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Fighting Fifty: Bruce Lee and his fists 
of fury

The movie that catapulted Bruce Lee onto the global stage, turned 50 last month. Here’s looking at why martial arts — even in real life — has never been the same since the ‘Little Dragon’ breathed fire on screen

By Arnab Ghosh

Published: Fri 29 Apr 2022, 11:24 PM

A Bruce Lee movie! How could I not add this to my collection? Back in the early 90s, that question prompted the purchase of a VHS video cassette (remember those?) of a movie called Fist Of Fury — that completed its 50th anniversary last month — from the Al Mansoor video outlet at Lamcy Plaza in Oud Metha. According to a 2005 paper by UCLA’s International Institute, “An enormous hit following on the heels of The Big Boss (1971), Fist Of Fury confirmed Bruce Lee’s bona fides as an international movie star and helped immortalize him in the now-familiar heroic nunchaku-brandishing posture.”

It was a movie I had heard of, but had not yet had the pleasure of watching. Sacrilege, I know, for a Bruce Lee fan in his late teens to not have watched all his movies already (there weren’t that many, after all).

But in my defence: a) I was still a student and, therefore, disposable income was limited to meagre savings from my pocket money; b) I was still hooked on Enter The Dragon (a Hollywood production, that released a year after Fist Of Fury and was Master Lee’s greatest hit globally); and, of course, c) the Internet was still many years away, and video streaming was probably not even at an idea stage back then.

Video tape in hand and duly paid for, there was no reason to wait any longer than the time it took to reach home and have dinner. An hour and 45 minutes later, I had made a series of discoveries. Key among them were what became one of my all-time favourite fight scenes — yes, the one where he takes on an entire dojo alone — and the fact that Bruce Lee had also acted in Chinese productions. I can’t remember why, but the latter had come as a surprise to me at the time.

In a nutshell: I loved the movie. My only pain point was the villain being a Japanese martial arts school… since I’m from a Japanese martial discipline. But if they were messing with Bruce and he’d have to beat them to survive, then so be it.

Besides, they weren’t my style of martial art. Not every teacher is a good guy. Bad guys can learn martial arts, too. They started it. People like these give Japanese arts a bad name. The justifications (in my mind) were plenty.

Bruce Lee was my screen idol. And Fist Of Fury showcased some of his coolest moves and top-class fight scenes. Not that I was expecting anything less, after having watched Enter The Dragon and Way Of The Dragon. But the action in Fist Of Fury far exceeded my expectations.

The Plot

Fist Of Fury is referenced to an actual historical event: the tragic death of renowned martial arts teacher Sifu Huo Yuanjia. The word Sifu — pronounced as such in Cantonese, and Shifu in Mandarin — is akin to the use of the Japanese term Sensei when referring to a teacher. Literally translated, sifu means ‘a skilful person or master’.

The story — otherwise a work of fiction — revolves around Sifu Huo Yuanjia’s student Chen Zhen who returns to (his teacher’s) Ching Wu school in Shanghai only to find his beloved Sifu’s funeral is being conducted. He goes on to discover that the cause of death was poisoning by someone in the Japanese martial arts school owned by a Mr Suzuki, and not pneumonia as the medical report stated.

Power-packed Action

The action is kickstarted (excuse the pun) by a visitation of delegates from Mr Suzuki’s Japanese dojo. They enter the Jing Wu school to present the Chinese students with a framed canvas with the words “Sick Men of Asia” written on it — challenging any Chinese able enough to accept a duel with one of their Japanese fighters in combat. The condition is that if the Jing Wu fighter loses, the school must shut down. Unbeknownst to the head of the school, Bruce Lee… er… I mean Chen Zhen… heads over to Mr Suzuki’s dojo to respond.

What follows is a visual treat, especially for martial arts enthusiasts! A spectacular buffet, if you will: scrumptious action scenes and delectable fight sequences guaranteed to leave any action fan well satiated.

Top-Notch Skills

Perhaps nobody can appreciate fight scenes better than a martial artist. Sensei Krishna Dixit, an engineer and cybersecurity professional, is also a 4th Dan black belt in Karate (at the time of publishing) and also studying Okinawan weaponry. His reason for watching and loving Fist Of Fury? Bruce Lee, of course!

A quiet exterior calm and nonchalance despite inner turmoil, combined with the cheeky but no-nonsense attitude are Bruce Lee’s on-screen traits that Sensei Krishna is particularly impressed with. This is exactly what the character of Chen Zhen exuded. Perhaps by default.

For Sensei Krishna, the movie provided a good insight into the practice of martial arts. He recalls the action being very fast, to the extent that, unless one pays close attention, it “feels like you are watching magic”.

To a layman viewer, it would look like magic. Or they may attribute what they see to some deft camera and editing work, perhaps. But coming from a practising martial artist, those words have an entirely different level of credibility and value. It takes exceptional mastery of skills to produce a display that comes across as so fluid and yet so real that no part of it feels choreographed.

Unmatched Style

Shihan (a Japanese title signifying that one holds a rank of 5th Dan) Hamdi Daghati, an accomplished tournament fighter and a teacher of traditional martial arts, first watched Fist Of Fury at the age of nine. Even back then, he was crazy about Karate, Kung Fu, boxing, and martial arts in general. It comes as little surprise then that Shihan Hamdi is a full-time martial arts instructor today. Not only does he have his own dojo, but he also holds the ranks of 5th Dan in Karate, 4th Dan in Kobudo (a classical martial art of traditional Okinawan weaponry) and 2nd Dan in Aikido.

But, of course, once is never enough when it comes to enjoying some Bruce Lee action. Like most of us fans, Shihan Hamdi “studied” the movie several times during his teenage years. Though he was not particularly impressed with the director’s work overall, he could not help but be mesmerised by the action choreography.

His favourite part of the movie was the fight at the dojo (remember I told you about that earlier?), especially when Bruce Lee picked up the nunchaku. “It showed me a new style of fighting I had never seen before,” Shihan Hamdi recalls. He goes on to share that, till date, such style, grace and form has not been replicated by anyone. I am inclined to agree.

Indeed, after that nunchaku performance in Fist Of Fury, there was hardly a Bruce Lee movie that did not have a scene with him showcasing some nunchaku skills.

This weapon became almost symbolic of Bruce Lee. I am neither being biased nor exaggerating when I claim that he popularised it more than anyone else in the world — be it on screen or otherwise.

The Chinese Connection

The climax — Chen’s confrontation with the Russian fighter, Petrov, and Mr Suzuki himself — is the storm before the calm. The ending would truly leave Bruce Lee fans shocked into silence. Likewise, with most of the Chinese audience of the time, I would imagine.

The movie was released as The Chinese Connection in the US, to capitalise on the success of the popular movie The French Connection starring Gene Hackman. That, however, was actually the result of a mix-up.

Bruce Lee’s first Hong Kong movie, another one you might be familiar with, The Big Boss, was supposed to be released as The Chinese Connection, and Fist Of Fury as it was. Instead, the former was released as Fist Of Fury, and the latter as The Chinese Connection.

But the real Chinese connection the movie made was with the audience. Set in the year 1910, Fist Of Fury stirred up sentiments of nationalism in Chinese audiences, and brought to the fore the Chinese people’s severe dislike for Japanese colonialism. In Chen Zhen, they found a Chinese hero who defeated the Japanese and avenged the humiliation that the Chinese were once made to suffer.

In fact, producer Raymond Chow had serious concerns over how the movie might be received by Japanese audiences. Consequently, several scenes were censored in the film’s Japanese version.

From Regional To Global

Few action films from the Hong Kong film industry have tasted as much global success as Fist Of Fury (the name of the production company — Golden Harvest — will be familiar to most martial arts movie buffs).

At the Hong Kong box office, this low-budget action film was a huge hit, grossing

HK$ 4,431,423, surpassing the success of The Big Boss (another Golden Harvest production) the previous year.

Across Asian box offices — including Japan, where Fist Of Fury went on to become a blockbuster when it was released in 1974 — the movie grossed over US$15 million during its run. In the US and Canada, the gross box office revenue in 1973 was US$12 million. European box office stories were not too different.

This was Bruce Lee’s second martial arts movie. His first was — you guessed it! — The Big Boss. Here’s a fun fact. Fist Of Fury also aided the career of another Kung Fu star you’re most likely familiar with: one Jackie Chan. Yes, Chan was an extra in this movie, and also Mr Suzuki’s stunt double.

I wonder if, back then, writer and director Lo Wei would have anticipated such global success, and the impact this low-budget film of his would have on audiences worldwide even 50 years on.

Interest in martial arts, unarmed combat and combat sports has proven to be timeless. No action movie is complete without a bona fide fight sequence involving some hand-to-hand combat, and some CQB (close-quarter battle). Weapons like the nunchaku, though more commonly taught and available to buy now, are still impressive in the hands of an expert.

Unlike movies that rely on special effects and technology that could either become obsolete or become a contradictory reality, older martial arts movies will, I am sure, continue to impress and enthrall action fans across the globe.

While earlier action movies (more specifically, martial arts movies) had more of a male following, the female fan base of action movies is significantly increasing. Many of my friends and fellow dojo buddies in other countries are huge fans of martial arts screen icons ranging from Bruce Lee to Jet Li and beyond.

So, on that front, here’s to the next 50 years of showcasing martial arts action that is yet to be surpassed.


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