Monday, February 20, 2012

Bruce Lee's "The Big Boss": Kung Fu, Hong Kong Cinema, Deep Politics

At some point in the 1990’s I bought a pack of Bruce Lee movies on VHS because I wanted to see this person do his thing. I’d never seen a Bruce Lee film and, having heard people speak of him with reverence, I began to wonder what his deal was. In those days there were “video stores” that rented and sold movies on VHS for VCR (VHS tapes were hollow black slabs of plastic with two reels of magnetic tape inside). I popped over to one of those “video stores” and got a three pack. I picked the one in the box that said “FISTS OF FURY.” I liked it and wrote up a review. Then I headed over to the newfangled information superhighway with its world wide web, and searched for a place to send what I’d written. It was accepted at the website of the Independent Film Quarterly. Then a few years later the review disappeared from the internet altogether. I could never figure out why, and forgot all about it. But the other day while browsing on Netflix I noticed the same film listed under a completely different title, “The Big Boss.” It turns out that the titles of Lee’s films are a tangled mess. Says Wikipedia:

Fist of Fury (Chinese: 精武門; aka The Chinese Connection and The Iron Hand in the United States,[1] … not to be confused with Fists of Fury, which is the former US title of The Big Boss)

Maybe that confusion (which turns upon the letter “s” pluralizing the fists) doomed my review. Anyway, here it is, back from the memory hole and retitled for THE BIG BOSS. Enjoy.

Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss: Kung Fu, Hong Kong Cinema, and Deep Politics

Prior to his big screen break in The Big Boss, Bruce Lee had bit parts in various films. He supplemented his income by giving private martial arts lessons to Hollywood Celebrities such as Steve McQueen, James Garner and Lee Marvin for $250 and hour.

In his first starring role, legendary martial arts star BRUCE LEE sets the screen ablaze in this thrilling tale of revenge and retribution. Having made a vow never to fight again, a factory worker named Cheng (LEE) does his best to put up with an abusive boss. But when Cheng’s beautiful cousin is kidnapped by company thugs, Cheng is forced to take matters into his own hands--and fists--to save her. Packed with pulse-pounding action, THE BIG BOSS, [sic] remains one of the most spellbinding martial arts thrillers ever made. 1971, Approx. 99 Minutes, color.

That’s what it says on the box. Never mind that “revenge and retribution” are more or less the same thing, that star appears twice, that there are two “in” clauses. And never mind what Matlock paid for his lessons. What’s important about this first sentence is the way it describes the effect of Bruce Lee’s performance: he sets the screen ablaze. Why is this important? The vow never to fight again (which turns out to be a promise Cheng has made to his old Uncle, not an impersonal “vow”) is a principle of deferral: the first big chunk of movie ticks on and on until at last the hero is forced to break his resolve and give the audience some of what it wants. Whom is he fighting? Bad guys whose evil is expressed in violence and disrespect, but whose real sin turns out to be drug smuggling. Cheng and his friends are exploited workers in the Boss-villain’s ice factory; their opponents are the Boss’ wicked son and his entourage of athletic goons. The vow not to fight is like the ice; the screen-blazing, “spellbinding” kung fu is like the big packets of heroin hidden inside each enormous cube.

One peculiar feature of this arrangement is that a third of the film is over before any of the worker-good-guys realize that the ice they process and load onto trucks has large bags of heroin inside. Ice is, after all, transparent, and anybody working in the plant day after day would have countless opportunities to look into the block before him and see the contraband. This just doesn’t happen, and it’s a pleasure to suspend one’s disbelief and enjoy the new turn of events -- the dope has been discovered!-- because other, much more important suspensions of disbelief define the martial-arts-movie genre in the first place. It’s by making all of these suspensions of disbelief at once, that martial arts films are enjoyed.

The opening credits roll up in letterbox format, to theme music by F. L. Wang: a swanky James Bond-type tune with a lot of brass in it, evoking the jet-set lifestyle that was a part of Lee’s goal in Hollywood. This same lifestyle appears in the film as dangerous luxury, nearly corrupting the rural and innocent Cheng (Lee) as his evil boss attempts to distract him with its pleasures. When the credits end, the letterbox suddenly gives way to full screen, and this adds some extra zing to the beginning of the movie.

The first scene has Cheng and his old uncle buying a homespun Slurpee (first appearance of ice in the movie) from a girl’s roadside stand. In a moment, some ne’er-do-wells arrive, threaten her, steal the wares of an itinerant rice-cake salesboy, and generally behave badly. Cheng would like to help, but his promise prevents him. Happily, a champion appears: Cheng’s cousin Shu Shen comes up the road and fights off all six or seven on his own. At home, the family celebrates its reunion with Cheng, and we meet the lovely Shao Mei. Next, down at the factory, Shu Shen helps Cheng get a job from the manager, who has just discussed the latest dope shipments with the owner’s son.

Fight number two occurs when Shu Shen helps out a hapless, gambling-addicted old friend by suddenly tearing open one of the dice provided by the racketeers. These dice are loaded, and the creeps chase Shu Shen and Cheng, who turn and fight them off with ease. Because of Cheng’s vow, Shu Shen does almost all the work, taunting the enemy at the start: “just you four lousy guys?” In fact Shen faces six lousy guys at this point, but it’s all right; it’s not what the film schools call a “continuity problem”--the mind of this movie seems to enjoy flouting the physical facts. By now, we’re accustomed to the three major inanities of the kung fu film in general: first, if and only if a fight is underway, every movement of every limb makes the noise of a phone book striking a wall (I know this is the noise, because I’m writing this in the summer and the mosquitoes are around). Second, gravity is glad to take small vacations whenever this is required by the script: guys regularly jump clear over their opponents’ heads and nobody is surprised. Finally, the film is not subtitled, which might distract from the very visual action, but dubbed: horribly, wretchedly dubbed into an English which by 1971 could only be heard in the translation headphones at the U. N.: “on the double,” “a square deal,” and “beat it.”

Another notable feature of these fights is their endings: at some point it becomes clear that one side is beaten (generally the loser is the more numerous party), and the victor shouts them off. The shouting always takes the form of some imperative (scram, etc.), but because nobody wants the fight to go any further, it’s never very inflammatory shouting. “Get going! Go on!” There is a wonderful instance of this at the end of the largest fight, near the middle of the picture. For once the sides are about evenly matched, and our guys are doing pretty well, when “the manager” (a weasel of a bureaucrat, who grins unceasingly) calls for a truckload of reinforcements. The new men pour out like bees from a hive, all wearing solid shirts of one color or another, and now there are way too many thugs carrying way too much metal in the form of knives, chains, and various implements commonly found at your neighborhood ice-factory. Things look bad, until Cheng really gives up his vow and challenges the entire opposing posse of about twenty men. A few blows are enough to show them that this is no ordinary fellow, and they stand there staring. This is when, keenly tensed in a battle-ready stance, he shouts them off: “Well? Are you gonna leave now?” Next, as though to compensate for the language barrier separating him from his American audience, he silently points to a few of the thugs and then points briskly into the distance. After a pause that shows their humiliated indecision, Bruce Lee utters a magnificent command: “GO on!” This may have been better still in the Chinese (I’ve no idea), but even in this dubbed version it shines as one of the sublime moments in his career. Art and Life kiss at this spot, and the movie’s nameless knife-wielding goons briefly seem to stand for everything in the real world that had hurt or might hurt the actor.

Where is all this evil coming from, ultimately? From the cold owner of the ice factory. Boss-man is a strange figure: he wears glasses (with thick black frames of some heavy, primitive plastic, like Bakelite) and this is his one concession to oldness: apart from that, he’s disturbingly young in his habits and powers: paid girls usually appear behind him, massaging his shoulders; his kung fu is far better than that of his youthful henchmen; and his son only looks plausible in that role because his own face is adorably boyish. When Boss Jr. wants some extra dough, he bribes his Dad with “girls” and the men let it be known that this sort of procurement is usual with them. As for parenting, it seems to be entirely taken care of already: nobody in this film has a mother (only Cheng’s is even mentioned, and we never see her), which is probably a good thing considering all the fatalities, and this is more or less the only father in the picture. Very little teaching happens: when the son and the goons are sparring, Boss Sr. gets up from his usual massage, saying “let me show you how it’s done,” and does some fine sparring himself (naturally this involves the spontaneous eleven-foot leap over the opponent’s head, for which even a kangaroo would need a running start). But that one phrase is just about the only heuristic moment in the movie, and this is somewhat unusual.

Kung Fu films often include a great deal of instruction, because it’s an excellent way of putting the beauty of the art on screen without expending either the cast of characters, or the viewer’s tolerance for the bloodier version. Also, we come to care about both teacher and student (Yoda and Luke, etc.) this way, so that the eventual confrontation with Evil will have some weight with us. Finally, teaching scenes provide another principle of continuation: the hero becomes more and more powerful until a day of reckoning when the instructor either dies, or declares that his pupil is now a master too. In The Big Boss, the hero doesn’t follow this trajectory, nor does he (like David Carradine in the Kung Fu TV show) simply get more and more angry until he explodes. At first it seems this is how things will go, but then the curve of disaster shoots down much more suddenly than is usually for the increasing-anger model: Boss-man and his goons kill a pair of young naive brethren, disposing of their bodies by sawing them with the factory’s ice-saw and hiding their remains in, that’s right, giant translucent blocks of ice.

Next, Shu Shen and a friend visit the Boss’ compound searching for their vanished relatives. By now we love Shu Shen because he has twice defended the innocent minority from the guilty majority: once at the film’s beginning when the rice cakes and Slurpees were stolen, and later, when he exposed the racketeers’ loaded dice to one of their victims. Innocent minority? Guilty majority? Not a Communist picture. In fact this is the world of Hong Kong, which in its own eyes is a beleaguered and benevolent minority (just trying to sell an honest Slurpee or two) living in the shadow of a gigantic Communist China, the arrogant, wicked, and hypocritical majority. In Henry V Shakespeare calls England “a tiny island with a mighty heart,” and this seems to fit Hong Kong’s self-understanding pretty well: Cheng is just one man (and his faction is always outnumbered), but he harbors a terrible power which he has vowed not to deploy. If China appears to dominate Hong Kong, says this unconscious, nationalist dimension of kung fu cinema, it’s only because the hero is holding back for the moment. If the blood of the minority is shed, either assistance or vengeance will eventually appear: though the Boss’ gang attacks Shu Shen and his friend before they can leave the compound, eventually overwhelming the two and murdering them, nevertheless the good guys win in the end. This triumph doesn’t come from superior numbers, money, or planning, but from the prodigious talent and virtue of a single heroic individual.

Cheng and his cousins and fellow workers do not as yet know for certain that anyone has been killed; they’ve simply disappeared. The bad guys promote Cheng to foreman, to keep him in line; the good guys send him to find out about their missing brethren. Then a strange thing happens: the Boss nearly succeeds in co-opting our Bruce Lee! Dinner, drink, and some sad-but-giggly whores make for a weird interlude in which vice has the upper hand and Cheng gracefully staggers around the brothel, like... well, like a man practicing Drunken Man Kung Fu.

Cheng is troubled, but he isn’t furious. The climax of the movie is forced upon him: one night he visits the giant shed of the factory, where he discovers the frozen heads and other fragments of the two hapless brothers embedded in ice-blocks. Then he discovers the drugs in the same way. Then the entire staff of the enemy emerges from the dark, armed to the teeth with all manner of metal weaponry. Bruce fights them all off, in a breathtaking, sustained display of intensely heightened kinesthetic awareness. He dances through everything, full of solid force and a grace that kills, totally convincing except for the preposterous squandering of advantages on the part of his opponents in these movies. This is a bit like the loaded dice which Shu Shen tore open and exposed: and to write that gesture into the movie, is the same kind of gesture: the dice in this movie are loaded, folks: that’s why the odds don’t matter.

The story of Cheng Xiao Huan is like Bruce Lee’s story in some ways: a young man comes to a strange town and gets dangerous work in a factory. Whereas Bruce Lee arrives at the image factory of Hollywood California, Cheng Xiao Huan arrives at the ice-plant, another place of illusion where nobody perceives anything amiss in the presence of all this non-invisible white heroin. So much about the film has the character of the open secret: the sweet absurdity of those four martial-arts-film conventions I described earlier (dubbing, loud limbs, antigravity, and absurd combat odds & outcomes); the transparency of the ice; the relative worthlessness of frozen water as a product of man’s labor. Is this stuff about Hollywood? Look again at the scene following Cheng’s enormous battle with the gang. He’s utterly exhausted; the creeps of the town have done their worst, and though he’s gotten through it, the ordeal has been extreme. His innocence lost, Cheng Xiao Huan / Bruce Lee catches his breath after the utmost exertion of that art which we call kung fu / the kung fu film.


  1. Great review, Jamey. Very entertaining.

  2. I don't think the film makers intended all the things you mentioned. this is a simple kung fu movie for simple people. if it had political undertone then it would be a very meaningful important film. You project a lot of what's in your mind into this film.


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