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Return Again: The Directing Style of Bruce Lee

‘Operator, I’d like to call America…Yes, A-mer-i-ca!’

  • Ho (Wei Ping-ao), The Way Of The Dragon (1972)

This Friday, January, 29th, in collaboration with Ghost Party, The Frida Cinema will be celebrating the Life of Bruce Lee with a Fiftieth Anniversary double-feature of two of his finest screen performances: Fists Of Fury (1971), and Bruce’s directorial debut The Way Of The Dragon (1972).
Much has already been said and speculated about the legacy of Bruce Lee; the extent to which his abilities were exaggerated or not; doubts of his cinematic contributions; the running tab of aggressive interactions with strangers. True, that the supra level of fame in which Bruce Lee occupies makes his celebrity worthy of discussion. It merely becomes impossible, then, to escape these sensational details in order to discuss the true merits of Lee as a filmmaker, who debuts in the early seventies alongside a superlative roster of directors that would go on to become cultural fixtures in their own right: John Waters, Gordon Parks Jr., Sidney Poitier, Wes Craven, Chantal Akerman. 

Born Lee Jun-fan in 1940, the year of the Dragon, Lee entered the Earth an American by way of San Francisco. Lee’s parents were on tour with a traveling stage act in the United States when Lee’s mother went into labor. They named him “Lee Jun-fan”, a name translating homophonically in English to “return again”. A prophecy of Lee’s eventual return to the United States after his birth, but also a koan demonstrating the discipline of repetition. Nowhere is this discipline more on display than in The Way Of The Dragon, Bruce’s first directorial effort. 
After the success of his first two films with Golden Harvest Productions in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee negotiated a new deal to write and direct a third film for the studio. With an increased budget and new creative life, Bruce exercised all his creative muscles to flex out a didactic film that is somehow expressive, exhilarating, and irresistibly charming all at once. Though one of the tenets of Lee’s martial art Jeet Kune Do argues for a degree of minimalism in its application, the cinema of Bruce Lee, including and especially The Way Of The Dragon, are remembered for their thrilling, over-the-top depictions.

Consider an early scene where Bruce Lee’s character Tang Lung eats lunch. It’s a comedic ordeal of montage-like cuts and snap-zooms that communicate hunger, sure. But it also shows an amateur filmmaker wrestling with a scene that has no observable action. In interviews, Lee has expressed his high regard for the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, and in some scenes this influence is abundantly clear. In other scenes, such as the lunch scene, the operatic atmosphere that Lee attempts feels tonally at odds with the Chaplin-esque material.

As the film progresses however, Lee’s kinetic camerawork will finally compliment the dynamic fight choreography he has plotted in this story of intersecting cultures and fighting styles in Rome, Italy. Threatened by a group of thinly characterized international thugs, Bruce Lee stages his fight scenes as competitions of spirit and style – the film essentially existing as a proof of concept for Gung-fu martial arts. That Bruce Lee’s character Tang encounters a variety of opponents is no accident. Lee wanted to position the rigidity of his opponents fighting style as their weakness, and the fluidity of Tang’s style as a superior trait – I’ll let you guess who wins every fight. Lee would revisit the drama of competing styles in Enter The Dragon (1973), and his unfinished Game Of Death screenplay where the main character fights a pagoda of enemies with increasingly deadly combat styles.

With the simple tracking moves and tableaux-like compositions of The Way Of The Dragon, Bruce Lee captures baroque images of ferocity and spirituality that cement him as a visionary filmmaker. The journey of this confidence is observable in the extant ~30 minutes of footage that Bruce shot for Game Of Death, whereby the same kinetic techniques we see in The Way Of The Dragon are deployed with more overlap with narrative and character development. If given a longer life, Bruce Lee may have developed an even more sophisticated cinematic palette, but would no doubt retain the core philosophical values on display in both films on this billing – the righteousness, the anger. An anger explored to a more explicit degree in Fists Of Fury (1971), where Bruce Lee’s character Chen Zhen confronts a rival Japanese dojo during the Occupation of Shanghai in the early 20th Century.

A case can be made on behalf of directors Lo Wei (The Big Boss (1972), Fists Of Fury (1971)) and Robert Clouse (Enter The Dragon (1973)) that their positions as director should receive a greater level of credit for the final product than the star actor. Author Laurence F. Knapp describes this relationship between film auteurs and film stars in his comprehensive analysis of the films of Clint Eastwood, but it feels crucially relevant when parsing the legacy of Bruce Lee. 
Knapp refers to Eastwood as a “starteur” (star + auteur), a phenomenon of homogenized film production that obfuscates the individualism inherent to all art:
“Starteurs have a self-reflective relationship to their work; their films are an extended dialogue with their screen personae, an attempt to shape, reshape, and break the mold that gave them their initial creative and commercial independence […] With great delicacy and insight, they are capable of making successive films that deconstruct or circumnavigate their personae without reducing them to bathos, parody, or caricature. Their longevity and singular status comes as a result of a direct understanding of themselves, their craft, time period, and archetypal appeal” (1996)
While the contributions of Lo Wei and Robert Clouse cannot be understated, the essence of each film can only be attributed to the persistence of Bruce Lee’s personal vision – his creative, spiritual, and ethical vision that goes beyond cinema. Indeed whole scenes would be rewritten or blocked out by Lee, much to the chagrin of his collaborators who are used to dealing with passive actors. Bruce Lee’s long standing career in show business since he was a baby, offered him a far greater insight to his relationship with an audience and how to cater a performance to it than his directors could
Both Wei and Clouse resort to smash cuts in editing to highlight aesthetic details during the action – cuts to a close up of a fist as it is thrown, a close up of a torso as it is kicked – but ultimately avoid showing any fight as a dramatic event. When in the hands of  Bruce Lee, fight scenes are framed in long shots with minimal cutting, making effective use of the popular widescreen format at the time, and precipitating a demand for verite realism in films that would reach maturity before the end of the decade with the rise of “New Hollywood.” A generation of films with little action, but no shortage of emotional content.

Nearly fifty years after his death in 1973, the mania over Bruce Lee burns as brightly as it did when he was alive. Last year, Cinemax aired its second and final season of The Warrior, a television program based on a treatment Bruce Lee pitched to ABC in 1970. ESPN also recently produced a 30 for 30 Documentary with cooperation from the Lee Estate about the life and teachings of the Jeet Kune Do Master. Just as it was before he passed, Bruce Lee remains to this day, the most recognizable international figure associated with martial arts cinema or nunchucks. A tragically short but humble life, the images that Bruce Lee leaves behind will continue to inspire generations across cultural boundaries in times of refracted instability and anxiety. The oneness we feel as audience members underscoring the oneness between all things.



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