Water and Vessel: The Kung-Fu Movies of Bruce Lee

Water and Vessel: The Kung-Fu Movies of Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee seemed born to be on-screen. At three months old, he appeared as an infant in a Hong Kong movie called Golden Gate Girl (1941). After he died suddenly of cerebral edema in 1973 at the age of thirty-two, the footage of his funeral became his last film. He gained his fame as a martial artist—some say the best of all time—but while he was known for the martial part, he was always training in order to become an artist.

The Cantonese term kung fu—the name for the multitude of schools and styles that make up the Chinese martial arts—implies hard work, time devoted to craft, and the distant promise of achievement. Bruce Lee was cut down in the prime of his life, just before the opening of his biggest film, Enter the Dragon, might have reaped him the benefits of his own hard work. This cruel interruption, this lack of resolution, is what makes his image persist as a kind of mass meditation.

That is to say, everyone seems to have their own Bruce Lee. In recent years, his aphorism to “be water” has become part of the flow of globalized pop culture. Even decades after his passing, he is still a liquid we pour into our own vessels. When he moves across the screen, he flows through with our memories and hopes.

To see him lower himself into a fighting stance is to recall countless hours engaged in joyful child’s play or, on the other hand, to remember the microdramas of bully and bullied, and reflect on all the ways we have learned and trained our bodies to protect and advance ourselves. To watch Lee move from ready position into action is to consider the everyday labor of life, in all its strains and contentions, and wonder whether we, too, proceed with grace, power, and purpose.

Bruce Lee famously described his approach to martial arts as “using no way as way.” As in his fighting, so he was in his performances of art and life. Lee seemed to give everything to the viewer. His presence was spontaneous, guileless, a pure transmission from the soul. His fighting and acting and living expressed his philosophy: rigorously prepare but do not overly premeditate; focus on closing the gap between thought and act, intention and impact. With his naturalistic, improvisatory approach—and not a small reservoir of confidence, even cockiness—Lee forged a remarkable life.

His tragic death and astonishing afterlife now lend the facts of his biography a kind of inevitability. But at the start of the sixties, when his acting career seemed to have already ended, it was unimaginable that someone like Bruce Lee might become one of the most recognizable global icons of our time. He had been on the verge of a new level of stardom in Hong Kong, but after getting in trouble for street fighting, he was sent by his parents back to America, the land of his birth. There he started all over again, seen through the eyes of a white majority as possessing the face of the perpetual stranger and the wartime enemy.

But in 1966, he began the magnificent second phase of his acting career. It would total just one season and a short list of appearances on the small screen, plus six films on the big. From being a virtually silent actor at the dawn of color television, when most Asian characters were still being played by whites, he came to control his own productions and create new images for Asians and Asian Americans. Eventually he would transcend even the screen, be celebrated as a hero for the global downtrodden, and help lay the foundation for the border-crossing global popular culture of the next century.

Top of post: Enter the Dragon
Above: The Big Boss

“In many ways, Bruce Lee really was the trigger-tempered rebel that he played on-screen.”

Fist of Fury
The Big Boss

“His flickering on-screen image, so vital and full of life, seemed to defy death.”

Game of Death

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