Pointing a way to the moon: Bruce Lee hits Criterion

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 15, 2020)

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TV interviewer: Do you think of yourself Chinese, or do you ever think of yourself as North American?

Bruce Lee: You know what I want to think of myself? As a human being.

At the risk of provoking fists of fury from gentle San Francisco or Hong Kong readers, we here in Seattle consider Bruce Lee a hometown boy. Granted, he was born in San Francisco and raised in Kowloon. However, he lived in Seattle for five years (from 1959-1964). In the early 60s, he attended the University of Washington, where he met and eventually married the love of his life, Linda Emery. And Seattle is his final resting place.

While it’s been on my checklist since I moved to Seattle in 1992, I have yet to make the requisite pilgrimage to Lake View Cemetery to pay my respects to Lee and his son Brandon (my procrastinating skills are as legendary as Bruce Lee’s martial arts prowess).

I have been to Jimi Hendrix’s grave and memorial (in nearby Renton). I only bring this up because I see a few interesting parallels in the life and career trajectories of Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix.

Both are pop culture icons and considered maestros in their respective fields. While both honed their craft in Seattle, neither became superstars in America until they until took their act overseas. Both died tragically young-Jimi at 27, Bruce at 32. With youthful visages forever trapped in amber, their legend takes on a mythical quality.

But as we know, gods and goddesses are purely myth; Hendrix and Lee were merely human beings. And as such, they did not suddenly appear from the skies to wow the masses with their talent. On their way to the top, they had to slog through the same travails as anyone-which brings me to the most significant parallel: both artists had to work that much harder in order to transcend the racial/cultural stereotypes of their time.

(via okayplayer)

Following his London Astoria performance Hendrix was labeled the “Black Elvis” and the “Wild Man of Borneo” by the London press. Rolling Stone even went on to refer to him as a “Psychedelic Superspade,” the latter word used to describe black people who were exceptionally talented. These descriptions foreshadowed the challenges Hendrix faced as a black man navigating a “white” genre of music. But they were also indicative of something else, an unfortunate truth that, still to this day, arguably hasn’t been rectified — that although rock was born from the foundation of black music its creation is credited to white artists. […]

Hendrix was the embodiment and a reminder of that harsh truth, a black artist that had to work twice as hard to succeed in a genre that belonged to his people but now wasn’t seen as such. Because of that, Hendrix received hostility from both black and white people; the former felt he had betrayed his own race for catering to predominantly white audiences with white band mates during a time of Black Power and separatism, while the latter was intimidated by him.

Like Hendrix, as he gained notoriety Lee frustratingly found himself in a “push me-pull you” conundrum, stuck between two worlds. Following his short-lived but career-boosting stint as “Kato” in the 1966 TV series Green Hornet, he began to get more acting offers, but was unhappy about Asian stereotypes Hollywood was continuing to propagate. As his widow Linda recalled in Bao Nguyen’s excellent ESPN documentary, Be Water:

“He refused to play any parts that were demeaning to Chinese people, and for the next few years, he had very few parts.”

The final straw for Lee was in 1971, when he pitched a TV idea for an “Eastern” western called The Warrior. Long story short, the idea was initially nixed, but was later re-tooled as Kung Fu, starring white actor David Carradine as a Shaolin monk wandering the old West. Reportedly, studio execs were reticent to cast Lee because of his Chinese accent.

In a bit of serendipity, Lee was offered a contract soon afterwards to star in several martial arts films in Hong Kong, where Green Hornet reruns (popularly referred to there as “The Kato Show”) had made him a cult figure.

Initially, not all of Hong Kong welcomed him with open arms; in the aforementioned ESPN documentary, family members recall Lee getting local backlash for “selling out” to Western culture and then returning to China as a “big shot” (Lee was born in a trunk; one of his parents was a Cantonese opera star, and he worked in the Hong Kong film industry as a child actor before moving to America). But once his first starring vehicle The Big Boss hit theaters, Lee’s charisma and star quality came to the fore, and such criticism was forgotten.

A string of even bigger hits soon followed, starting with 1972’s Fist of Fury. Now with his own production company, Lee went full auteur for his next project, Way of the Dragon (serving as writer-director-star… and of course, fight choreographer!). At this point, his star was rising so fast that he ended up abandoning his next Hong Kong production Game of Death (which he’d already begun shooting) so he could jump on an offer from Warner Brothers to star in a US-Hong Kong co-production: Enter the Dragon.

The rest, as they say, is history (although sadly Lee died less than a week before the release of Enter the Dragon, which posthumously turned him into an international superstar and remains his most popular and iconic film).

When you consider that Lee’s martial arts legacy and iconography is largely predicated on a scant five feature films, it’s hard to believe that it’s taken this long for a definitive Blu-ray collection to hit the marketplace, but Criterion’s new box set should please Bruce Lee fans to no end.

Cheekily entitled Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, the set has 4K digital restorations of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and Game of Death. There are two versions of Enter the Dragon included (both with a 2K restoration). One is the “rarely seen” 99-minute original 1973 theatrical presentation; the other is a 102-minute “special edition” with optional 5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.

Just for giggles, they have tossed in a high-def (not restored) presentation of the posthumous 1981 film Game of Death II (which I’ve never seen) and Game of Death Redux, which is “a new presentation of Lee’s original Game of Death footage”. OK then.

While I haven’t had a chance to watch them all yet, spot-checking reveals that these are the best-looking prints of the 5 principal films I’ve seen to date. The extras are plentiful: multiple programs and documentaries about Lee’s life and philosophies, a plethora of interviews with Lee’s fellow actors, as well as many of his collaborators and admirers. There are also commentary tracks and interviews with Lee biographers, Hong Kong film experts and others.

It approaches overkill for the casual Bruce Lee fan, but if you’re a hardcore martial arts fan (sorry, have to say it) you’ll really get a kick out of this box set.

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