[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
At the beginning of this month, I wasn’t quite sure which movie to tackle for Kung Fu Corner. I didn’t want to do a third Jet Li film in a row, but I also had a hankering for the absurdity that is Shaolin Temple. Times have been hard and I’ve been having a rough go of things, so I wanted to take my mind off this crappy world.
Then on March 16, 2021, Robert Aaron Long when on a shooting spree in Atlanta, Georgia, and killed numerous workers at different spas, six of whom were Asian women. It sparked a debate about the recent uplift in hate crimes against Asians and Asian-Americans, which brought my mind to one man: Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee is one of the most respected martial artists of all time, but you don’t really need me to tell you that. I’ve already covered two of his films for this column and I wanted to avoid talking about him too much since people are typically familiar with his face and presence. Still, he was an actor that was proud of his Chinese heritage and fought every day to reverse America’s perception of Asian men as weak, sexless losers that had been built up over the years. No movie captures that struggle quite like Fist of Fury.
Fist of Fury is the follow-up film to Lee’s smash hit The Big Boss. I’ve covered that debut feature and explained why it was so legendary in its day. Lee was breaking the mold of martial arts films by setting them in more contemporary times and tackling themes beyond the simple “Good Vs. Evil” or “Prophesized Hero” that had become rampant in the genre. It also didn’t hurt that Lee was a Kung Fu prodigy, bringing about an intensity to his lightning-fast moves that filmgoers had never seen before.
In truth, Fist of Fury doesn’t break away too much from what The Big Boss had already done, but it does refine it to near perfection and feature a story that delves deep into fighting for your beliefs and not rejecting your heritage. Let me give a quick recap so you can understand my point.
Fist of Fury is set in 1930s Shanghai when the Japanese military was occupying the country right before World War 2. Lee plays Chen Zhen, a fictional character that is the student of Chinese folk hero Huo Yuanjia, and he has returned to his hometown to get married. Upon stepping out of the carriage, he learns that his master has mysteriously died and it breaks him. To make matters worse, a rival Japanese dojo attends Yuanjia’s funeral to taunt him and it sends Chen Zhen into an unchecked rage. Now he believes the death to be a murder and he will stop at nothing to prove it.
At the time of the film’s release in 1972, Lee had done a lot to spread Chinese Kung Fu to America. Before he established a martial arts school, most Americans had the idea that the Japanese were the originators of martial arts and believed that every form of fighting was karate. It’s a really short-sighted view of a different culture, but then America still isn’t known for being the most progressive country. Despite Lee’s efforts, Chinese Kung Fu wasn’t widely known and he wanted to make audiences understand that there was nothing wrong with being Chinese.
Because of that, most of the scenes in Fist of Fury feature Chen Zhen defeating Japanese opponents and boasting about the Chinese being better. In the context of the narrative, a lot of this is Chen Zhen being a braggart. He wants to prove he can be stronger than anyone but takes things too far. He’s certainly a badass and Lee gives arguably the best performance of his career here, but you could almost view the story as anti-Japanese. Oddly, though, the film was a huge hit in Japan, so I guess it never offended anyone.
Getting back to the theme, Fist of Fury is really about the dangers of violence and righteous anger. Chen Zhen isn’t blindly punishing every Japanese person he runs into, but he is subverting the law to take matters into his own hands. A lot of that is because the police force is corrupt and bought out by the Japanese dojo, but that doesn’t give Chen Zhen the right to circumvent legality. His rage over the death of his teacher has made him stray from the good path, turning him into the very thing he is trying to stop.
It’s a surprisingly dark turn for a martial arts film even to this day. Lee was never afraid to portray his characters in a negative light, but you rarely see a film so hellbent on showing the downside to vigilantism. You’re obviously cheering along with Chen Zhen for defeating the wicked, but a lot of his brutality comes from the fact that the Japanese in that location were highly prejudiced against the Chinese. Swap the races around and the story still works as a parable on the dangers of racism and how it can twist otherwise innocent men into becoming monsters.
This is shown through the masterful fight scenes, which contain some of Lee’s best moments. The iconic dojo fight not only pioneered new filming techniques for martial arts movies but showcased Lee absolutely wrecking everything in his path. You likely know this scene without having ever seen the movie: that’s how influential it was. The film ending brawl against Robert Baker (a close friend of Lee’s) is also the thing of legends, featuring an intense stand-off and some deeply mystical elements that paint Lee almost like a god. One watch of Fist of Fury and it’s not hard to understand why Lee’s legacy persists into the modern-day.
Now, not everything in the film works as it should. Chen Zhen’s romance with Yuan Li’er (played by Nora Maio) is barely developed as the film goes on and caps off with a rather awkward kiss. You also have some strange bits of comedy that were forced in by director Lo Wei, an authorial touch that Lee objected to and would ultimately get rid of in his next film -which served as his directorial debut-. There’s even this one segment where some Japanese gang bosses are drinking and acting like hooligans while a geisha strips down. I know it’s meant to show how dastardly they are, but it comes off in a weirdly voyeuristic light that distracts from whatever else is happening.
Even with those negatives, Fist of Fury is a remarkable film that cemented Bruce Lee as a legend. As a man that was never afraid of voicing his opinion and was legitimately happy to be born Chinese, Fist of Fury shows off his life’s mission statement in full force. Lee loved martial arts, wanted people to respect the ancient teachings of his culture and wanted the world to know that Asians were not people to push around. It’s sad that nearly 50 years later, Hollywood still hasn’t received that message.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.