Kung Fu

Written by Bill Cleveland

A presentation of Spoiler Alert Studios
By : Gustav D.B. Chiggens (Bill the Thrill Cleveland)

Tonight we view the cosmos through the lens of Fists of Fury aka The Chinese Connection aka The Iron Hand. Starring Bruce Lee and Nora Miao, the film brought in $3,400,000 in American box offices, as well as over $4,400,000 in Hong Kong, and was released on March 22, 1972.  The film is not the first of any notable category, but it is early kung fu from Golden Harvest Studios and writer/director Lo Wei; both parties are owed much for their roles in popularizing martial arts cinema. Not to mention that the film is awesome, and I haven’t viewed it in a hot damn minute. Sooooo, track down a copy, pop some corn, and don’t forget your safety sip; come along and ride on a cinematic voyage. Slide, slide, slippity-slide.

Speaking of slippity-slide, [thanks for the segue, Coolio] you may have noticed that this lil ditty is a presentation of ‘sleep-dep cinema.’ And, sister, I ain’t lying. There is no drinking, no cigarettes, no wyl’n out on this Friday night at all. Just staying up way too damn late and watching a movie while the body and mind are trying to shut down. I don’t really know what kind of format this is going to fall under, or if it will adhere to any format at all, honestly. All I can tell you is that I am feeling lucid and I sincerely hope you have half as much fun watching the movie and reading these words as I am/did/had [depending on perspective]. Everybody on the bus? Good, grand, great, wonderful. Les’go!

First thing first: always, always, ALWAYS opt for the Mandarin audio with English subtitles. Lots of good was happening in Hong Kong cinema in the seventies but English dubbing was not one of them. Truth be told, I am still picky about dubbing even with modern foreign films, I really only trust Studio Ghibli.

Enough dilly-dallying, it is 6am and the clock is still running, roll that beautiful bean footage! The movie begins as Bruce Lee, playing Chen Zhen, arrives in his hometown, dressed in all white with matching luggage, under a blanket of rain. The pure child returns home to pain. And rain. This opening sequence brings to mind my favorite Bruce Lee quote. “You must be formless, shapeless, like water. When you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Water can flow and water can crash. You must be formless, shapeless, like water, my friend.”

The bulk of the cast has already gone to the funeral of Lee’s sifu and head of the kung fu school, Ho Yuan-Chia, which, as it so happens, is the character portrayed by Jet Li in Fearless. For those wondering, sifu, more or less, translates to teacher. The relationship between master and pupil is not parallel with the modern western educational system, as there is a great deal more responsibility expected on both sides of the relationship, but I am sure you are jiving with what I am saying. Anyhue, just to sell the magnitude of the bummer mood, a brass band is playing a funeral dirge that equally reflects the sludge of the end of the Boxer Rebellion era. The Yihetuan Movement, or Boxer Rebellion, is much more of a topic than I feel like fully tackling given my current state of sleep deprivation. However, he nuts and bolts of the conflict are that imperialistic foreign powers began flexing industrial and military muscle in a China that, while always innovative was reluctant to fully embrace to industrial revolution. This played out against a backdrop of severre drought and economic turbulence. In turn, all of this hootenanny led to a bunch of foreigners IN China, called the indigenous folk ‘sick men’ and such. Cats don’t much appreciate being talked down to on their own turf [see: American Revolution], so things got rather violent from 1897 through 1901. * Cue shooting star* ‘The more you know.’

Back to the show. Bruce Lee arrives at the funeral and throws himself to the ground, clawing at the grave of his teacher. Seeing him soiling the legacy of their master and their school, a fellow student knocks out Bruce with a shovel and sends lackeys to carry him back for a rest. Sergio Leone-esque credit music flourishes forth to serve not only as juxtaposition to the grim dirge, but is also a tilt of the hat toward the scope of the film’s plot and theme.

The credits cease and the camera reveals Lee in reflection and repose in front of the shrine to Ho Yuan-Chia. There is a portrait of the fallen sifu, bundles of incense burning on alter amidst candles and braziers. A waterfall of calligraphy scrolls, presumably prayers to the deceased master, envelopes Lee as he meditates on things passed as well as what lies ahead.

Enter ‘female character’ bearing porridge; nutrition, energy for things to come. What role will she play? Movies tell you a lot, as every scene SHOULD serve some purpose in enhancing the atmosphere, if not advancing the plot. Eyes transfixed upon a portrait of his sifu, Bruce has not eaten in two days and that rumbly tumbly is distracting him from the importance of this newly revealed character.

Fellow students tell Bruce that they ‘feel bad but must move on.’ Eyes still transfixed upon the aetheric, “Can that kill a man?” Lee refutes the medical woes claimed to take Ho Yuan-Chia’s life and, for the first time, establishes eye contact while furiously demanding to know how his master died.

It is pretty crazy to think about this scene in the context of Lee’s own mysterious death. SPOOOO-OOOOKY VISION!!! Anyway….

The beat goes on and the members of the kung fu family have filled a gathering hall for the funeral proper. Cue ominous guitar twang as bespectacled Chinese man in double breasted, pinstripe suit enters [boxer rebellion reminder: East vs West is serrrrrious business], followed by two rough looking young bucks sporting traditional JAPANESE [duh duh duhhhhh!] robes, smug smirks, and one carrying a painting wrapped in brown paper. As with the credits, this gives nods to film of the time and sets off tonal shift as the 1st act has certainly just seen entrance of the antagonist, or at least an active hand of antagonistic consortium. The first words of this quarrelsome intruder are “We’re just in time.” Foreshadowing guitars from the American desert ring out as the painting is revealed.  A subtitle for calligraphy pops up and the words “sick man of east asia” flashes on the screen. Infuriated and insulted, the new sifu asks the Chinese fellow in the suit, “Are you Chinese *cough*uncle tom*cough* [sic].”  To which the suit replies, “Yes, but I am different than you.”

The deeper issues being annunciated here are those of the Yihetuan Movement; the imperial powers imbuing their converted populations with an air of superiority over their kinsman, with the attitude rooted in the embracement of technology. Tools facilitate work, yes, but do not inherently carry ability. Weak kung fu is still weak kung fu, regardless of application. That is what I feel this movie is really about. 

Moving on with the plot, the suited man issues a challenge in middle of ceremony. When the response is that no one wishes to fight, ol’ suity eggs the bereaved students further by implying that the refusal of a challenge is synonymous with conceding defeat. The smaller of the Japanese fellows even steps forward to say, “If anyone can beat me I will eat those words.” That is as close to calling someone chicken as it was ever going to get in a time, and land, before people went Marty-McFlying off the handle at comparisons with poultry. He holds a thousand yard stare as the interpreter berates him. Interpreter for the future. As suitman issues his final challenge and exists, all in attendance follow them out of the building. Save for Bruce, obvs. It can be noted that Bruce is still rocking the white suit, which follows traditional Chinese aesthetic with modern tailoring. A physical fashion metaphor for what Lee represented in the world at large: the fusion of Eastern and Western logics and philosophies.

Not one to dilly-dally, Bruce enters the next scene, and setting of a judo dojo, in much more traditional Chinese garb with wrapped painting in tow. Serious as a heart attack, he says, ”I have something to return to [your master].”

I won’t even waste words trying to describe the first fight scene of the movie. If you aren’t watching the movie whilst reading this then you have truly done your peepers a disservice. Hook up your ojos and watch this muss. I will wait while the slowpokes find a copy and catch up. [girl from impanema starts playing in background] 

Alright, alright, alright! Welcome to accidental intermission while those OTHER cats track down the film and catch up with the class. Glad to some of y’all were with it enough to be watching the movie during this exchange. It is nice to have a break for conversation though. It’s a disappearing pastime, conversation. Slowly going the way of the buffalo. It exists but, wooo-weee, once it was rampant. Anyhue, how’s it going? No matter what you said, my response is “worse things happen at sea.” Its not always true, but it helps keep the boat afloat. Duhduh tsk! Pew pew pew pew! *dances a la Yosemite Sam *

Oh, okay, I think we are ready to roll. What the hay, let’s allllllll backtrack to the beginning of the fight scene. Why the hell not? [hashtag, yolo] Yeah, this fight is that good-good. In so many ways, Lee epitomizes martial arts. That tropes from this scene, alone, continue to show up in pop culture is a testament to Bruce Lee and his kung fu. Ps- nunchuku!. While the sensei of the dojo is scoffing at scene unfolding before him, Bruce Lee is totally rocking a ‘Michelangelo’s David’ pose. Do I smell conspiracy theory as to the seed idea for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Probably not, but, by golly, that would be mind boggling in the most delightful way if it were true.

THE MESSAGE OF THE WHOLE FIGHT? “”We Chinese are not sick men.” That’s class. And balls. Bruce ‘classy balls’ Lee: the man, the myth, the legend. Lee’s lack of speech during some very intense scenes is reminiscent of a Geto Boys song I won’t quote in polite company. But, to paraphrase, you do not  have to “flex [things],” because you know have them.

Now, interesting point of discussion, I never recalled this being a fully period piece, but there are cars from the 50s/60s in the background of urban shots. So there is some artistic licensing at play. Still very much the essence of the saga of Ho Yuan-Chia, however, as the theme of racism is represented both directly, by a sign outside a park that reads ‘no dogs and no Chinese,’ as well as ironically, as the Hindu security guard giving Lee gruff is a Chinese fellow in brown face. Yes, brown face. Im not even sure what to take from all of that, but it has certainly thrown the ol’ noodle for a loop. What a planet. Hold up, here comes more racism. And more fighting. In the words of Don’t Be A Menace…., “MESSAGE!”

Phew, that string of fight scenes faded into introspective dialogue and sweet, but melancholy, orchestral scoring. Methinks this is the act break. The stage is set, the characters are in place, an ultimatum has been issued. Time for some rising action, ow-owww!!

Remember that time that I said porridge girl from the scene after the opening credits would be influential later on? Blammo. Word-five [just imagine high-fiving the word “word-five.” I know, I know; it’s a stretch, but it works.]  So, while these two love birds discuss the future, I want to share with you that it is now 750am, when the movie should be done had it been rolling continuously from whence I first pressed play, AND I AM ONLY FORTY MINUTES INTO THIS MODERN ILLIAD. Lawdahmercy.

Hokay, back to the film at hand. We are definitely in the second act. Not only was the emotional one-on-one with porridge girl followed up by confirmation of a murder conspiracy, uh-butttttttt they said the titular phrase! OH EMME GEEZERS! If this was Pee-Wee’s Playhouse everyone would be flipping out in a rain of graffiti and blaring sirens. Guess we will just have to settle for another incredible fight scene. Oh. No. Shucks. *Grabs popcorn and puts up feet* Seriously, Lee was a monster. A true master martial artist aaaaand the boy can act. Never before had kicking so much ass looked so darn good. True story. But the quest for revenge has just begun. I have a hunch the next hour is going to blow minds! Eeeeep!

Let us touch briefly on how difficult it is to figure out the era in which this movie exists. The police [?] that pull the conspirators’ bodies from the light post are carrying WWI era rifles. Also, there is an established, albeit minimal, electrical grid. Since we know the 1892 Columbus exposition in Chicago [which actually opened to the public in 1893] was the grand debut of Tesla’s alternating current electrical grid, we know that the setting is very parallel to available technology in the time of Ho Yuen-Chia. But then you have those pesky cars in the brown-face scene. We have already discussed the potential roots for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles originating in this movie, I am pretty sure that Mouse Hunt took its’ approach to establishing a mildly anachronistic temporal setting from this film. IS THIS THE MOVIE FROM WHICH ALL OTHERS WERE CREATED? DID THIS FILM GO BACK IN TIME AND WHISPER HAMLET INTO THE EARS OF BILLY SHAKERSPEARE AT NIGHT SO THAT SOME DAY THIS MOVIE COULD ALSO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR DISNEYS THE LION KING? SIGNS POINT TO YES.

Okay, back to the movie or I am NEVER getting to sleep. Did you see how concerned porridge girl was when the cats from their school were talking about tracking down Lee’s character? They are totally going to tag team some crazy fights, mark my words. Oh, aaaaaaaaaand they are childhood sweethearts? Say what?!? When this revenge business is complete these two are definitely buying a farm and naming it “The Brown Chicken, Brown Cow Ranch.” It. Is. Happening. They played the spaghetti western music in the beginning of the film, no way can they drop that theme entirely.

Pee Esse- fifty-five minutes into the film and it is now 8:45am. Where the poop is time going?!?!!? Whatever device they used to craft their timeless world must be on the fritz and drawing cronotons from my dimensional quadrant. Let me adjust some gear ratios and I shall be back in two shakes of a lambs tail. In the mean time, have fun watching those crazy kids have a smooch fest before Bruce Lee finds the next breadcrumb on his trail to the witches’ house.

Okily-dokily, I think we smoothed out the wrinkles in time. But, seriously, the setting is bananas. Some of the suits have a little too mod of a cut to pass as 1910 and there was that moment where cars existed in the world. Otherwise, the environment and people are very much in synchronization with the era of Ho Yuan-Chia. The director is a wild man. I bet he was the architect for the building that turned Dana Barrett into a dog monster for Zul.

Welp, now we have bikini geisha. This changes things drastically. Two-piece swimwear has existed for millennia. However, the bikini as we know it didn’t take shape or become an international sensation until the 40’s. This new discovery totally allows for the cars of that era to be present, and actually accounts for some proto-mod cuts as witnessed in the suitery. Conversely, this really throws the Ho Yuen-Chia timeline through a shredder [hashtag, Ninja Turtles callback]. Dude died in 1910, that’s an inescapable fact of our universe and timeline. For his funeral to be in the 40s his body would have to be mummified, or otherwise preserved, for over 30 years. Thirty. That’s just goofy. Ludicrous, even.

Getting back on track: The interpreter that antagonized the poopblizzard, which Bruce Lee is currently unleashing on Shanghai, has confessed to his part in the sifu’s death and given Lee another bread crumb to take him closer to the gingerbread house. Lucky for him, he still looks miiiiiighty hungry. Not that I can blame the guy, the head of the Japanese firm and the chief of police just wrangled the racism elephant back into the scene. Rascals.

1:11:11 and it is 9:05! I may actually get to sleep before 10am! Less analyze-ee, more watch-ee! *tapes eyelids open and crams handfuls of popcorn in mouth * also, for the numerology fans out there, at 1:11:11 lee steps into the scene, and in a righteous disguise at that. The further I go down this rabbit hole, the more I suspect Fists of Fury has divine origins. The ink in the pen that scribed this masterwork contained a fraction of a percentage of a drop of blood of Christ. Obvs. 

Moving along, the girl caved and told the fellow students where Bruce hides at night, uh-butttttttt, Bruce is KILLING IT in the disguise department. It takes a brass pair to strut into the lair of people that want you dead, while trying to execute a ruse, ALL WHILE SMILING. There is a dude hammering nails through a wooden plank with his bare hands? NO BIG, I am Bruce “whatever the middle name was a few paragraphs ago” Lee. Real wizard muss *pours out sip of drink for fallen comrades*

I must say, I am thoroughly enjoying the white guy performing these various feats of strength. I feel like he is, or should be, a member of ‘The Power Team,’ the group of body building promotional speakers that appeared in several episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger and had incredibly strong, duhduh tsk, Christian overtones. Speaking of Walker, TR; I heard a rumor that Chuck Norris is like a big child on set; always pulling tame pranks and cracking lame jokes. I don’t know exactly how I feel about that, but I do sincerely hope that it is true. 

Back to the action, ka-cha! Bruce has the 411 on the bad guys’ plans after disguising himself as a telephone repairman. Eh. Ehhhhhh? Puns aside, we are at 1:25, it is 9:22 am, and it is looking like things are about to get down to business in terms of progression of the plot. Lots of dudes are looking serious and now the fight is upon us. It is game time and Bruce Lee is playing for keeps! Grab yer popcurn and buckle up, buttercups. Lets ride this movie train to climax town. Me-owwww!

Holy bujumbo. All jokes aside, that fight was super epic. It also masterfully illustrated one of Bruce’s core principles that there is always a move to be made that will change the equation, even if you must bite. He touches on it in Enter the Dragon as well, but we will cross that bridge when we get to it. Nunchuku vs sword is happening and it is realer than real. To quote Joe Dirt, “Daaaaaaang!” As if this movie isn’t alluded to enough, the kick that silenced the Japanese boss is rather reminiscent of the climactic kick in Romeo Must Die. Starring none other than Jet Li who, as mentioned at the beginning of this cinematic movie odyssey, plays the protagonist in Fearless, the film about Ho Yuen-Chia, the dead sifu of Bruce’s character Chen Zhen, whom he has about wrapped avenging. I love it when the universe folds neatly upon itself like that. Speaking of folding neatly, what a rollercoaster of a denouement! We had one last spattering of racism to remind the viewer how things went in the imperialistic era of Chinese history. There was a broad sampling of the emotional gamut from the Lee-meister and, the cherry on top, a ‘Butch and Sundance’ tip of the hat to the western tunes and tones of the work.

Man, oh man, oh man, oh man. I had an absolute blast on this odyssey, I hope you did as well! Viewing this film has been a heck of a ride, as my understand of kung fu, Hong Kong cinema, and Chinese history is much richer than a decade ago when I last viewed this gem. This time around I actually know who the characters being portrayed are. BUH NAY NAYS. Anyhoodle, it officially took me four hours to watch a movie that clocks in at one hour and forty-nine minutes. I did it all for you and you better believe I am looking forward to doing it again. Talk to you nerds soon; sweet dreams and all that jazz!

James Lee Walker II   Bill "The Thrill" Cleveland

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