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The Dragon Rises Yet Again

Reexamining the triumphs and tragedies of Bruce Lee

On July 20, 1973, Li Jun Fan, the iconic actor and martial artist known professionally as Bruce Lee, laid down for a nap in the Hong Kong home of his mistress, Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei. He never woke up.

Lee’s death at thirty-two—just weeks ahead of the release of his breakout Hollywood hit Enter The Dragon, a film almost singularly responsible for mainstreaming martial arts in North America—seeded a tabloid feeding frenzy. Ting Pei was targeted, with The China Star making reference to the “fragrant chamber” in which Lee lost his life. To quell potential unrest, the island’s colonial British government ordered a public inquest into Lee’s death. A forensics expert flown in from London ruled that Lee had died of a cerebral edema caused by a reaction to painkillers. But in 2018’s Bruce Lee: A Life, biographer Matthew Polly supplies another theory: heat stroke.

Lee, Polly suggests, had suffered spells of fainting. These were compounded by extreme weight loss and surgery to remove the sweat glands in his armpits (in order to reduce unsightly stains on camera). Lee reportedly spent his last hours excitedly rehearsing before Ting Pei and his friend and business partner Raymond Chow, and, the theory goes, he overexerted himself. “If it was heat stroke,” Polly writes, “then Bruce Lee died doing what he loved most—performing kung fu in front of an appreciative audience.”

Polly’s hyperthermia theory is less interesting as an account of Lee’s death than for the way it eagerly reframes it. Instead of dying by something as banal as an adverse drug reaction, Bruce Lee died bringing others joy, flexing his ample talent and nimble musculature. In this redemptive light, Polly claims that Lee’s death, “was not a tragedy, because his life was a triumph.” But can’t it be both?

Lee’s life, and all its triumphs and tragedies, feels due for a reexamination in light of two recent releases: Bao Nguyen’s Be Water, an archival biographical doc released as the latest installment in ESPN’s popular 30 For 30 series, and a handsome new home video set, courtesy the Criterion Collection, titled Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits. Lee’s celebrity, and the diligence of his struggle to cement it against considerable odds, prefigures many of the ongoing debates about inclusion in Hollywood, where Asian actors remain marginalized.

Be Water opens with a screen test that eventually led to Lee’s casting in The Green Hornet, the campy 1960s TV action-drama that featured Lee as the sidekick Kato. He is young and nervous, but also cocksure, a wry smirk pinching the corner of his mouth, a cowlick creeping across his crown. He exudes an easy, boyish charisma; he is quite obviously a movie star already. Yet for all his magnetism, Lee could never assimilate into the milieu of ’60s Hollywood. He was paid a pittance for The Green Hornet ($400 a week, versus the $2,000 earned by series lead Van Williams), rough-housed by stuntmen (Quentin Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows Lee, played by Mike Moh, squaring off against Brad Pitt on set), and generally ill-at-ease in Hollywood high life, where he was, as Polly writes, either “ignored or treated like a Chinese busboy.”

No longer the sidekick of some schticky comic book hero, Lee remodeled himself as an avatar of Chinese nationalism.

An American citizen, born in a San Francisco hospital in 1940 (the year of the dragon), he was racially and culturally ostracized nonetheless. Lee was turned down for the lead of a wandering Shaolin monk on the ABC action drama Kung Fu for being “too authentic.” (The role went to David Carradine, whose inauthenticity as a white man playing a half-Chinese martial arts master proved more salable.) For all the ballyhoo of social upheaval at the time, the 1960s—with the Japanese internments of WWII a recent memory, and the Vietnam War headline news—were not kind to Asian Americas. “The truth is,” Lee flatly told an interviewer, “I am a yellow-faced Chinese. I cannot possibly become an idol for Caucasians, not to mention rousing the emotions of my countrymen.”

Lee’s sober appraisal of his own prospects, however matter-of-fact, depresses. In Be Water, Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, expresses her husband’s horror at seeing Mickey Rooney tottering around in a bathrobe, buck teeth jutting out like a cowcatcher, while playing the Japanese Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. More depressing still is how little the situation has improved in the intervening half-century. In recent years, Emma Stone, who is white, was called out for playing a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian character in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha. Similar whitewashing controversies swirled around Marvel’s Doctor Strange and the live-action remake of the popular anime Ghost in the Shell. The rationale trotted out each time is that Hollywood movies need stars, and there just aren’t enough Asian stars—conveniently ignoring the fact that Hollywood is in the business of manufacturing movie stars. For Bruce Lee, the answer to being shut out laid back east. If he couldn’t catch the eye of American casting directors, he would work to rouse his countrymen elsewhere.

In Hong Kong, where he was raised, Lee had a profile as an actor. He appeared in an array of movies as a child and teenager under the stage names Little Hoi Chuen and Li Xiao Long (“Little Dragon Li”). By the late ’60s, his star has risen considerably. On the island, The Green Hornet was called The Kato Show. It’s back in Hong Kong that Criterion’s Greatest Hits collection catches up with Lee’s career. In the early 1970s, Lee teamed with producer Raymond Chow and his newly minted Golden Harvest production company for two movies, The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. Both were directed by Lo Wei, and both, writes critic Jeff Chang in an essay accompanying the Greatest Hits, cast Lee as “a working-class hero who confronted oppressive foreign bosses and authorities.” No longer the sidekick of some schticky comic book hero, Lee remodeled himself as an avatar of Chinese nationalism.

Fist of Fury is especially pointed in this respect. Set in the 1910s, during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, Lee plays a martial arts student avenging the death of his master, killed by the colonizers. It’s tempting to read Fist of Fury in two ways. Historically, it works as an allegory for Hong Kong resistance to British colonization in the early ’70s, a period when, as critic Sam Ho puts it in Nguyen’s doc, “existential angst was way high.” Biographically, it doubles as Lee’s riposte, a way of redressing his own marginalization as an ethnically Chinese actor in Hollywood. The film proved a hit in the United States as well, proving Lee’s newfound viability as an import.

More than anything, Enter the Dragon was a showcase for Bruce Lee: his athleticism, his personality, his formidable physique, his philosophy of martial arts.

This sense of avenging not only Hong Kong, but Lee’s own identity, runs through 1972’s The Way of the Dragon, which Lee wrote, directed, starred in, and produced, alongside Raymond Chow. In that film, Lee plays a bodyguard who is shipped to Rome to defend a Chinese restaurant from encroaching gangsters; it had the historical distinction of being the first-ever Hong Kong film production shot in Europe. Beyond giving Lee ample opportunity to beat up caucasian mobsters, directing the film also afforded him the opportunity to put his vision of martial arts prowess on full display. The climactic showdown against a white black belt (Chuck Norris), unfolding in the ancient colosseum, evokes tropes of the American western—one fighter in white and the other in black, a sense of gentlemanly ceremony—while fully expressing the on-screen potential of Lee’s martial artistry. With wider shots, longer takes, and fewer cuts, The Way of the Dragon’s fight choreography gave its combatants the room to maneuver. Beyond being one the most thrilling showdowns in either actor’s filmography, Lee and Norris’s face-off was a merging of East and West—Hong Kong meets Hollywood in the dust of the Eternal City.

This amalgamation of two disparate nations, and two distinct styles of filmmaking, found its fullest expression in Enter the Dragon. A Hollywood/Hong Kong co-production mounted on a modest budget, the film stands as a singular blend of mid-’70s genres. Lee stars as, well, Lee, a Shaolin fighter recruited by a British intelligence agency. His brief is to infiltrate an underground martial arts contest hosted by the mysterious Han (Shih Kien), who is suspected of abducting young girls and selling them into a global sex market. The espionage plot, coupled with Han’s distinctly Dr. No-ish comportment, give the film a James Bond vibe. (Bond’s subsequent outing, 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun, attempted to cash in on the martial arts craze.) The casting of Jim Kelly as a Black competitor who is introduced while pummeling two white cops makes it feel in places like a blaxploitation film. This hybridity also manifests in Lalo Schifrin’s memorable score, which wove together funk, “Oriental” chord progressions, and its star’s distinct, pitchy vocalizations. But more than anything, Enter the Dragon was a showcase for Bruce Lee: his athleticism, his personality, his formidable physique, his philosophy of martial arts. If Lee was, as Nguyen’s Be Water puts it, the consummate “Mid-Pacific Man,” standing astride the expanses of East and West, then Enter The Dragon proved a formative piece of Mid-Pacific Cinema.

The receipts were spectacular, with the film grossing $90 million on its $850,000 budget. Marketing materials trumped up Enter The Dragon as “The First American Produced Martial Arts Spectacular! With the Legendary Bruce Lee!” In Hong Kong, the phrasing was flipped, billing Enter the Dragon as, “the first international film starring a leading Chinese actor!” It was a success of Lee’s savvy. With his legend enshrined abroad in a run of successful features, the sidekick Kato returned to Hollywood a conquering hero. He wasn’t the Chinese Steve McQueen or Charles Bronson. He was Bruce Lee, the Dragon, the Legend—a whole new kind of action hero, introducing a whole new kind of cinema to Western audiences.

That Lee was not able to savor his successes is, undoubtedly, a blow. His death stoked the martial arts craze in North America. Cheapo Hong Kong flicks, punnily dubbed “chopsocky” pictures, flooded cinemas, and Carl Douglas’s novelty-disco single “Kung Fu Fighting” improbably blasted up the pop music charts. In the wake of Lee’s massive public funeral, veneration passed swiftly into exploitation. Game of Death, the film he was working on when he died, was stitched together with a mix of body doubles (and in one scene, a conspicuous cardboard cut-out) and released in 1978. The film is notable for a physically mismatched fight between Lee (5’8”) and nineteen-time NBA All-Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (7’2”): a consummate and final image of Bruce Lee as an underdog trumping all comers.

The emerging Bruce Lee Industrial Complex showed no signs of slowing down in the absence of Lee. Lookalikes found work in so-called “Brucesploitation” films. The movies are shlocky and utterly tasteless: 1977’s The Dragon Lives Again (itself recently released on home video, courtesy the handmade Gold Ninja Video imprint), featured Bruce Leung as Lee in hell, battling a rogues gallery of Hollywood icons including James Bond, Count Dracula, Popeye, and Clint Eastwood; 1980’s The Clones of Bruce Lee marshaled footage of Lee’s funeral in service of a story in which three “Bruces” are cloned from the actor’s brain tissue. (Sammo Hung parodied the entire emerging sub-genre with 1978’s Enter The Fat Dragon, playing a meaty Lee wannabe.) Bruce Lee’s real-life martial arts mentor, Ip Man, was treated to a series of biopic treatments, starring Hong Kong stars like Tony Leung and Donnie Yen. Asian actors and martial artists from Jackie Chan to Jet Li were introduced not on their own merits, but by virtue of being “The Next Bruce Lee.”

By most accounts, Lee was arrogant. And, given his rare gifts, he had good reason to be.

Here lies the great misfortune of Lee’s massive influence. The success of Enter the Dragon enshrined him as a fixture in the cinematic firmament, as instantly recognizable as Eastwood or Chaplin or R2D2. He has since hardened into myth—a figure loosed from context and abstracted into pure iconography. Lee’s form, rendered in taut angles and chiaroscuro greyscale, is spray-painted in an alley near my apartment, alongside Hitchcock and Marilyn Monroe and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a mural that, despite the wonky representation of its subjects, clearly connotes the very idea of The Movies.

While myths enlarge perception, they can also reduce complexity and therefore truth. And they risk creating new stereotypes—like the Asian movie star as a “hi-ya!”-ing, karate-chopping, chopsocky master. When a fictionalized Lee appeared in Tarantino’s recent period epic, Lee’s daughter Shannon expressed disappointment in her father’s depiction as “an arrogant asshole.” But, by most accounts, Lee was arrogant. And, given his rare gifts, he had good reason to be. In many respects, Tarantino’s image of Lee—confident, cocksure, claiming he could beat up Muhammad Ali—feels more human than his enduring image, endlessly licensed on T-shirts and beach towels and dorm room posters.

Nguyen’s doc, Criterion’s new collection, and even a bootlegged blu-ray of the knockoff Dragon Lives Again offer an occasion for audiences to acquaint themselves with both the iconic Bruce Lee and the man who lived inside the heavy armor of that mythology: the haughty, funny, self-assured, pot-smoking, philandering, anti-imperialist figure who nimbly parried the racism of Hollywood, America itself, and all underlings of hell—who sacrificed his body, and finally his life, to become a global superstar on his own terms. That Bruce Lee managed to do all this is a triumph. That he had to do it, and that so few have followed through the door he supposedly blew off its hinges, remains the stuff of tragedy.