Saturday, August 31, 2013
Way of the Dragon - dir. Bruce Lee. 1972. BAM.
Bruce Lee goes to Rome to fight off the gangsters who are trying to coerce a Chinese family into selling their restaurant. Ends with a fight against Chuck Norris in the Coliseum.
I'd never seen a Bruce Lee film before. I didn't expect it to be so funny. Particularly amusing was that, although the film is set in Rome, the gangsters are clearly American street thugs, not Italian Mafiosi. "Don't you speak English?" one of the gangsters says to Lee. Lee is not much of a filmmaker but he is a storyteller and an entertainer. Lee's fresh-off-the-boat protagonist is endearing and recognizable. The attention lavished on a stray kitten that witnesses the final showdown between Lee and Norris is humorous and sweet. Bruce Lee ripping out Chuck Norris's chest hair and blowing it in his face is sublimely hilarious, and yet the same scene ends with convincing solemnity as, in a wordless exchange, Norris chooses to die in battle against Lee rather than live with the disgrace of defeat. (Norris, clearly already beaten, sets up to attack Lee. Lee shakes his head, "No," but Norris attacks anyways, forcing Lee to kill him. Lee honors Norris by covering his body before running after the rest of the fleeing bad guys.)
As compared to Sammo Hung's films, which I saw later that week, the choreography in Lee's film is both more visceral and more narratively compelling. In Lee's first fight with a group of American thugs, you can see the calculation behind his moves. He never attacks but instead baits the Americans into coming at him just the way he wants so that he can deliver a devastating counterattack. Reflected in this choreography is the moral posture of Lee's violence, which is defensive not only literally but also in its social context--Lee is the little guy, a working class immigrant, up against a predatory system of exploitation. It also suggests that beating the bad guys is not (just) a matter strength and skill but also of cleverness. Finally there is an element of ethnic pride. The Americans rely on brute strength and firearms to dominate others and mock "Chinese boxing" before the fight. Their underestimation of kung fu--and by extension, of working class minority community they exploit--proves to be the direct cause of their undoing, as in when one character knocks himself out in a clumsy attempt to use a nunchuck.
As much as the film is a feel good, populist story, there are dissonances left admirably unresolved. We do not get the satisfaction of seeing the head bad guy punished. Instead of death, he gets arrested at the end of the film in the first an only appearance made by the police. The kindly old man of the restaurant, Uncle Wang, ends up betraying his fellow workers, literally stabbing them in the back as he gives a speech about how honest, working people can never get ahead and how cooperating with the mob is the only way to elevate himself out of a life toiling in low-level jobs abroad to support a family back in China whom he never sees. This occurs near the end of the film, and Uncle Wang's speech is never refuted. His death (he is shot by the police) feels incidental rather than like a proper comeuppance. No sooner are the bad guys eliminated than Lee is called away to help a different family, and he does not seem to notice the heartbreak of Uncle Wang's niece at his departure.