How Bruce Lee Changed Martial Arts Cinema – Part 1 | Video Essay


Different people remembers Bruce Lee differently To many He’s one of the greatest martial artists of all time Also an icon of peak body fitness A teacher of immense wisdom “Empty your mind” “Be formless, shapeless” “Like water” An inspiration for a nation “Chinese people” “Are not sick men” A star who punched his way through racism A man of charisma And a very sexy gentleman But to me He is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of action cinema Single-handedly changed how martial arts movies are made How so? Well, here’s a small example: When Bruce Lee first brought his Kung Fu to the TV screen He was so fast, even in a restrictive costume His movement showed up as a blur And they have to overcrank the camera to compensate In other words, he brought something new The industry has to change and adapt Now, that’s a sign of a great filmmaker In this two-part retrospective We’ll go through all four and a half movies starring Bruce Lee And examine how Bruce Lee changes martial arts cinema From this To This Let’s dive in Our story begins before Bruce Lee Like many cinema from around the world Chinese cinema is a continuation of its theatre and opera tradition And since many opera performance includes actions Martial arts cinema, naturally, follows the same formula Although much of the early Chinese Martial Arts films are now lost Looking at the remaining ones shows noticeable similarities Between what’s on screen And what’s on stage Fast forward to the 1960s The style is much the same Jumps Flips Big operatic movement Action is poetically simple You see an attack A counter attack And a reaction The battle happens in the edit And your imagination fills the gap It’s called wuxia Stories of traditional Chinese folk heroes Big movements Big characters Realistic fights is not the point There was a push back against this type of films Spearheaded by the Wong Fei Hung series Starring the legendary Kwan Tak-hing The series features much more impressive hand to hand combat Yet still, Kwan was an opera actor Much of the action still focuses on the operatic movement The fluid kicks and jumps Almost like a tango In truth, Kung Fu films and wuxia films were selling the same contents Just with slightly different packaging After living in the US for over 10 years Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong Having fed up with only getting supporting roles in Hollywood Don’t get me f*cking started. It was 1970 And Bruce was surprised to find himself a big deal in Hong Kong Thanks to Green Hornet TV series being a big hit there It’s not hard to see why He was fast and ferocious Much different from the ballet Hong Kong were used to at the time So naturally, in 1971 Hong Kong film company Golden Harvest casted him in a starring role In the first true Bruce Lee movie The Big Boss It’s everything people didn’t know they wanted Violent, realistic, contemporary No more opera This is real Kung Fu Bruce Lee plays an uneducated country boy Cheng Chao-an Who works in an ice factory “I don’t know what to do” Unbeknown to him, the factory is a front for a drug smuggling operation “What is this?” After a few workers being killed for discovering the truth Cheng, ever the good man, investigates Digging himself deep into the crime world Right off the bat, the setting is different from what came before No more folk heroes It’s an ordinary worker in a contemporary crime drama And the martial arts aren’t the fancy, classy stuff either It’s brutal, direct and to the point No more dancing around Every punch and kick are intended to kill I mean, the difference is night and day
I don’t need to explain much But it’s worth stressing that This movie is really the first of its kind And it was 1971 Star Wars hasn’t come out And Sean Connery was still James Bond “Oof” Actions like these They were mind-blowing Of course you can’t be perfect the first time through You can see the filmmakers have no idea how to compose for realistic actions Much of the film language were holdovers from wuxia films All too often, shots are too wide A tradition that works well with big acrobatic movement of wuxia But fails to emphasize the body in close quarters combat And when the camera is close It’s too close Camera frames the action from the waist up Leaving little room for the kicks This conflict between old and new even manifested on set During the filming The director called the production company and complained Saying that Bruce doesn’t know how to fight People called him Lee-Three-Kicks Because that’s all he does Clearly, the director intended to have longer, back and forth fights Much like wuxia films of old But Bruce, with actual street fight experiences Understood that real fights don’t last that long So he doubled down this relatively realistic style The Big Boss went on to be a massive success As Bruce’s wife recalled “The audience rose to its feet, yelling, clapping, cheering.” “It was almost impossible to leave the theatre” Clearly, Bruce was right to do his own thing And now, it’s up to the Hong Kong film industry to adapt Adapt they did One year later, 1972 Fist of Fury was released And became his most iconic movie in Asia The film was set During World War II When Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese Bruce Lee plays Chen Zhen, an uneducated, hot-headed young man Who, upon discovering his master was murdered by the Japanese Goes on a revenge killing spree It’s crazy how much everything has improved in just one year The film itself takes on a much more dramatic tone Taking much more inspiration from contemporary Chinese plays Such as Thunderstorm While in the Big Boss You can kinda see Bruce phoned-in his performance In Fist of Fury Bruce gave it his all Supposedly, Bruce wasn’t by his father’s side
when he passed away And this is how Bruce reacted when he arrived at his late father’s funeral Much of Bruce Lee’s persona is also amplified This humble yet gung-ho attitude is stronger than ever “I’m not well-educated” “Please don’t lie to me” Other Bruce Lee icons like toplessness One on many fights The flying kicks Are all bigger and better And of course, the nunchucks The cinematography also improved Wide shots are much closer Emphasizing the contact and bodily form Although some of the wuxia jumps still remain Medium shots now framed from the knee up instead of waist up Giving room for all the iconic high kicks In short, in just two films Bruce Lee lead to the creation of a new genre Forever splitting Kung Fu movies from wuxia movies Needless to say, Fist of Fury became a massive success I mean, it’s a film about beating Japanese Yet it became the 7th highest grossing film In Japan that year But bigger still, is its cultural impact It has been remade multiple times Many of its lines are quoted and parodied in Hong Kong media And the film is the standard formula in making a martial arts hero movie The character Chen Zhen lives on as an icon for national pride Fighting against foreign oppression Pushing back the shame China has endured Or as Chen says “Chinese p eople” “Are not sick men” From 1969 To 1972 Bruce Lee single handedly transformed the landscape of Kung Fu cinema And kicked his way into people’s heart And he was just getting started Because in his next two movies Bruce continued and set out a trajectory for the genre With which the industry will follow to this day Tune in next time As we examine the remaining Bruce Lee films And see how the man punches his way to international stardom

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