BRUCE LEE [a Film Essay]


Bruce Lee: A ‘Bruce Lee’ Character

When news spread of Bruce Lee’s death in 1973, the world mourned the passing of a young, up-and-coming actor who challenged racism, redefined the cinematic martial arts genre – while opening the Western floodgates to Asian actors – and metaphorically ‘stood up for the little guy’. When his actor son, Brandon Lee, tragically lost his life in 1993, fans thought that was the end of the Lees’ legacy. Little would they expect Bruce Lee’s legacy to continue thriving virtually in the form of cinematic homages, the success of Asian martial artist-actors – like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen – in Hollywood, or even video games. The only representations – alongside old films of Lee – available to the post-1970s entertainment consumers, these digital replicas of Lee metaphorically detaches Lee’s identity from his physical body, to only resemble a ‘Bruce Lee’ brand – a capitalistic commodity of the entertainment industry. By replicating characteristics synonymous with Lee’s identity, the entertainment industry aims to preserve and retain his post-mortem legacy, yet simultaneously, substitutes Bruce Lee with a commodified representation, resulting in a dehumanized iconification of Bruce Lee.

Commodity Orientalism

There is no doubt that Bruce Lee already has a cult following before his untimely death. Incorporating his martial arts skills in his cinematic career, Lee does not just defy the ‘pre-Bruce Lee’ Western stereotypes of Asians but ushered in a new appreciation for the Asian experience – the martial arts films.

425-lee-hornet-lc-042910In 1966, Lee made a name for himself when he appeared as Kato in The Green Hornet (1966-67) television series where his “screen presence and physical grace, impact and abilities” were widely recognised (Bowman 3). Despite Lee’s breakthrough performance, the Hollywood industry remains hostile towards an Asian lead actor. However, cashing in on the increasing success of Hong Kong kung fu films, the leading Western film industry created their “first American produced martial arts spectacular”, Enter the Dragon (1973). According to Bowman, the film “almost single-handedly revolutionised the American perception of the Chinese” (4). Till the rise of Lee’s career, Asians typically cast as “docile servants, unskilled laborers or evil geniuses patterned after the Dr. Fu-Manchu character”, according to Robinson. He continued that Lee “made Asian men lethal, graceful and cool”. Yet, despite Lee’s second ground-breaking attempt at changing the Western gaze on Asians, the Asian body transcends from one stereotype, only to fall back into another.

 

the-face-of-fu-manchu-original1Robinson points out that “Hollywood’s tendency to stereotype and unwillingness to go beyond proven formulas of success turned Lee’s legacy into both a blessing and a curse”. As mentioned previously, Lee’s performance in Enter the Dragon defied the ‘Dr. Fu-Manchu’ stereotypes of the Asian body. According to Kim, the martial artist-turned-actor represents “a powerful figure”, presenting “idealized strength and masculinity”, but ultimately, “couldn’t help the racism that was in Hollywood, that studios began to typecast people” (qtd. in Robinson). As Hye puts it, “the Bruce Lee craze of the 1970s created a new stereotype of the Asian man: the martial artist” (qtd. in Robinson).

Although Lee appeared in only two – both post-mortem – Hollywood films, Enter the Dragon and The Game of Death (1978), the influence of martial arts films has already reached an international scale while cash cow corporations look to feed the global demand for this commodity Orientalist consumption. According to Chong, commodity Orientalism “traces the association of rugs, tea, porcelain, and silk with people” and “frames the movement of goods not only within a symbolic system but also a materialist economy that mirrors the circulation of laborers” (184). Similarly in the case of Bruce Lee, his influence that gave birth to the Asian martial artist image objectifies and Orientalises him and all succeeding Hollywood Asian actors into a commodified Oriental product – the Bruce Lee.

tumblr_njw2tdlu121tljkc0o1_1280As YouTube commenter, Spider-Man, says, “You can kill a man but you can’t kill a legend”. Unfortunately, that also demonstrates the consumers’ everlasting consumption of the Asian body, and Bruce Lee, as an Oriental product. Chong details that recent versions of commodity Orientalism “[enables] non-Asians to take on the role of Oriental master or teacher” (184). In this case, “an experience of ‘becoming-Oriental’ … is what is being commodified, enabling non-Asian consumers access to an idealized realm of spirituality, authenticity, or cultural otherness that some may view as a form of racial minstrelsy” (Chong 184). One such access is through Lee’s prolonged legacy through the availability of video games, like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken, where players across the world are given the choice to play as an Asian martial artist. By playing as a Bruce Lee character, the player essentially becomes the Oriental character and thereby commandeers the Asian body through commodification.

Player Select: Bruce Lee

03To play as a Bruce Lee-inspired character would be the closest the consumers would be to being the Chinese martial artist. So, to sell the idea of ‘becoming-Bruce Lee’ video game developers replicate Lee’s tropes to create the most authentic Bruce Lee experience. YouTube channel, WatchMojo.com, published a video, “Top 10 Video Games Characters Based on Bruce Lee”, featuring popular internationally-acclaimed video game franchises like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken. Voted by public subscribers and viewers, characters from these three franchises came up at the top; specifically, Fei Long, Liu Kang and Marshall Law. Bearing similarities in backstories, symbolic references and behavioural tropes, these virtual warriors imitate the identity of the legendary martial artist, serving the consumerist hunger for Bruce Lee.

street-fighter-4-fei-longFei Long, a character added in their 1993 release of Super Street Fighter II – The New Challengers, is regarded as Street Fighter’s –and its developer Capcom’s – tribute to Lee. Fei Long, possibly a play on Lee’s Mandarin name, ‘Lee Xiao Long’, also means ‘flying dragon’. This symbolic association to the mythical creature resurfaces commonly in reference to Lee. In two of Lee’s posthumously released biopics, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) and Birth of the Dragon (2016), the mythical creature is mentioned in both of the titles. Liu Kang, the Bruce Lee-inspired character from the Mortal Kombat franchise, possesses several ‘Dragon’-named fighting moves and even embodies this symbolic link by turning into a physical dragon to devour his defeated enemies. These examples show how synonymous Lee’s identity is to the concept of a dragon – a revered creature of the Chinese mythology – to the point of mystifying his identity. Wilson mentions that “[symbolism] enhances the significance and power of images, and transforms ornament into complex coded diagrams” (286). As discussed previously, the concept of commodity Orientalism objectifies Bruce Lee as a cultural product. Similarly in the sense of symbolism, it transforms Lee in a similar fashion as it would on a dragon-imprinted ornament. As mentioned by Wilson, ancient dragons are “pure products of the imagination” that are “[drawn] out of thin air and unrelated to the natural world” (286). Being synonymously linked to a “product of imagination”, Lee’s identity is at the risk of being made unreal. While Lee is in the process of being commodified into the Bruce Lee product, the mythical association exotifies the connection to make Lee seem as godly as the dragon is to the Chinese. In a rather odd twist of fate, Bruce Lee, a once-stereotype-breaking role model, is made exotically unique through his identity’s association to the Chinese representation, the dragon. Lee, now a symbolic representation of what is exotically Asian or Chinese, loses his own representation and gives in to the consumerist embodiment of what is defined as ‘Bruce Lee’, the commodified identity of Bruce Lee. As different video game characters take on this mystified identity of Bruce Lee, Lee’s own identity stops belonging to “[pre-existing] systems of belief or meaning”, and instead, serves “an unceasing desire to create designs that embellish surfaces” (Wilson 286). Just like an Oriental vase covered with dragon symbols, Bruce Lee symbols envelops Lee’s body.

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While Lee’s Hollywood stint was short-lived, it is undoubtedly an impactful one given the material legacy that followed his death. Indirectly involved in the birth of a new genre of films in the 1970s, Lee’s martial arts films, like Enter the Dragon, are important in explaining Lee’s birth to fame. As such, it should come as no surprise that many video game backstories are inspired by Lee’s films. Fei Long’s story plot in Street Fighter Alpha 3 is reportedly based on Lee’s unfinished film, Game of Death (1978). Among the three game franchises mentioned, most obvious homage to Lee’s film career has to be Mortal Kombat. Released in 1992, the titular game features a martial arts tournament where representatives of different factions, including a Shaolin member, fight to restore balance to the world; a plot eerily similar to Lee’s Enter the Dragon. By re-presenting Lee’s most iconic film in a video game format, the entertainment industry introduces Bruce Lee, or rather Bruce Lee, to a new generation of consumers. For those who watched the original screenings of the film in the 32464-detail-5805202a9de51_1024x10241970s, the game preys on the nostalgic factor while encouraging introduction to their children, ensuring a continual inheritance of generational consumerism. An example is the recent Star Wars phenomena where the new film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, instils nostalgia in the adults while it promotes a new line of toys and memorabilia to the younger members of the family, guaranteeing the ‘passing of the torch’ – in this case, the fandom – to a new generation of consumers. Loosely based on Lee, Bruce Lee’s character in Enter the Dragon, Liu Kang not only introduces the film and Bruce Lee to the 1990s generation, but introduces the Bruce Lee brand too. Born to a generation post-dating Lee’s death in 1973, the virtual representation of Lee becomes the reference point for these consumers, denying Lee of a realistic representation differing from the objectified Bruce Lee. As a result, Lee is ultimately commodified due to the passage of time and his lack of realistic representation.

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Even though symbolisms and similar story plots in video games can point towards the possibility of who or what a character is based on, the signification through identifiable tropes is the easiest, and unknowingly the most dangerous, form of homage and commodified representation. Marshall Law, a character introduced to the Tekken franchise in the original game, bears many of these behavioural tropes that come to define a Bruce Lee character. Marshall Law often does high-pitched screams while fighting, bounces in his fighting stance and occasionally fights bare-bodied or wears a yellow jumpsuit; all of which are tropes commonly identified to be inspired by the late martial artist. Daly identifies tropes as “particularised properties and relations” that “form a distinct type of entity” (253). The entertainment industry often replicate particular actions or items in non-original works as a way to create linkages and references to invoke the same sentimental or disruptive feelings felt at the point of identification in the original. Consequentially, Lee’s individualistic behaviour is simplified into commodified exploitations of the Bruce Lee image. Similarly in Fei Long and Liu Kang, the imitation of Lee’s bouncing and frequent screams distinctively makes them easily identifiable as a Bruce Lee clone, without explicitly labelling as a homage to Lee. However, this easy association to a Bruce Lee trope endangers Lee’s ability to stand out as a realistic personification of the true ‘Bruce Lee’. When two representations of a Bruce Lee trope are presented at the same time, it is unsettlingly difficult to differentiate between an imitation and the actual Bruce Lee. Linguistically, the trope – or the sign – of a Bruce Lee breaks down into the sensible signifier and the intelligible signified. In this instance, the tangible representation of a ‘Bruce Lee’ character, regardless of the original person or the virtual copy, is defined as the signifier – “sound-image” – while the intangible thought of a Bruce Lee character, is defined as the abstract signified. However, Saussure theorises that the “bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (qtd. in Leitch, et al 964). In the case of Lee, the concept of what defines as being Bruce Lee, the behavioural tropes, is not immediately binary to the identification of a Bruce Lee representation as there is the possibility of multiple signifiers, in the form of multiple representations of the one Bruce Lee. As seen in the examples highlighted thus far in the essay, Fei Long, Liu Kang, Marshall Law and even the cinematic appearances of Bruce Lee are representations of the real Bruce Lee, the optimal bond between the representation and thought of the martial artist. As such, the arbitrary nature of language and fragility of proper representation hinders the consumers’ ability to properly identify the true Bruce Lee from the Bruce Lee representations. With the virtual replica much more accessible and popular than the original identification of Lee among the post-Bruce Lee generations, entertainment consumers could possibly recognise a virtual replica to be the ‘Bruce Lee’ than the actual person. This existential confusion causes consumers to doubt even further if Bruce Lee is ever a real person, or just an entertainment representation of an Asian strongman.

Due to the popularity of the virtual imitations in video games, Bruce Lee’s identity is endangered by resulting rise of the commodification of the Bruce Lee product, and faces the possibility of emancipation into the consumerist commodity that rids the famed martial artist of all true representation.

Just a Sequel to the Great One

main-qimg-5f87d1285c14ce2bab7836c669949f4b-cBruce Lee’s Hollywood breakthrough is a pivotal moment for the Asian presence in the global cinematic industry, and as such, is difficult for any material done after Lee to be considered a greater moment. Bowman correctly identifies the common trajectory of studies and narratives – including this essay – on Lee towards “disappointment”, including Lee’s role in “[diversifying] and [ethicising] the previously white realm of international film and the associated global popular cultural imaginary” but encounters the “subsequent easy pigeonholing of ethnic Asian characters as martial arts ‘types’” (125). He continues by pointing the reason to nostalgia. While most of the succeeding actors that followed Lee’s footsteps into Hollywood fame and cinematic tributes do have their signature identity and style to them, it is difficult to separate them from an embodiment of what has come and gone of a Bruce Lee era. Lee’s entrance and subsequent departure from the Western cinema allowed other Asian actors to enter the foreign industry, but not without its typecasting burden. Rather than expanding Asians’ representational strength within the new global industry, rising actors like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen serve more to fill in the void left by Lee’s passing after the peak of consumerist demand for martial arts films.

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Jackie Chan, the first of the three above-mentioned Chinese actors to rise to international fame, is a failed product of the phenomena known as ‘Bruceploitation’, a film exploitation movement to cash in on Lee’s fame and passing, before defining his own genre – the blend of comedy and martial arts. The earliest of the three to attempt on filling Lee’s place, Chan stars in Robert Clouse’s The Big Brawl (1980), who also directed Lee’s Enter the Dragon. The film fails to catapult Chan to international fame, a direct result from the fallout of Lee’s irreplaceability in Western cinema. It is not until Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx (1995) when the Hong Kong actor brought a comedic twist to the martial arts genre, solidifying his mark in the post-Bruce Lee cinematic market.

Jet Li, on the other hand, broke into the Western market through his villainous appearance in Lethal Weapon 4 (1998); an exceptional move since till Li’s role, most non-Asian films have Chinese characters playing heroes in martial arts films. In an interview about Bruce Lee, Li praised the late martial artist’s ability to detach his own persona from his cinematic roles; a feat he has been trying, especially in his diverse choice for heroic and villainous roles. Despite the Western cinema’s tendency to typecast Asian actors as poor comedic representations of Asians in a pre-Bruce Lee era, Lee’s heroic roles broke the cinematic stereotypes, thereby affirming a new representation of Asians; the strong, independent individual capable of standing up for himself. As the Western cinema once again typecasts Asians based on this new representation, Jet Li breaks typical heroic associations by portraying villains and anti-heroes, defining himself as a post-modern Bruce Lee.

67a363ff1bf37567f4a8f75aa6fa0773The latest of the three to emerge on a global scale, perhaps Donnie Yen owes his success the most to Bruce Lee. While Yen has been making martial arts films for years, his international calling did not come till his role as Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s real-life master whom he learned Wing Chun from, in the titular film in 2008. Citing Bruce Lee as his role model, Yen said in an interview with CCTV that he “worshipped Bruce Lee” and “hoped [he] could be the second Bruce Lee one day”. Due to the spectacular success of the biopic and a triumphant return of martial arts films to a Chinese cinematic market saturated by crime and romantic comedy films, Yen’s role in Ip Man reinvigorated the action film genre in Asian markets and brought martial arts back into the Western genre; kicking start a second wave of martial arts obsession. Bruce Lee’s first outing in Hollywood starts off a ‘Bruceploitation’ movement at the peak of consumerist demand for Lee. Likewise for Yen’s ‘second coming’, the global market demands for more Ip Man, the new Bruce Lee brand replacement. Multiple films about Lee’s master are made in the subsequent years, including, The Legend Is Born – Ip Man (2010), The Grandmaster (2013), Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013), a 2013 Chinese television series and two sequels to Yen’s version in 2010 and 2015.

While all three action stars do ultimately define themselves differently since the pivotal representation set by Lee, it is almost impossible to think of them without thinking of Bruce Lee. No matter if the actor defines his own unique branch of the genre, or redefines Asian roles in Western films or even kicks off a separate cinematic trend, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen would always be haunted by the spectre of the late martial artist, standing in the shadows of the legendary actor; forever a post-modern pastiche of a cultural product that is Bruce Lee.

Conclusion

There is no denial that Bruce Lee would remain as a pioneering hero to all Chinese and Asians trying to make their mark in a foreign economy. There is no doubt that his legacy as a stereotype-breaking actor or as a phenomenal philosopher and practitioner in the martial arts field would live on for generations. However, through the consumerist demand for more Bruce Lee in the entertainment industry, it has effectively objectified the identity of Bruce Lee himself and simplified him into a dehumanised Oriental commodity – the Bruce Lee – in his post-mortem legacy. The wide reach of video game clones of the actor himself through portrayals like Fei Long, Liu Kang and Marshall Law – and their mystifying symbolisms, duplication and re-introductions of familiar storylines but with a consumerist agenda and selection of character tropes – blurs consumers’ ability to correctly identify a true representation of Bruce Lee from an array of Bruce Lee representations. This existential confusion extends to the real-life actors succeeding after Bruce Lee where rising action stars, like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, find it difficult to detach themselves from the shadow of the legendary actor despite their unique takes on Lee’s paved formula to Western fame. Ultimately, to the post-Bruce Lee generation, the martial artist-turned-actor’s identity is reduced to a commodity slaved by consumerist demand and post-modern rehashes; a commodified brand of Bruce Lee.


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