Harvest repackaged eleven minutes of that footage into a feature.

Sometimes laughably bad (note the cardboard cutout used as a stand-in when Tong Lung, the actor playing Bruce Lee playing Billy Lo, wouldn’t do) and sometimes tasteless (footage of Lee’s actual funeral is used to advance a slapdash plot), Game of Death comes alive when Lee’s original footage shows up in the third act. This set of pagoda fight scenes and that yellow striped suit salvage the movie and propel it toward immortality.

In the eighties, as white American directors continued to refight the wars in Asia on-screen, Lee became a kind of doomed, mystical, new-age guru for an aging boomer generation, apotheosized in the supernatural biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993). In the nineties, an Asian American alt-pop vanguard remade Lee into a global race hero and a pop icon, putting him on DJ-culture T-shirts and making collectible toys of him, infusing irony and wit into an image of pride and resistance. After the turn of the new millennium, Lee was reborn as the spiritual godfather of the renegade sport of mixed martial arts and as a fighter-philosopher revivifying values of unity, expression, and compassion.

All around the world, new generations of youths, Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, says, “see him as a metaphor for themselves.” In Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2005, locals erected a statue of Bruce Lee to represent the quest for reconciliation in a young country still recovering from a bloody civil and ethnic war. And in Hong Kong starting in 2019, masses of young insurgents moving through the streets of the metropolis in cat-and-mouse confrontations with the government lifted one another’s spirits with two words: “Be water.”

To Lee, the highest level of artistry was to attain wu wei, what he called “the action of no action.” In this elevated state, one merged with his opposite—the fighter with his opponent, the actor with his audience. “The natural phenomenon with the closest resemblance to wu wei,” he wrote, “is water.” Later, he and Stirling Silliphant would refine this idea into a kind of monologue poem for a character he played in the television series Longstreet, who teaches a blind investigator how to defend himself and live.

“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water,” Lee says. “Now water can flow or creep or drip or crash!

“Be water, my friend.”

Watch Bruce Lee in action in the below video, which features biographer Matthew Polly talking about the movie star’s extraordinary career:

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