|Though The Big Boss was a huge success for Bruce Lee in 1971, it was the 1972 follow-up Fist of Fury that truly catapulted him to the level of superstar - and with good reason. Once known in the United States as The Chinese Connection, this Lo Wei-directed flick may seem like just another "You killed my master!" revenge yarn, but Bruce Lee's charismatic performance puts Fist of Fury at the very top of the heap. Spawning unofficial sequels, remakes, and numerous tributes, Fist of Fury rivals Enter the Dragon as Bruce Lee’s most known and most loved film, particularly among Chinese audiences.
In his only period film as an adult, Lee plays Chen Zhen, a young student from the Jing Wu school who returns home for the funeral of his venerable sifu and real-life martial artist, Huo Yuanjia who has died under mysterious circumstances. A rival Japanese academy are the only suspects, but there’s no proof of any wrongdoing. Enter Chen Zhen into the fray. Employing a variety of disguises, Chen Zhen eventually uncovers the culprits behind his master’s death and takes his bloody revenge on each and every one of them. After infiltrating the enemy's dojo, Chen Zhen beats the holy hell out of a veritable armada of adversaries before going out in a proverbial blaze of glory.
Set sometime in the early twentieth century during the occupation of Shanghai by Japan, Fist of Fury depicts the violent Sino-Japanese tensions of the time with naked and clearly mutual antagonism. Perhaps the only unabashedly nationalistic film in which Bruce Lee ever appeared, Fist of Fury demonstrates a clear bias against the Japanese antagonists, all of whom resemble nasty caricatures seemingly pulled straight from American World War II propaganda. The film is pro-Chinese, anti-imperialist, and xenophobic in varying degrees, but given the historical context, it’s not unexpected. Consider one of its most famous scenes: after delivering unto the Japanese yet another trademarked Bruce Lee ass-kicking, Chen Zhen declares, “We are not sick men!” a direct reference to the derogatory epithet “Sick Man of Asia” used by the Japanese against the Chinese people during their occupation of China.
Though the detached cultural nationalism embodied by Lee in this film can be inspiring at times (especially if you're Chinese or at least a non-Japanese Asian), the stereotypical and uniformly demonized portrayal of the Japanese may be too much for some viewers to ignore. It’s certainly something Gordon Chan was cognizant of when he remade the film with Jet Li as Chen Zhen in 1994’s Fist of Legend, a film that complicates the knee-jerk "all Japanese are bad" rhetoric of Fist of Fury by having Chen Zhen fall in love with a Japanese girl and including sympathetic portrayals of non-imperialist Japanese citizens.
One thing I’ve found fascinating in multiple viewings of the film is how it deconstructs the very nationalist project that it seemingly and – in retrospect – successfully purports. Certainly, Fist of Fury makes a folk hero out of the fictional Chen Zhen, as evidenced by the multiple remakes, homages, and sequels that have followed in subsequent years. But at the same time, the film also undermines Chen Zhen’s quest for vengeance. Many of his fellow students would still be alive at story’s end if not for his proto-slasher movie antics in investigating his master’s death. In that sense, we can see that even a film with an unequivocal nationalist attitude can have its complexities and contradictions.
Whatever its political leanings, Fist of Fury, even after all these years, is still very fun to watch. Though Lee's various assaults on the Japanese dojo are perhaps what most viewers remember, I can’t help but feel that Chen Zhen's meltdown at the public park is a thing of pure beauty – over-the-top to be sure, yet oddly powerful. Provoked by discrimination and a sign that reads "No Dogs and Chinese Allowed," Chen Zhen gives a lesson on cultural acceptance, albeit “the hard way,” as he systematically dispenses a bunch of Japanese thugs (Yuen Wah among them) just before he kicks the offending sign into a thousand little pieces. It was a scene that struck to the heart of the Chinese audience at the time and surely brings cinemagoers to their feet even today. So, if you're itching to see the raw, unrestrained cinematic prowess of a true master, look no further than Fist of Fury. (Calvin McMillin 2002/2009)
Region 1 NTSC
Cantonese, Mandarin, and English Language Tracks
DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English Subtitles
Interview with Yuen Wah, Bruce Lee Slide Show, Still Gallery, Trailers
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc