The Big Boss
I think it would be fair to say that, for many, the kung fu action genre has, in recent years, been little more than the playground of uber fans. Bar the odd Jackie Chan action comedy that ploughs its way into the mainstream thanks to annoying American sidekicks, the modern day martial arts flick has all but been dismissed by the majority of cinema audiences thanks to many years of poorly choreographed attempts by US studios to push Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal as contemporary proponents of the dying breed. It's a great pity as this was not always the case, and it becomes even sadder when viewed by those of a particular generation, for whom the emergence of a certain young Asian actor named Bruce Lee was greeted with about as much excitement as a convert witnessing the second coming.
The Big Boss marked the breakthrough of Lee, with him usurping the more established Hong Kong cinematic talent of James Tien and pushing him down to second billing and more of a plot development tool as opposed to a key character. Directed by Lo Wei, who would go on to helm another Lee film Fist of Fury the very next year, it was a typical “kung fu flick”. The emerging popularity of the genre in different markets was something that was starting to be noticed and there is no industry quite as capable of producing cinematic releases along the conveyor belt lines of manufacturing as that found in Asia. Closer in comparison to the low budget Spaghetti Westerns of Europe than the action blockbusters of Hollywood, this style of film making was centred almost entirely around the fights, with audiences less than likely to remember them for anything else. In this respect, The Big Boss is no different.
Where it does obviously raise itself above the pantheon of other fairly run of the mill martial arts punch-a-thons that had come from Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers, is in the central performance given by Lee. Few other actors have become such iconic figures, and fewer more have done so with such a meagre amount of film credits to their name. Due to his untimely demise, such outings as The Big Boss have been pored over repeatedly by fans, often with the negatives being dismissed in favour of the positives, so let's get something straight - this isn't a great film, but it is still an important one to a core audience. By no stretch of filmic greatness when viewed with regards narrative, plot structure, character development or script would this qualify as anything other than genre fare. However, and it is a big however, I and many others just like me, hold it as a cherished memory. Being too young to have seen this first time around, I can only imagine what the impact would have been like for the many Western youths who had suddenly discovered this new action hero. More than simply another poster to be placed on their walls, it opened a door into a new world of thrilling films. As such, it can be hard to dissect the qualities of the Big Boss from the whole which has become greater than the value of its constituent parts.
The story tells the tale of a young man named Cheng (Lee), who arrives in a small community in the opening sequence, so is literally “fresh off the boat”, to make a new start. He is settled into a house by his uncle, where he will live with numerous other workers, including his cousin Hsu Chien (played by James Tien). It isn't long before we are introduced to some rather 70s looking ruffians who decide to trouble a young lady running a small food stall, to which Cheng takes offence, but his raising ire is soon quelled by his uncle's insistence that he mustn't fight. This, you see, is the main crux of much of the story with regards Lee's character, as Cheng has apparently made a vow to his mother not to fight and this it appears is what is truly behind his travels and new turn in life. Not a moment goes by before the ne'er-do-wells choose to raise the stakes of their rabble rousing antics and assault a small child from whom they have stolen some dumplings. This brief altercation introduces us to Hsu Chien, who understandably takes exception to this behaviour and proceeds to teach the gang a lesson about civil disobedience with punches and kicks.
Much of the characterisation of Cheng revolves around the jade amulet worn around his neck, reminding him of his vow to his mother not to get involved in any fights. Obviously, with this being a Bruce Lee film, this was never likely to last the full 100 minutes but it does add a certain element to the narrative that is arguably lacking from some later examples of his screen outings. What we have here is a younger, much more naïve and intrinsically human Lee, who not only has to actually act in places (though obviously don't expect an Olivier-esque performance in this type of picture) but also comes across as a far more identifiable protagonist. Long before his final film Enter the Dragon had elevated him to a form of Chinese Eastwood, seemingly invincible and ever confident, this shows him to be more of an everyman who is not only fighting against the corruption of a criminal syndicate, but also battling himself to keep his promises, not only to his family, but also to his new found friends.
It doesn't always hit its marks, but as with all similar 70s martial arts tales, the comic book stylings and pulpy characterisations are an intrinsic part of the charm. The kitsch baddies, who sometimes look like they'll either start dancing like a gang out of West Side Story or return to their poses for a period clothing catalogue, so bedecked are they in brightly coloured polyester shirts, are essential as fodder for Lee once he finds himself broken free from his oath of non-violence. The action isn't the best fans have seen from their idol, with Tien's fights in particular looking fairly loose, but there is a raw style that makes for thrilling set-pieces, and the body-count is among the highest for any of Lee's films, which adds much needed tension in the second half once the stakes are realised to be high and that this isn't just a tale of colourful high-jinks and Scooby Doo villains. Knives, axes, hooks and iron bars are all wielded and there's a surprising amount of blood seen to be shed. Unfortunately this still isn't a completely uncut version as many fans continue to hope for on a home format, but that is a minor quibble as it was never really expected. We still see the handsaw being raised, followed by a poor edit, and Lee turning up to the final confrontation munching on some crackers from an unknown origin, but these moments will only detract to those who attach greater importance to them than is necessary. The satisfaction comes not from knowing where the snack came from, but instead watching as Lee throws the packet into the air and dispatches two goons before forcefully crunching his teeth down on the final one left in his hand. For most, this will be seen for what it is - a thoroughly thrilling trip down memory lane, witnessing the breakthrough performance of a man who would become an action legend.
Individual score: 6
Fist of Fury
What better way to follow up a review of Bruce Lee's first major feature film, than with his second. Fist of Fury marked Lee's progression from another face in the action ranks, to a fully fledged kung fu star and Chinese hero, a process helped in no small part by this film's subject matter, which would intentionally strike a chord with all Chinese cinema goers due to its unashamedly patriotic overtones. Much like any other such nationalistic cinematic outing, from the sublime Henry V, to the ridiculous The Patriot, the crux of the story is always a call to arms against an oppressive force that threatens a people's way of life. Without getting too bogged down in East Asian geopolitics, it is understandably in many Chinese films the role that the Japanese play, and Fist of Fury adheres to this. Though it should be noted that this isn't merely a plot point, but rather a retelling of a popular theory surrounding the death of an eminent martial artist of Shanghai, and as such their inclusion is necessary. However, as with the two aforementioned big screen patriotic outings, the truth may not be so simple, but this film never claims to be telling viewers a factual tale, rather a general belief and a dramatisation built around this. As the opening text reveals, “Our story begins with the death of Ho Yuan-chia, a legendary Chinese hero, famous for his victories over Russia's champion wrestler and Japan's bushido experts. He was poisoned, by whom? For what? It was not known. But there has been speculation, here we offer the most popular version”.
We enter the world of 1908 Shanghai, as the rain is pouring and Lee is brought by rickshaw to the Ching Wu school of kung fu. He is unaware of his master's death, and upon learning of it, races to the whereabouts of the funeral, only to see the coffin being covered in soil. He leaps onto the grave and scrabbles like a madman, shouting for his dead teacher. This early scene sets viewers up for what is to come. Not only is this a far more sombre, and even melancholic affair than the Big Boss, but it also shows Lee's acting skills as arguably no other film of his has, before or since. During the duration of the story, he will run the gamut of emotions, from disconsolate student in mourning, through restrained resignation, to finally unleashing his powers with ferocity. This also feels far more developed around the Lee's persona as rising hero to the Chinese people, and the titles show us just how far he's come in a short while, as they emblazon his name across the screen during the short title sequence as if this were an event to remember which would never be usurped.
After the initial histrionics have come and gone, the film proper starts, as the mourners gather to honour Ho Yuan-chia some unwelcome visitors soon make their presence known. Into this sorrowful gathering steps Mr Hu, a Chinese interpreter for a Japanese fighting school also in Shanghai. He is the stereotypical interpreter, a role often depicted in such films as being slimy and cowardly individuals who ally themselves with the aggressors because of their own inadequacy, such is the lingering memory of those who were living in occupied China under the Japanese and who despised these figures vehemently as traitors. As such, it is not surprising to see this simple simile for bowing down to imperialism raise its head here, and none since have arguably given the two dimensional role as much need for viewers to have a long shower afterwards as Ping-Ao Wei. Kitted out in his flash brown pinstripe suit and ever holding his cigarette in its holder, he is the epitome of sleazy sycophantism when around his Japanese masters. The interlopers make their intentions clear - to mock their Chinese neighbours with a sign that reads “sick man of East Asia” and challenge them to fight. Their strongest, Chen (Lee) seeks to oblige but is persuaded not to as that would be against his former teacher's wishes. Thus starts the long drawn out morality tale of whether violence and standing up for community/country etc is the right path to take when confronted by aggressors. It's fairly simple in essence but there is surprising depth contained within compared to other such similar period kung fu fare.
It isn't long before Chen has broken his own resolve not to fight (as he also did in The Big Boss), and its easy to see why, a Bruce Lee film where pacifism rules is hardly likely to excite fans. Plus, from the point of view of characterisation, much could be explained away as being the product of emotional turbulence, whereas the actions of those seeking only to provoke is very much simplistic in nature. Chen heads for the rival Hung Kiu school and soon hands out his own form of discipline, namely with fists, feet and nunchucks. If one were to pick holes in the film, pacing might be a concern, as this is a fairly major fight that happens reasonably early on, and we as viewer have to wait until the final confrontation before a similarly epic brawl. This slight imbalance is lessened though by the steady roll of Chen towards revenge and finding those responsible for his master's death. It hardly needs pointing out to us who was behind the act, as the lines have already been clearly drawn between good and bad and it was made abundantly clear in the opening text that Ho Yuan chia was poisoned. Still, it continues to be a thrilling ride to watch Lee hand out his own special brand of justice, but what is pleasing is that the characterisation shows Chen to be a troubled individual rather than the two dimensional fighting machine Lee would later be simply branded as. His actions aren't thought through and they have devastating consequences for those he holds dear. If anything, the message turns on itself so many times that it becomes more muddled by the climax than it was at any other point. However, it doesn't matter that all the emotional soul searching and questions of responsibility to legacy and non violence are swept aside briefly for the most rousing finale, because on an emotional level it works, and the aforementioned finale remains perhaps the best you'll see in a Lee film. It may be lifted straight from a more famous Hollywood film of only two years previous, but it still works perfectly.
Individual score: 8
House of Fury
Every decent boxset needs a third title to make up the numbers, and this one is no different. Though a third Bruce Lee film would have been the obvious choice, the lack of releases precludes this, so instead Yesasia have taken a slight detour from their previous picks of realistic period kung-fu drama and placed in Stephen Fung's 2005 martial arts comedy House of Fury. I was all prepared to decry this juxtaposition, especially given the importance of the previous two titles' appearances on Blu-ray, but I would have been wrong to do so because, put simply, I found myself liking this title almost as much, but for entirely different reasons.
Let me start by saying that there is no logical reason to package this in with the aforementioned Lee outings other than a connection by way of fighting styles. House of Fury lacks the age, martial artist stars and raw brutality of its boxset brethren. However, that isn't to say that it is a bad film in its own right, merely that it requires different criteria for an individual to judge it by. Directed by Stephen Fung (who also co-stars), he has taken a similar route to his debut, another action comedy whose title seemed to hint at a Lee connection, Enter the Phoenix (2004). Once again, thrills and spills are the order of the day but never in a manner that might perturb parents from letting youngsters watch the on-screen mayhem.
The story tells the tale of Teddy, played by Anthony Wong (Infernal Affairs), who is an ageing chiropractor, struggling to raise his two teenage children by himself, having lost his wife some years previously. This is hidden wonderfully by a theatrical opening that shows Teddy basically transform himself into an almost superhero type secret agent capable of great feats of physical prowess and fighting talent. Here he struggles to free a man tied to a massive satellite dish as if a damsel in distress. He battles shape shifting ninjas and leaps the height and breadth of buildings and after much kung-fu and bravery he finally vanquishes the leader of this nefarious troupe. It is at this point that the audience may be forgiven for holding their heads in their hands as they assume this will be so monumentally ridiculously over the top that it may push the boundaries of what is bearable. At once we are broken from this daydream and confronted with the genuine truth - that Teddy is actually recounting a tall tale to a group of transfixed young schoolchildren. No sooner has he finished than one of the more observant youths asks how he only recounted the tale of ten opponents when he had previously said there were dozens, and why had he claimed to be unarmed when he had just told of his prowess with various weapons during the fight. Clearly confused by even his own fisherman's tales, he makes light of it and muddles on for a moment before looking for his daughter, played by Gillian Chung (Vampire Effect) who is his sole reason for being there. She though escapes via another route, not wishing to be seen with a father who embarrasses her so. Her brother, Nicky, a dolphin trainer (don't ask - it never comes up in the story again!) played by director Stephen Fung, is similarly irked by his father's behaviour and shows his sullen displeasure at his antics in between fighting with his sister over any petty matter he can find. This first scenario sets up the rest of the action and story strands (not that there are a great deal) in one nicely assimilated package.
One of the early sticking points that many will pick up on is the casting. My feeling, and I make no attempt to hide my continued admiration for Wong as an actor, is that the central role was never likely to fit anyone currently working in Hong Kong perfectly. Anthony Wong would not be at the head of many a kung-fu flick fan's list of leading men when back flips, wire work and fast hand speed are the order of the day. However, one must consider the alternative, how many established martial arts stars have the pathos to engender genuine sorrow for a lead's plight even in a family friendly film such as this. He may be no spring chicken, and the use of stunt doubles for many segments may jar to some, but one element that Wong carries off with surprising ease is that of comedy. Like all such similar Scooby Doo type romps, the pace changes at the drop of a hat. One second there are punches flying, the next there will be an afternoon soap style family heart-to-heart, and the little jokes are sprinkled fairly evenly throughout the total runtime.
Perhaps you have to be a fan of a particular sort of kung-fu film to like this. It has the air of Jackie Chan surrounding it, which is not surprising since the Hong Kong action superstar happened to executive produce this feature. Thus it follows a certain formula, with some nice fight choreography handled by a master of the art Yuen Woo Ping (whose credits include The Matrix and Kill Bill - for those unfamiliar with his long established status as a legendary wu-shu action director in the East) mixed with a touch of very light drama, but without losing the soul of a film that is aiming for warmth above sheer thrills. There is one death in the narrative, but most encounters are little more than fists and feet brought together in an almost dancing style. There's breaking glass and smashing furniture, but the best moments are probably when these set-tos are played for laughs. The sudden gear change Wong enacts when confronted by the gang he has been expecting to come for him is a prime example. Half way through the brutal melee, the sign for his chiropractice falls down, with one of the Chinese characters smashing, leaving the translation to read not House of Fury, but Fist of Fury. With a brief glance at this new meaning, Wong turns to his assailants and gives his best Bruce Lee impression with accompanying sound effects. This won't be to everyone's liking, and there is a genuine argument to be made that it is simply too much of a contrast in comparison to the two other titles in this boxset, but I can't help but like House of Fury for its simple charms. Teddy's teenage children perhaps have too much screen time which might have been better served by the older members of the cast, but they are necessary for some truly energetic fight scenes. Wong and Ma Wu as an aging client of the chiropractor's are the perfect foil for this youthful exuberance, as they each give enough laughs in their action scenes to balance the equation. If you don't like the sound of Anthony Wong using the arm from a skeleton as makeshift nunchucks then this won't be for you. For everyone else, I'd advise you take your brain out of gear and simply enjoy a bit of light-hearted martial arts fun.
Individual score: 6
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