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. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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! 👈😏

  5. 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 ?

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. @6:30 is not true. "Leaving little room for the kicks" was intentional on that shot @6:30, because Bruce wanted the viewer to feel what it's like to be getting kicked in the face as if you were IN the fight. So that wasn't a "leftover" as you stated of previous Martial Arts Cinema, that was actually done by Bruce Lee on purpose and was prolly never done before, he then repeated it himself that shot in Way of Dragon and also Fist of Fury.
    @8:26 "you can kind of see Bruce fumbling his performance" VERY WRONG. In big boss he NEVER held back, never fumbled, and had all the way EXPRESSED himself FULLY and honestly. And that clip 8:26 is not him fumbling geez lol, you obviously did't get it: that was his genius sense of humor. You're so wrong for that

  19. Bruce Lee would've been a great movie star period if Hollywood wasn't so racist we would've seen him fight with Jim Kelly and many more at the time. And a completed version of Game Of Death.

  20. The man, the myth, the legend. I get teary-eyed everytime I watch this video. The gods took him too soon, leaving us scrambling to continue his legacy.

  21. Lovely video, looking forward to part 2. It's amazing the impact he had! I had no idea. In a way, it was a bit like making the Bourne movies after all those years of cheesy Bond films: Instead of melodramatic & operatic staging, you get more more (but not total, because it's still a fantastic tale) practicality. And suddenly everyone goes, "Wow, we didn't know it could be done like that!"

  22. The fact he was so quick old cameras couldn't record his movements is NOT "a sign of a good film maker". Yes, it WAS a sign the tech was lacking. No, it WASN'T a sign that "this dude knows how to make great movies". Just like being able to shove ten tacos at once in your mouth, or recreate one of Beethoven's tunes with prolonged farts might be an impressive feat, but it's not "good film making".

    I'm not saying Bruce Lee wasn't stellar at what he did. Nor that he WASN'T good at "this film making thing". What I'm saying is that high kicks, and the ability to properly capture and depict them on film, do not a good movie make.

    For example, I'm sure the people behind Waterworld had to find some new ways to film all those water-involving scenes. Was it "good film making"?

  23. Can't wait for part 2! Also, regarding today's trend of disgusting shaky camera, close-ups, and too much angle editing in fight scenes — especially Hollywood, I'm looking forward if you could make an essay video about it one day.

  24. The TV series Kung Fu back in the 70s was originally for Bruce Lee but somehow David Carradine took it away from him its really no telling how his career would have been if he had took that series. It would have been interesting if he had been in that series. Bruce Lee career with short but it was a great one

  25. BEFORE , BRUCE LEE , KUNG FU , WAS A MYSTERY .? . THANKS 🙏🏾 TO BRUCE LEE !!!!! . HE OPEN THE , DOOR 🚪 TO THE POSSIBLE .!!!!!! . IT TOOK AN ( AMERICAN CHINESE ) TO OPEN THAT DOOR 🚪 .!!!!!!! . OF YEARS , OF SECRECY .!!!!!… 😎👍🙏🏾😎…..THE WORLD 🗺 HAS , NEVER BEEN THE SAME .!!!!!! . TODAY .!!!!!!!!!! .

  26. WOW! that was so good to watch. I always said that Bruce lee changed the world. You did a great job. You understand who Bruce Lee is.

  27. Bruce Lee was the greatest martial Artist that ever lived, we all know that, but he didn't invent it, not even practically, he was just the best at it, what most people fail to understand that these movies were being made in china and other countries, Bruce just brought them to the U.S. Jimmy Wang Yu was the biggest star before Bruce.

  28. Part of the deal with Golden Harvest Studios was Bruce didn't want the old fashioned Kung Fu opera style fighting.Master Lee wanted more realistic fights.

  29. I would say, this attempt this video essay of yours is also like its protagonist. A game-changer in Bruce Lee tribute videos on YouTube.

  30. This was a very good video essay on the Great Man & Martial Artist, Bruce Lee. To have a charismatic influence on the masses, 46 yrs & counting after, passing away is a phenomenon within it self. One mystery, we will never know, to question, was Bruce Lee at his peak when he died or not? If not, then WHAT??? 🤔😯😳

  31. One day, My dad and I were bored and channel-surfing when we landed on The Big Boss by pure chance. My dad was always a big fan of Bruce Lee and immediately knew what is was before Lee even appeared on screen, so we decided to watch. It was already about halfway through, but even so we were immediately pulled into it and I've loved it ever since. It's definitely a little rough around the edges, but my dad and I have always bonded over movies, so It's really special to me as a result.

  32. Despite having way less movies compared to Jackie, Bruce's work was superior. The grounded combat works better for cinema. It's believable, raw and convincing.

  33. With all due respect, Bruce Lee ain't that good. He was lucky enough to be the first Chinese Martial Arts actor famous worldwide and that helped him to spread Chinese Martial Arts and his movies across the world but he ain't as good as Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Tony Jaa and others. All of his movies when watched today are completely cringy, unrealistic and very boring. I couldn't watch any of them until the end nowadays without yawning plenty of times. Of course that when I've watched him for the first time I was astonished and obviously he revolutionized Chinese cinema, but he was just the kickstart for something that others that I've already mentioned would put in practice.

  34. Even Star Wars was influenced by Bruce Lee's films, other than Akira Kurosawa's films and Stanly Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odysseys.

  35. Man, I liked so much Big Boss. It s my favorite Bruce Lee film, it maybe is the clash between the old and the new that I enjoy so much but Im not shure.

  36. IN 'FIST OF FURY' IT WAS HIS TEACHER WHO DIED NOT HIS FATHER! BUT YOU ARE RIGHT THAT BRUCE LEE INSPIRED GENERATIONS OF PEOPLE AND CHANGED CINEMA! NOT JUST MARTIAL ARTS BUT ACTION, DRAMA AND PROBABLY OTHER GENRES AS WELL!

  37. before he died he was planing to do a traditional sword play movie wish he could have made it that would have been sick

  38. wile were at it if he turned his sword play charector into a franchise like Zatoichi and had a cross over with Toshiro Mifune that would have been great. I know Ones chines the other's Japaneses But we had One Armed Swordsman vs Zatoichi

  39. I saw one of IP man movie and two master fight on a round table without being bolted and such a fake fight it pissed me off and only if Bruce Lee would have been alive he would correct all martial arts movies to make them more realistic unlike fake and fancy

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