“If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.” – Bruce Lee
Everyone remembers Bruce Lee. The iconic actor, director and martial arts expert is considered by many to be one of the most influential martial artists of all-time and a pop culture icon of the 20th century, who bridged the gap between East and West. With his Hong Kong and Hollywood-produced films, Lee elevated the traditional martial arts film to a new level of popularity and acclaim, sparking a surge of interest in the Chinese nation and Chinese martial arts in the West in the 1970s.
Lee was born Lee Jun Fan on November 27, 1940, in San Francisco, California, in both the hour and year of the Dragon. The son of Cantonese opera star Lee Hoi-Chuen, he began his acting career in earnest at the age of six after his family returned to their native Hong Kong. By the time he was 18, he had made nearly 20 Cantonese films – none of which were kung-fu flicks.
He is noted for his roles in five feature-length martial arts films in the early 1970s: Lo Wei’s The Big Boss and Fist of Fury; Golden Harvest’s Way of the Dragon, directed and written by Lee; and Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers’ Enter the Dragon and The Game of Death, both directed by Robert Clouse.
Bruce Lee quickly became an iconic figure known throughout the world, particularly among the Chinese, based upon his portrayal of Chinese nationalism in his films and among Asian Americans for defying stereotypes associated with the emasculated Asian male. He trained in the art of Wing Chun and later combined his other influences from various sources into the spirit of his personal martial arts philosophy, which he dubbed Jeet Kune Do.
Celebrating the legend’s 80th birth anniversary, we look at five films all Bruce Lee fans can look forward to viewing on Netflix.
As two of the biggest icons of their time and with both being associated with fighting, one in the ring and one on the big screen, the conversation on who wins a dream fight between Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee was a common one back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a conversation that’s still had today.
Directed by Michael Mann, Ali focuses on ten years in the life of the boxer Muhammad Ali, played by Will Smith, from 1964 to 1974, featuring his capture of the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, his conversion to Islam, criticism of the Vietnam War, and banishment from boxing, his return to fighting Joe Frazier in 1971, and, finally, his reclaiming the title from George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle fight of 1974.
It also touches on the great social and political upheaval in the United States following the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The film was well-received by critics but was a box-office bomb. Smith and Jon Voight received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively.
Two Champions of Shaolin is kind of a political thriller, fused with a kung-fu movie. The dastardly Wu-Tang Clan has aligned itself with the court of the Qing dynasty and is looking to destroy the Shaolin temple across a unified China, as the Shaolin side with the former Ming dynasty and seemingly just annoy the Wu-Tang with their existence. Two champions rise up, preparing to battle for their very survival.
The plot follows Shaolin warrior Tung Chien-Chen, who is injured in battle against the hated Wu-Tang clan, and nursed back to health by a knife-throwing master. As he recovers, Tung learns this deadly art and also falls in love with his teacher’s daughter. But when a Wu-Tang attack disrupts the young lovers’ wedding, Tung must put his new skill to use as he seeks revenge.
Return to the 36th Chamber is the goofy, buck-toothed cousin to the handsome and classy original The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. This quasi follow-up once again celebrates the intricacies of kung fu training. Gordon Liu Chia-hui shows off his comedic edge as Chieh, who impersonates a Shaolin fighter in order to stand up for a group of exploited textile workers. When his cover is blown, he is determined to seek real training at the temple.
Deemed unfit by the head monk, he is assigned to build bamboo scaffoldings. Labouring day in and out with the material, Chieh gradually acquires kung fu skills by observing others in training and manoeuvring bamboo poles. Lau Kar-Leung brilliantly foregrounds this resilient, flexible material, which symbolizes the strength and beauty of Chinese culture.
Drunken Master is nothing but pure fun, thanks to the great direction and fight choreography by Yuen Woo-ping, as well as Jackie Chan’s likeable and goofy lead performance. It is one of the two films that launched Chan onto the road of super-stardom, the other being Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, but more importantly, it’s in these films where Chan found his true on-screen persona after producers tried to make him into the next Bruce Lee after his untimely passing. It’s been over 45 years and there still hasn’t been a “next Bruce Lee”.
Here Chan portrays legendary folk hero Wong Fei-hung when he was still young and his first meeting with Beggar So. It’s not just the well-choreographed fight scenes that make this great, but his training with Yuen Siu-Tin (director Woo-ping’s father) who’s playing Su Hua Chi (Beggar So). In a genre over flooding with such training sequences, the ones in Drunken Master still stand out to this day almost 40 years later.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin stars Gordon Liu in a highly fictionalized telling of fabled Shaolin martial artist San Te, who studied under monk Zhi Shan. It’s directed by Liu Chia-Liang and produced by Shaw Brothers Studios, and aside from a few minor flaws in the sound editing department, such as an over-reliance on the same handful of sound effects, this is a highly entertaining film with some unusual and original training montages and combat sequences that remain impressive. Ultimately, it’s skilful martial artists providing a demonstration of their skills that’s of cardinal importance here, and this movie gives impressively in that respect.
The influence of this film not just on martial arts film, but on the perception of martial arts globally can hardly be understated. There is a balance between the high quality of the action choreography and set-pieces with the classic camp that defined the early decades of the genre: painted wooden weapons, actors jumping when hit, and plenty of sound effects of swords clashing that were clearly added in post. In a way, it is to kung-fu cinema what Rocky was to American sports movies, igniting the genre to greater heights and commercial success with a relatively straightforward development of its protagonist from precocious amateur to confident master.
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