Saturday 14 June 2008

Fist of Fury (1972)

After The Big Boss aka Fists of Fury came Fist of Fury aka The Chinese Connection. Yes, it's pretty easy to see why there seem to be so many Bruce Lee films, given that there aren't actually that many of them. Many of the same names recur from The Big Boss. It's a Golden Harvest picture again, directed by Lo Wei and starring Bruce Lee. James Tien and Maria Yi also return, along with Miao Ker Hsiu aka Nora Miao. She was also in The Big Boss but only as the young lady who manned a drink stand on the road. Many other supporting actors recur too, including Kun Li and Tony Liu.

Fist of Fury begins with Ho Yuan-chia, legendary Chinese martial artist, but he's not showing us what he can do. He's being buried in Shanghai where he had founded the Ching Wu school of martial arts. The most important piece of background information to know is that in this era the Japanese control much of Shanghai, which naturally doesn't make the Chinese particularly happy. Chen Zhen is Ho's best pupil but he arrives back in Shanghai only in time to see his burial and to collectively receive an insult from the Japanese Hung Kiu school.

A couple of fighters from the Kung Kiu school bring a sign reading 'Sick Men of Asia', and because Ho was a peaceful man the Ching Wu school don't respond to the threats and goads. However Chen is burning to and so returns the sign to the Kung Kiu school and takes out all of them in a stunning fight scene that has become legendary. Needless to say, Chen Zhen is played by Bruce Lee and the scene, along with the movie as a whole, has been widely copied but never matched. The anti-Japanese sentiment here is palpable, to the degree of key Japanese characters wearing sinister moustaches, and it forms the basis of the plot.

While The Big Boss is important for introducing us to Bruce Lee as a leading man, upon whom an entire film rests, Fist of Fury is far more important. It isn't the introduction of Lee's famed animal noises during fights, it isn't the presence in the bit parts of people like Jackie Chan and Corey Yuen. It isn't even the need for Lee to actually act, putting on mild disguises and impersonating telephone repair men or newspaper vendors, though that's part of it. It's mostly about the fact that this film actually has a plot that goes beyond one guy beating up a bunch of other guys. It has meaning and resonance because of its placing in time and space and is far more than just a martial arts film.

It's also because in The Big Boss, Bruce Lee spent much of the film not fighting. Here he starts out how he means to go on and while it's no fight a minute slugfest, there's a lot more action. He dominates the scenes, especially that landmark one at the Kung Kiu school in which he simply became a legend. Nobody looked like him, sounded like him or moved like him. Nobody could do contempt like Bruce Lee and nobody had the flow of motion that he had. Every move he made is simply a continuation of the last move he made until it transitions seamlessly into the beginning of the next move so that in effect everything he did was one long changing martial arts move. Nobody had the conversation of energy that he had, so that he could stand there and do nothing and yet make it seem part of a move. Nobody could stalk anyone the way he did, so that ever Nobody had the ability to explode like a coiled spring and look so pained when he did so. In short there simply wasn't anyone before him that did anything remotely like what he did, and despite countless imitators nobody has managed it since.

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