Lee’s first Hong Kong feature film made him a global superstar
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
What Hong Kong audiences seemed to love the most about Bruce Lee was that he was not only an action star who kicked some serious ass, but that he was an Asian actor who kicked some serious ass.
The definition of a meteor according to the Cambridge Dictionary is “a piece of rock or other matter from space that produces a bright light as it travels through the atmosphere.” That description perfectly describes Bruce Lee. He was like a meteor that arrived and shone brightly in the public’s consciousness. But it would only be brief.
This year marks 50 years since the release of Lee’s first Hong Kong movie, The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury). The movie premiered in October 1971 in Hong Kong. The film, shot on location in Thailand and directed by Lo Wei, catapulted Lee to superstardom as he became akin to the “Elvis Presley” of Hong Kong. The film also stars Maria Yi (Chow Mei), James Tien (Hsu Chien), Tony Liu (Hsiao Chiun, Big Boss’ son) and Nora Miao (drink stand owner).
The Big Boss was the first of a two-picture contract Lee had signed with Golden Harvest, whose founder was Raymond Chow. Lee was paid $15,000 (US dollars) for both films. The second film, Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection) was released in March 1972.
Notably, Lee’s success would occur during an era when Asian-American actors endured discrimination in Hollywood. In the 1960s, Lee had difficulty securing prominent film roles in Hollywood. But he did land the role as Kato in the TV series, The Green Hornet, in 1966 (cancelled after one season). In addition, Lee had recurring appearances in the TV series, Longstreet. Apart from those roles, Lee would only secure minor parts in Hollywood. He would have to leave Hollywood in order to realize his dreams of becoming a movie star.
Unfortunately, during the 1950s and 1960s, many film roles given to Asian actors lacked substance and character depth. The roles were superficial and demeaning, reinforcing negative stereotypes. A further indignity to Asian-American Hollywood actors was having Asian-American characters portrayed by Caucasian actors. Examples are Mickey Rooney as the character named I. Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); and Marlon Brando plays the character, Sakini, in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). Bruce Lee’s arrival as a movie star in Hong Kong would be the antithesis.
In The Big Boss, Lee plays the character of Cheng Chao-an. He moves to Pak Chong, Thailand, to live with his adopted family and work at an ice factory. It is later revealed that the ice factory masks as a drug-smuggling operation. The owner is Hsiao Mi (The Big Boss), played by Han Ying-Chieh. The Chinese workers are treated poorly by the Thai foremen (supervisors), who are verbally and physically abusive.
Bruce Lee’s character would also be subjected to abuse during a scene after he began working at the ice factory. Lee places an ice block on the conveyor belt. As the block travels on the belt, it suddenly crashes onto the ground. A manager then approaches Lee, who is apologetic, and punches him in the face. Lee is incensed and is ready to retaliate. But he refrains due to a vow he took with his family—promising never to fight—symbolized in a necklace Lee wears.
However, Lee would not adhere to his vow for non-violence. In a later scene, a large brawl occurs between the factory workers and Thai managers. Later a gang of hired thugs arrives in a red bus; to help the managers. Lee’s chain is removed during the mêlée. And it was here, audiences witnessed Bruce Lee’s first fight sequence. His face is wrathful as he proceeds to defeat each villain one by one, with his lightning-fast kicks and punches. Lee utters to the bullies, “Alright, hold it! You get out of here, I’m warning you! You bastards can’t push us around. You wanna fight? I’ll take you on.”
Another fight scene has Lee in a memorable battle against the Big Boss’ henchmen in the ice factory. Lee displays his martial arts skills, as he proceeds to annihilate everyone who steps in his path. Afterwards, Lee is horrified to discover his relatives had been brutally murdered by thugs hired by the Big Boss. The next scene shows Lee sitting near the local river, holding knives in each hand. He pledges that he will avenge the murders of his family. Lee mutters to himself, “They must be made to pay for this, and pay they will! Even if I die, they will pay!” Lee then turns into Michael Myers (if he knew martial arts and was faster in his reflexes); and proceeds to the Big Boss’ mansion. He kills the remaining associates of the Big Boss.
The movie ends with the famous battle between Lee and the Big Boss. The fight is well choreographed; especially the slow tension and build-up are captured magnificently. However, during a pivotal tense-filled moment, all of it dissipates with a blooper—as vehicles are seen in the background.
The Big Boss opened in Hong Kong in October 1971. The movie became a box office success, grossing $50 million worldwide. The budget was only $100,000 USD. The Big Boss is an action film that contains superb martial arts choreography; highlighted by Lee’s strong screen presence, good looks and charisma. The movie also contains some nudity and shows scenes at a brothel. Bruce Lee’s character is even shown getting intoxicated at a dinner after drinking several glasses of Hennessy. The Big Boss is also a very violent film for its time, as there are several death scenes involving the use of knives.
Bruce Lee gave an interview to noted Canadian author, Pierre Berton, in December 1971—two months after the release of The Big Boss. It is one of the only surviving on-camera interviews that Lee ever gave. Lee refused to be bitter about his struggles in Hollywood where he was unable to secure more prominent roles. “They think that business-wise it’s a risk, and I don’t blame them,” he said. “I mean, it’s the same way in Hong Kong, if a foreigner came in and became a star, if I was the man with the money, I probably would have my own worries of whether the acceptance would be there. But that’s all right because if you honestly express yourself, it doesn’t matter.”
The Big Boss received many positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie 69 percent on its “Tomatometer.” Nicholas Bell praised the film in his review for IONCINEMA.com, “Efficiently paced, well-choreographed and full of entertaining moments featuring Lee, The Big Boss is the prototype for the template Lee would use over his next three features.” Matt Brunson, in his review for Film Frenzy, stated, “Rough in spots and rambling in others, it nevertheless benefits from Lee’s effortless charisma and, of course, some rousing fight scenes.”
On the other hand, Mike Massie was not impressed, writing in his critique for Gone With The Twins: “The story is largely pointless, full of irrational decisions by unthinking, broadly drawn stereotypes, and ultimately used as a meager setup for grand melees.” Nonetheless, Ed Travis, in his review in Cineapse, praised the movie in displaying the talent of Bruce Lee: “It’s clear why The Big Boss became a smash hit…the unprecedented furious star power of an unleashed Bruce Lee.”
Bruce Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, remembered sitting in the audience with Bruce during the premiere of The Big Boss in Hong Kong. “When the film was over, it was perfectly quiet,” she said in the 2009 documentary, How Bruce Lee Changed the World. “You could hear a pin drop in that theatre. And Bruce was like, ‘Oh my gosh! Do I make for the exit right now or what?’ And then all of a sudden it started, the clapping, the cheering. They loved it! They were thrilled and Bruce was thrilled; it was wonderful.” Also, in attendance was a 24-year-old assistant film director, who had not yet directed his first feature movie: John Woo.
Significantly, the release of The Big Boss helped Lee break down cultural and racial barriers. He was successful in demonstrating that an Asian actor can be a bankable movie star in a leading role. His onscreen charisma and ability to obliterate opponents using his martial arts skills made him a hero to the people of Hong Kong. But what Hong Kong audiences seemed to love the most about Bruce Lee was that he was not only an action star who kicked some serious ass, but that he was an Asian actor who kicked some serious ass.
Sadly, Lee died in Hong Kong on July 20, 1973, at age 32, one month before the release of Enter the Dragon—his first starring role in a Hollywood film. On the strength of four feature films (the fifth film, Game of Death, was released posthumously in 1978), Lee helped create the martial arts genre in motion pictures. His death inspired a worldwide phenomenon and interest in martial arts. Lee opened the doors for future Hollywood martial arts superstars: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Bruce Lee was a goal setter. He accomplished so much in his short life. His writings, philosophies and teachings of Jeet Kune Do are revered and practiced worldwide. In January 1969, Lee wrote a letter to himself, revealing his inner drive, perseverance—and high standards he set for himself: “I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest paid [Asian superstar] in the United States. In return, I will give the most exciting performances and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor. Starting 1970 I will achieve world fame and from then onward till the end of 1980 […] I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness.” Lee would achieve those goals he had set in his letter. And it is unfortunate that he did not live long enough to see the rewards of his dedicated, hard labour.