FIST OF FURY (1972)
(Cantonese audio – 30th Anniversary ‘Hong Kong Legends’ DVD set)
While THE BIG BOSS was being released, Bruce and Golden Harvest were already in pre-production on their next collaboration. FIST OF FURY was called THE CHINESE CONNECTION in the USA until 2005 to tap immaterially into the popularity of THE FRENCH CONNECTION but also because the U.S. distributor also originally called THE BIG BOSS by the name of FIST OF FURY. The confusion was rectifed in 2005.
They kept the same writer/director Lo Wei and once more built the film as a showcase for Bruce’s talent although he felt increasingly hemmed in by the director’s condescension and stifling manner. This would soon change. FIST OF FURY is an improvement though in a number of ways on its cruder predecessor.
Firstly, the plot is a little more sophisticated and highly politically-charged. It’s set in the early 20th Century Shanghai oppressed by Japanese rulers, and this dominance is played out in the struggle between a Chinese martial arts school, Jingwu, and its merciless Japanese rival in Hongkou. Bruce (as Chen Zhen) returns home to the funeral of his beloved master, apparently the victim of illness. The school is then taunted by a delegation from the Japanese grandmaster Suzuki who insults the Chinese by presenting them with an engraving of the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ to ridicule them.
To uphold the Chinese honour Chen visits the Japanese school and defeats all-comers including their instructor.
When Chen is refused entry to a park signposted as ’No Dogs or Chinese allowed’ and is degraded by a Japanese man, he beats up the man and then must flee to safety.
It emerges that the Chinese school’s cook and caretaker had conspired to murder their master. Chen kills then in retaliation and there follows a tit-for-tat series of violent brawls between the schools, intercut with a love story developed between Chen and his fiancée Yuan (Nora Miao) till our hero goes to the Suzuki dojo and kills all the occupants including the master and his imported Russian strong-man associate Petrov (Robert Baker). Similarly to THE BIG BOSS, Chen must face the music after the slaughter - but rather than go quietly he runs toward the armed police and a freeze-frame with gunshots indicates his fate.
The political issues are highlighted in the differing audio versions of the film. In the dubbed English version (which I always avoid in Asian cinema due to bad voice acting) Mr Wu, the Japanese translator insults the Chinese as “A race of weaklings. No competition to us Japanese”. The same sequence in the original Cantonese has him asked “Are you Chinese?” to which he traitorously boasts “Yes, but I’m different to you”, choosing to side with Japanese overlords. These are totally different interpretations of race identity according to which audience you are at the time.
On the subject of dubbing, trivia fans might also like to know it’s actually Bruce’s voice we hear briefly as Petrov. (Live sync sound was rarely used in Hong Kong then so all voices were post-dubbed)
FIST OF FURY is the first time western audiences were introduced to the nunchaku chain-sticks in two fight-scenes. Till recent times, these scenes always had the instruments edited out of fights by British censors due to the dangers of copy-cat (often self-inflicted) injuries. Even today, the nunchakus seem to be outlawed in California. Bruce himself was introduce to nunchakus by pupil Dan Inosanto in 1964. He called them a ‘worthless piece of junk’ but within three months was a great exponent.
Inter-school racial conflicts were an issue Bruce was very familiar with in his real-life challenges. Growing up in Hong Kong, there were battles he fought between his Wing Chun centre and the rival Choy Li Fut group. He also encountered hostility in being taught personally due to his part-Caucasian blood (he was one quarter German). His greatest off-screen fight though was the famous challenge thrown by Chinese schools when he was teaching in America. They did not approve of him instructing Westerners in their arts and a Chinese artist Wong Jack Man was sent over to officially duel with him. If he lost, he would agree to no longer teach Caucasians. Bruce had Man surrendering after just three minutes of fighting.
The most important aspect of FIST OF FURY for me is the stronger performance by Bruce. He is allowed time for quieter reflective moments on honour and tenderness with his fiancée rather than the former film’s surface expressions pulled. Moreover, in his approach and execution of fight scenes there is even greater ferocity and speed. The violent temper Bruce admitted to in real life comes over in his of course actor-disciplined unleashing of vengeance on the Japanese, his anger revealed in repeated bursts of punches, (a single death-blow in one case), colossal verve and attack. The title FIST OF FURY, though a touch trashy, is apt. That classic final image of his sacrificial leap toward the authorities to die in a hail of bullets entirely fits his character’s full-throttle passionate engagement. Its echo of the ‘downbeat’ ending of BUTCH CASSIDY feels very much of the period and can be read as a ‘Never say die’ heroic stance or the more fatalistic rule that even justified violence has lawful consequences. I prefer to think of the immortal appeal of the former…