How Bruce Lee Changed Martial Arts Cinema – Part 1 | Video Essay

How Bruce Lee Changed Martial Arts Cinema – Part 1 | Video Essay


Different people remembers Bruce Lee differently To many He’s one of the greatest martial artists of all time Also an icon of peak body fitness A teacher of immense wisdom “Empty your mind” “Be formless, shapeless” “Like water” An inspiration for a nation “Chinese people” “Are not sick men” A star who punched his way through racism A man of charisma And a very sexy gentleman But to me He is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of action cinema Single-handedly changed how martial arts movies are made How so? Well, here’s a small example: When Bruce Lee first brought his Kung Fu to the TV screen He was so fast, even in a restrictive costume His movement showed up as a blur And they have to overcrank the camera to compensate In other words, he brought something new The industry has to change and adapt Now, that’s a sign of a great filmmaker In this two-part retrospective We’ll go through all four and a half movies starring Bruce Lee And examine how Bruce Lee changes martial arts cinema From this To This Let’s dive in Our story begins before Bruce Lee Like many cinema from around the world Chinese cinema is a continuation of its theatre and opera tradition And since many opera performance includes actions Martial arts cinema, naturally, follows the same formula Although much of the early Chinese Martial Arts films are now lost Looking at the remaining ones shows noticeable similarities Between what’s on screen And what’s on stage Fast forward to the 1960s The style is much the same Jumps Flips Big operatic movement Action is poetically simple You see an attack A counter attack And a reaction The battle happens in the edit And your imagination fills the gap It’s called wuxia Stories of traditional Chinese folk heroes Big movements Big characters Realistic fights is not the point There was a push back against this type of films Spearheaded by the Wong Fei Hung series Starring the legendary Kwan Tak-hing The series features much more impressive hand to hand combat Yet still, Kwan was an opera actor Much of the action still focuses on the operatic movement The fluid kicks and jumps Almost like a tango In truth, Kung Fu films and wuxia films were selling the same contents Just with slightly different packaging After living in the US for over 10 years Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong Having fed up with only getting supporting roles in Hollywood Don’t get me f*cking started. It was 1970 And Bruce was surprised to find himself a big deal in Hong Kong Thanks to Green Hornet TV series being a big hit there It’s not hard to see why He was fast and ferocious Much different from the ballet Hong Kong were used to at the time So naturally, in 1971 Hong Kong film company Golden Harvest casted him in a starring role In the first true Bruce Lee movie The Big Boss It’s everything people didn’t know they wanted Violent, realistic, contemporary No more opera This is real Kung Fu Bruce Lee plays an uneducated country boy Cheng Chao-an Who works in an ice factory “I don’t know what to do” Unbeknown to him, the factory is a front for a drug smuggling operation “What is this?” After a few workers being killed for discovering the truth Cheng, ever the good man, investigates Digging himself deep into the crime world Right off the bat, the setting is different from what came before No more folk heroes It’s an ordinary worker in a contemporary crime drama And the martial arts aren’t the fancy, classy stuff either It’s brutal, direct and to the point No more dancing around Every punch and kick are intended to kill I mean, the difference is night and day
I don’t need to explain much But it’s worth stressing that This movie is really the first of its kind And it was 1971 Star Wars hasn’t come out And Sean Connery was still James Bond “Oof” Actions like these They were mind-blowing Of course you can’t be perfect the first time through You can see the filmmakers have no idea how to compose for realistic actions Much of the film language were holdovers from wuxia films All too often, shots are too wide A tradition that works well with big acrobatic movement of wuxia But fails to emphasize the body in close quarters combat And when the camera is close It’s too close Camera frames the action from the waist up Leaving little room for the kicks This conflict between old and new even manifested on set During the filming The director called the production company and complained Saying that Bruce doesn’t know how to fight People called him Lee-Three-Kicks Because that’s all he does Clearly, the director intended to have longer, back and forth fights Much like wuxia films of old But Bruce, with actual street fight experiences Understood that real fights don’t last that long So he doubled down this relatively realistic style The Big Boss went on to be a massive success As Bruce’s wife recalled “The audience rose to its feet, yelling, clapping, cheering.” “It was almost impossible to leave the theatre” Clearly, Bruce was right to do his own thing And now, it’s up to the Hong Kong film industry to adapt Adapt they did One year later, 1972 Fist of Fury was released And became his most iconic movie in Asia The film was set During World War II When Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese Bruce Lee plays Chen Zhen, an uneducated, hot-headed young man Who, upon discovering his master was murdered by the Japanese Goes on a revenge killing spree It’s crazy how much everything has improved in just one year The film itself takes on a much more dramatic tone Taking much more inspiration from contemporary Chinese plays Such as Thunderstorm While in the Big Boss You can kinda see Bruce phoned-in his performance In Fist of Fury Bruce gave it his all Supposedly, Bruce wasn’t by his father’s side
when he passed away And this is how Bruce reacted when he arrived at his late father’s funeral Much of Bruce Lee’s persona is also amplified This humble yet gung-ho attitude is stronger than ever “I’m not well-educated” “Please don’t lie to me” Other Bruce Lee icons like toplessness One on many fights The flying kicks Are all bigger and better And of course, the nunchucks The cinematography also improved Wide shots are much closer Emphasizing the contact and bodily form Although some of the wuxia jumps still remain Medium shots now framed from the knee up instead of waist up Giving room for all the iconic high kicks In short, in just two films Bruce Lee lead to the creation of a new genre Forever splitting Kung Fu movies from wuxia movies Needless to say, Fist of Fury became a massive success I mean, it’s a film about beating Japanese Yet it became the 7th highest grossing film In Japan that year But bigger still, is its cultural impact It has been remade multiple times Many of its lines are quoted and parodied in Hong Kong media And the film is the standard formula in making a martial arts hero movie The character Chen Zhen lives on as an icon for national pride Fighting against foreign oppression Pushing back the shame China has endured Or as Chen says “Chinese p eople” “Are not sick men” From 1969 To 1972 Bruce Lee single handedly transformed the landscape of Kung Fu cinema And kicked his way into people’s heart And he was just getting started Because in his next two movies Bruce continued and set out a trajectory for the genre With which the industry will follow to this day Tune in next time As we examine the remaining Bruce Lee films And see how the man punches his way to international stardom

100 thoughts on “How Bruce Lee Changed Martial Arts Cinema – Part 1 | Video Essay

  1. Correction: Fist of Fury is set during early 20th century, in Japanese occupied concessions within China (Thanks to commenter Afghan Dan)

  2. Bruce Lee was so committed to to his craft that, apparently, he had surgery done to the sweat glands of his armpits- because he thought it didn't look good on camera.

  3. He didn't change martial arts movies he had a name that was recognizable the best martial artist film actors names you can't pronounce

  4. Wuxia and Kung Fu movies were divided by Bruce Lee, until Ang Lee brought them back together in Crouching Tiger. Guess it's a Lee thing.

  5. what do you expect?? he was the only person in the world who can kick CHUCK norris ass. The legendary World destroyer Chuck Norris who push the world down and up when doing push ups

  6. The only things I look forward to while studying in uni, Lo-Fi Chill HipHop beats and Accented Cinema ❤️ thanks for another amazing essay! Keep up the quality work!

  7. I am in love with your analysis of films and particularly Asian films. I've learned so much by watching your videos and I've taken time to explore the films you include. I was waiting for you to do a Bruce Lee video, and now you're doing two parts! I'm sorry I couldn't give more at the moment but when I can, I will.

  8. Not sure if this is true, but I remember reading on IMDB that Bruce Lee hated the exaggerated action aspects of the Big Boss and Fists for Fury (flinging two grown men across a room with one hand each). He wanted things to be more realistic.

  9. I Think in the second part you're going to explain how Bruce Lee also changed how fight choreography changed, when in the past is limited to someone say "I Know Karate/judo" and is only throwing and a vertical chop

  10. It would make an interesting comparison to track the contemporary change in gunfights in Western well Westerns and crime pictures from roughly mid 50s (say Shane) to this era (Bonnie and Clyde had come out by then right?) As well as a major shift in Japanese jidai-geki (period) films. Which underwent a similar transition (though with more emphasis on blood and violence) from around 1962. The Kurosawa twins Yojimbo and Sanjuro are usually given as the impetus that got Toei to abandon their old "stagey" fights and plots. Also how much did TV cause this? Westerns took a fairly big turn for realism in the 50s (the age of TV in the US) and the Japanese maps well to critical mass TV (1964 Olympics generally marks the critical year). What was the year that TVs became common in Hong Kong? They had to have some way to watch the Green Hornet..

  11. Well done, but you can see where Lee got some of his choreography, staging and ideas from classics like, Come Drink With Me.

  12. I remember when my father got our first VCR in the 80s, first films we watched were all the available VHS that had Bruce Lee. My admiration of martial arts came from those movies.

  13. Well made and informative video..Bruce's martial capabilities may sometimes be oveblown by his fans but in spite of that, one cannot overlook the cultural impact he had, not only in cinema but also the martial world and pop culture. His legacy will live on forever. I give this video two fists of fury(with thumbs up of course)

  14. As a kid, I loved these movies; but, hated Bruce Lee films. As a kid, Big Boss was pretty bloody with body horror such as dismemberment and decimation (in a kids mind). I prefer Jackie Chan stuff compared to the bloody consequence harsh reality of Bruce Lee.

    Today, I love Bruce Lee-the Human Being for his work ethic, ideas, philosophy, cracking the bamboo ceiling of Hollywood. Today, I can appreciate the fictional character, the fake blood, the prop bodies in his movies. I can appreciate both.

  15. When he was alive, he had to fight those racist discrimination, after he died, yet another white pathetic coward name Tarantino trying to humiliate and making fun of him thru his shit movie, all because he is a Chinese…. well done Mr Tarantino, u earn everyone 'respect'

  16. *Opens with long description of Bruce Lee's many, many accomplishments, including being a "very sexy gentlemen"

    Me: Yup, no lies detected, guess I'll watch the rest of the video

  17. Is Buddha Palm strike a genre of it's own? I think when Buddha Palm strike came out, alot of kids prefer watching it than watching Wong Fei Hung movies, due to it being like a Cartoon movie for them

  18. Bruce lee has been someone I looked up to as a kid being Asian American with white kids being racist toward me. Such an inspiration

  19. 2 Things that Bruce Lee,that nobody else was doing at the time:
    1). he moved away from the more over the top Wu Xia style to a more ''realistic'' type of fight choreography and
    2).he used real-life martial artists in his movies.People like Robert Wall (''O'hara'' from ''Enter The Dragon'' who is a Tang Soo Do and Shotokan master) Chuck Norris,Bolo Yeung or his teacher/ student,Daniel Inosanto. (Inosanto tought Bruce how to use the Nunckuchs and also Eskrima,fillipino stickfighting and then Bruce tought him Jeet Kune Do)

  20. In the States The Big Boss was released as Fist of Fury; Fist of Fury was released as The Chinese Connection and The Way of the Dragon was released as Return of the Dragon.

  21. I knew Bruce Lee was an absolute legend of Kung fu action films, but I never knew that he practically invented it. So incredible.

  22. Quinton Tarantino should be made to watch this. Big mistake for Tarantino to represent Bruce as a one dimensional character in his recent movie: “Once Upon A Tine In America”.

  23. I remember the first movie that I watched as a child (Chinese movie) is The Big Boss. I never knew it was Bruce Lee's first movie until now, though! I was around 5 years old at the time I believe, and I remember sneaking around in the night and playing the CD disk of the movie at 1 volume.

    It honestly brings years to my eyes whenever I recall that memory. One of the few nice memory I had when I was a child.

  24. Bruce Lee’s nationalism (Chinese vs foreign bully) didn’t promote CCP or communism. Bruce was defending Chinese people and its culture; not a political ideology. Ironically the nationalism in modern Chinese films appears to be CCP propaganda were the foreign villains fits the CCP history revisionist’s narrative. Has everyone noticed this too?

  25. I think that Bruce Lee is getting a bit to much of a credit for changing Martial Arts cinema. Rather, it was Jimmy Wang Yu that with The Chinese Boxer launched a new kind of martial arts movie. In some ways, Fist of Fury to a large degree resemble the plot of Chinese Boxer. Yes, Bruce Lee did it better but he really continued the trend set by Jimmy Wang Yu.

  26. Wuxia is great though. It's dumb, but fun. That, and much of wuxia originates from literature, and shit there is pretty fucking difficult to adapt to either the stage, or to film, what with wuxia heroes being literal superhumans.

  27. Not even just martial arts cinema. He changed how action in movies are filmed, which reverted back to cuts and shaky camera. Which I just can't stand. Might as well watch the first punch, close my eyes till the fight's over, and see who won. Would have the same effect as wildly shaking the camera around and cutting to receiving a punch. Except less headaches.

  28. I think Jackie Chan really changed the game. He made action scenes a flow/dance, incorporated wide shots and made the main character vulnerable. Even the team who did The Raid(arguably one of the greatest Martial Arts series in recent times) said they were inspired a lot by Jackie Chan. You are still correct seeing how Jackie Chan was a stuntman in Bruce Lee films and came into prominence after the death of Lee.

    In case you can't tell, I am a Jackie Chan nuthugger.

  29. The narrow shots cut off the kicks, but in the boss's point-of-view that isn't so bad, as it almost mimics being caught by kicks you don't see coming.

  30. So basically Bruce Lee began the transition from Wuxia genre to more realistic martial arts cinema. Though One of my big "what ifs" is what would have happened if Bruce Lee had ever collaborated with King Hu (arguably the greatest film director of Wuxia)? Of course we'll never know this, but it is interesting to speculate.

  31. Fun fact:
    David Carradine died trying to find Bruce Lee's "kung-fu Killers" (* a direct quote from the deceased actor's sister, in her explanation of the 'curious' cricumstances of her borther's death)… That is, after he got done with those Thai ladyboys! 👈😏

  32. in conclusion,after all bruce lee 's legendary success michel jai withe comes to says I can beat bruce lee,but what kind of idiot is M JAI W ?

  33. i REAALLY apilogize id this sounds racist but Before Bruce lee most westerners didnt really consider Asian men particularly handsome or masculine
    Bruce changed that
    in a sense he helped to make Asian actors more visible
    o know this sounds terrible but i hope people will get my meaning

  34. i remember as a kid the first time any id us had seen NUNCHUCKS we were all in awe wondering WHAT ARE THOSE???
    overnight millio s of kids in nwighborhoods throughout NYC were stealing their mothers Broom sticks and Mop handles to make their own chucks and start practicing.
    i myself made a transparent pair made out of fiberglass.
    Nunchucks were so prevalent in NYC that it became a felony to carry a pair

  35. 1:21 Now that is something we do not see a lot of now days. Now directors have to change to suit the mould of the industry figureheads

  36. I wish this channel would review "the boxer from shantung", one of my favorite martial arts film than combines hand to hand kung fu, some elements of Wuxia and the heroic bloodshed drama from Chinese gangster movies.

  37. I don't think people have truly taken into account how much American Black people, of my generation, totally loved this man. Thank you for illuminating some things for me about Bruce and his film making styles. This was a great video.

  38. Was Chen Zhen an uneducated youth in Fist of Fury? I thought he had been overseas studying when his master died. The Jet Li version of the same character further elaborated that he was in Japan studying in college to be an engineer.

  39. I normally know better, but for years I assumed jkd was a bunch of flashy high kicks and stuff. I know now it's a form of mma that uses any techniques that work, with concepts and philosophies designed for streetfighting

  40. After seeing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood I had to see this. This is how I can best remember Buce Lee. Or at least how I'd best prefer to see him.

  41. Thank you for making this video. You really make all the fans of Bruce Lee very proud. I am actually saddened that Quentin Tarantino chose to depict Bruce in a unfavorable light. It’s very demeaning considering Bruce’s legacy. Again you really make us proud.

  42. Bruce Lee was a great teacher and great martial artist. That is his real life.

    But in movies it's the stunt crew that makes the star shine the brightest. Idiot!

  43. As far as oppression goes, China historically speaking always thought of themselves as the Big Boss for centuries. They tried invading Japan multiple times, but were repeatedly beaten back. When the tables were turned, things didn’t go so well. I understand that they needed symbols to rise above such hard times, but it really just them getting a taste of their own medicine. And as far as Japan goes, they are under American occupation to this day, which no one talks about.

    No one nation likes to think of themselves as weak, but the majority are. And even if they are strong, they aren’t all that great.

  44. I've seen quite a few videos like this and this has to be the best I've seen yet. Great work, man. Bruce Lee is finally being recognised for his role in filmmaking too. He was an artist in many way forms, even poetry. Maybe you could touch on that too.

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