Sat, Jul 19, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Is Bruce Lee still a legend in Hong Kong?

The city's most famous son had a lot more than just kung fu and almost single-handedly put the Hong Kong film industry on the global map, but attempts to commemorate him have not been going well

By Steve Rose  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

"I think he changed Chinese people's perception of themselves," says Jon Benn, who played the evil boss in Way of the Dragon and remained friends with Lee. "At that time I think the west still looked on Chinese as `chinks'; only good for laundry and take-outs.

"The fact that he was just a little guy -- 66.7kg, 1.68m -- and could take on the biggest gweilo [Cantonese slang for foreigner] and knock the hell out of him. Chinese people thought: `Hey! Maybe I could do that!'"

Take Lee out of these films and you're left with three pulp kung-fu movies. He had been acting and fighting on screen all his life, and with his added Hollywood experience, he knew how to capture his own skills to the best advantage: by placing himself squarely at the centre of the frame and switching between long uninterrupted sequences and Sergio Leone-style close-ups. Not even bad dubbing could diminish his international impact.

Lee's next project, Game of Death, was to be a more philosophical movie, but he interrupted it for the Hollywood/Hong Kong co-production Enter the Dragon. It is the most popular and polished of Lee's films, but was not a hit in Hong Kong. Condescendingly, Warner Bros still didn't trust Lee to carry the movie, and recruited two other "good guys", blaxploitation star Jim Kelly and B-movie actor John Saxon. On an outlay of about US$850,000, Enter the Dragon grossed an estimated US$90 million worldwide. Lee died shortly before it was released.

One thing Lee would still recognize on Nathan Road are the fake-Rolex salesmen, who are still to be found surreptitiously approaching tourists. They're a vestige of Hong Kong's reign as the world capital of counterfeiting, before China overtook it. The film industry of the 1970s held a similar disregard for intellectual property rights, and the Bruce Lee brand was practically copyright-free. Scores of imitation Lee films were rushed out, with titles like Re-Enter the Dragon, Enter Another Dragon, Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger, or even Bruce Lee Fights Back From the Grave. Leading them were martial artists named Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Liang, Bruce Leung, Dragon Lee -- usually sporting Lee's trademark bob haircut, yellow tracksuit and plastic sunglasses.

"Everyone was looking for a Bruce Lee replacement, but we knew we'd never find one," says Raymond Chow. "You could find someone who was a good fighter or a better actor, or even more handsome, but that's not Bruce Lee. You'll never match his dedication, his loyalty to his profession, his charisma. Bruce had a lot more than just kung-fu."

In the rush to fill the Lee-shaped vacuum, though, Chow's Golden Harvest was more active than most. As well as pale imitators, it rushed out two Lee documentaries, and, in 1978, the much-maligned Game of Death. Keenly anticipated as the last genuine Bruce Lee film, it proved to be a clumsy combination of original Lee material, footage of his funeral and a laughable succession of body doubles.

The following year, the company released something called Game of Death 2, cobbled together from outtakes of Enter the Dragon.

In its efforts to exploit Lee, though, Golden Harvest at least groomed the next generation of action stars, who have taken Hong Kong cinema even further. Jackie Chan and Sammo "Martial Law" Hung both had bit parts in Enter the Dragon, and were clumsily forced into the Lee mould in films like New Fist of Fury and Enter the Fat Dragon.

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