Bruce Lee: Kung Fu ‧ Art ‧ Life Exhibition

BruceLeeMuseum

Ever since watching Bruce Lee beat henchmen with a pair of nunchukus on TV in Enter the Dragon, I instantly became a fan ever since. Aside from being familiar with all his films, I have read his books, notes, poetry, and even attempted to practice Jeet Kune Do moves directly from his hand-drawn sketches. In my view, Bruce Lee is culturally significant, and the way he lived his life deserves to be continually discussed and studied. Upon leaving this exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, I realized I had a lot to say but nowhere to say it. So I’ve decided to write about my thoughts of the exhibit here…

Bruce Lee’s mind is fascinating and it is the number one thing people tend to overlook due to his accomplished physicality. He was forward thinking, worldly, a great speaker and a good actor. I remember seeing the full version of the Bruce Lee interview on the The Pierre Morgan Show. I was mesmerized by how Lee spoke, that he was perpetually shifting mental states. He would go from being a deep philosopher, to a charming movie star, to a cocky martial artist and then a self-deprecating jokey man within sentences. His eyes and vocal tones would change and he spoke with his entire body. I walked into this exhibit wanting to gain more insight about Bruce Lee’s character, how he lived his life and how Lee’s mind worked beyond his writings or films, of which I’m already familiar with. Fortunately, I got all that.

One noteworthy panel was a letter Lee wrote to his wife Linda from Switzerland. Roman Polanski paid Bruce Lee to train him in Switzerland. It didn’t seem a lot of training was done. In the letter, Lee wrote he detested going out with Polanski clubbing nightly and missed his wife and his kids a lot. The letter was written quite romantically. It showed a man that really valued his time and wasn’t interested in hedonistic pleasures. There’s currently a Johnny Walker commercial playing on Hong Kong television that stars a CGI-version of Bruce Lee on the Hong Kong rooftops reciting his “Be like water” speech. As rad as it was to see a computer rendition of an aged present-day-if-he-lived-on Bruce Lee, he never would have done such a commercial. The man doesn’t even drink alcohol! He would think it’s a wasteful thing to put into his system. The Polanski letter proves this.

Another panel featured an American magazine article that focused on how Bruce Lee married a Caucasian woman and the fact that their children were half-Caucasian half-Chinese. The reporter asked Lee if he intended to raise them as Caucasian or Oriental, with the infinitesimally subtle implication that his mixed children are soon-to-be outcasts in either society (Call me racially sensitive, but where else can that question possibly come from?). Lee gave a very simple answer (I’m paraphrasing), stating that he intends to teach them both Western and Oriental culture so that they can respect and draw the best parts of both. That struck a chord in the third culture child inside me. Even though some of his films had nationalistic sentiments (though I’d argue he was fighting against racial profiling), he was proud to be Chinese but he was never nationalistic. Similar to how he never believed in one set style to approaching a task, he didn’t categorize people by race neither. Everybody was a human being to him. Lee wanted the world to go beyond racial boundaries and he was already the living embodiment of that, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with him. The sad thing is, we haven’t caught up yet.

The only geek out I had was seeing the notes Lee made for the final Coliseum fight in Way of the Dragon with Chuck Norris. Every move for every shot was written out in detail. This level of dedication was prevalent in his early years, as displayed in his notebook for Cha Cha dancing, where he too wrote out every single dance move so that he can be totally responsive to his dance partner. Something that stuck with me was Lee’s handwriting, it was in a graceful cursive that was evenly spaced out with no hard stresses, which suggests that he didn’t write in a hurried fashion (I know, I’m psycho).

There are five 20-minute video panels showing interviews with his family, relatives, and people in the Hong Kong movie industry who have worked with him. The videos each focus on different topics, like Lee’s personality, his work ethic and views on martial arts. A stuntman said Lee would personally pay for the hospital bills for their on set injuries, something that no movie star has ever done or has done since. Lee’s student Dan Inosanto tells a story of how Bruce Lee celebrated his birthday by sidekicking him to the ground during a sparring session, brought out a birthday cake and sang him happy birthday. I suggest everybody watch those in their entirety for the anecdotes. My only criticism of the exhibit is how people mystify Bruce Lee’s death in the video interviews (and in general actually). It irks me in a distasteful way. People as a group dealing with somebody’s death together can really go to some odd places, it compounds and becomes a weird social hive-minded thing that’s more about them dealing it more than the individual’s death itself. It tips beyond being mournful or respectful and borderlines on trivializing the event, like bad gossip. Why does it have to be a mythic mysterious end to an epic legend? Why can’t it just be an unfortunate accident?

Finally I walked through the hallway displaying looped excerpts from his 5 films. As I was shuffling by the Way of the Dragon display, I heard a child scream “Wow!”. The child was marveling at a clip showcasing Bruce Lee’s kicking ability, specifically the sheer force that cannonaded the film extra holding dear life on a kicking pad into a pile of garbage cans. That little moment struck me, to witness a mirrored version of how I discovered Bruce Lee years ago as a child watching him on TV. I reflected upon the deeper ways Bruce Lee has impacted me now and looking back I too thought, “Wow! It’s actually possible to admire a person on this many levels.”

I recommend people go see this exhibition if you’re in Hong Kong. However much you know about Bruce Lee, it doesn’t matter. He poured deep thought and passion into everything he did, whether that was shooting a movie, training himself to throw a faster side kick, writing a touching letter to his wife or chatting with a friend. There’s something deeper for everybody to discover because he is somebody you can admire on multiple levels. Bruce Lee is forever inspiring to me and I believe he will be for anybody of any age from anywhere.

 

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai


NOTE: I’m going to try something different this time. I’m going to approach this as both a film review and a guide on how to enjoy this film. And by that, I mean the original cut of the film. Not the Weinstein version.

The Grandmaster chronicles the life story of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s master. Set in 1940s Fushan, Canton province, the martial arts community, lead by northern stylist Gong Yutian (played by Wang Qingxiang), is retiring and holds a challenge to select an heir to bring southern martial arts to the north. The southern community elects Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), the shining newcomer, up for the challenge. Ip Man develops a friendship with Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi). The story crosses two decades as Ip Man and Gong Er stand the tests of life. The Japanese Army invasion of Fushan forces Ip Man into poverty and he resettles in Hong Kong. A mutiny within the Gong family sets Gong Er on a quest for revenge. In a time where age-old tradition is being replaced with modernity, how much can one uphold their principles? Who will live to pass on their lineage?

Who takes 14 years to make a movie? Wong Kar Wai is truly one-of-a-kind. He’s the only filmmaker who can take unlimited time with financial support and a team that is willing to plunge to the depths with him to explore every little detail in his stories. Watching a Wong Kar Wai film is the cinematic equivalent of taking a warm bath loaded with multi-colored bath salts in a room full of lush oil paintings. Everything is a visualized metaphor. Feelings matter more than character, and you’re invited to indulge and feel your way through what’s happening. And boy, nobody can visualize a metaphor like Wong Kar Wai.

Phillipe Desourde’s photography and William Cheung Suk Ping’s art direction is top notch. People often attribute the credit to the cinematographer and overlook the fact that something has to be made beautiful in the first place to look beautiful on screen. The Golden Brothel and the train station sets are works of art.

Tony Leung’s Ip Man is portrayed akin to a normal gentleman. I’m the biggest Donnie Yen fan in the world and as good as he was playing a dramatized version of Ip Man, Tony Leung’s scholar-like image is closer to who Ip Man is in real life. On the kung fu side, Leung is not Donnie Yen but achieves the necessary physicality and fights more convincingly than the quick editing suggests. The subtle interplay between Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi that teeters between a could-be romance and a genuine soul mate was played well too.

Speaking of which, this may be the best Zhang Ziyi role yet. She’s never been more likable in any other role I have ever seen her in. Gong Er is the film’s most relatable character, carries the most pathos and energizes the film by providing the audience someone to root for. When she fights, the stakes are high. There is a somewhat of a battle between fact and fiction within the film’s construct. It’s almost as if Gong Er, a fictional character representing tradition, brings the traditional tropes of what one may expect from a martial arts film. While Ip Man, on the other hand, is married to historical fact and delivering the film’s message. More on that later…

The fights are filmed tightly, but for a reason. Wong Kar Wai is interested in the details of the movements: the little twists, nudges and arcs where one gathers power that are all specific to each style of Chinese martial art. For people who are familiar with the basic concepts of Wing Chun, Baqua, Xingyi and Baijquan, it’s quite the rare visual treat as bigger movements usually bode better for onscreen fight choreography. For those who are not familiar, fear not! There is a Game of Death-like sequence where the film presents these different styles. Unfortunately, the oversaturation of Ip Man films (this is the fourth and there is a fifth coming soon starring Anthony Wong as an older Ip Man) really has limited the creativity in presenting Wing Chun as a martial art. It’s safe to say most audiences know what Wing Chun looks like now.

It sounds as though there are a lot of qualifiers for one to understand the film. The world of the film exists within the martial arts community of an older time, when people lived with their own set of rules and traditions. Wong Kar Wai is very interested in presenting these traditions, and watching how he’s filming the action, it’s like he’s trying to keep a record of it. Characters speak in idioms with multiple meanings underneath as martial artists spoke in that time period. There were some instances when I had an itch to rewrite some of the subtitles because they would translate the entire idiom literally to keep the subtext of the Chinese dialogue. That’s a noble effort, but it may prove difficult for English speaking audiences.

A detail I noticed between the early promotional posters to the actual movie poster was that the early ones listed the film’s title as The Grandmasters and the actual movie poster’s title is named The Grandmaster. It makes me speculate that there probably was a story decision amongst the creative team whether the story should be focused on Ip Man or all three masters. That was precisely what the narrative needed to decide on. Whether if I’m right or not, this is a case of a film that clearly has shot too much footage and was forced to be cut down upon its due date. The first cut was reportedly 4 hours and this really came apparent to me upon reflecting about the film. There seems to be a lot lost on the editing floor and this unwillingly creates gaps in the narrative.

If you’ll indulge me, here are some facts about Ip Man’s life that will help you with the film:

  •     Ip Man was born rich, collected rent from owning property and never worked a day in his life until later when the Japanese invaded and took his home in Fushan.
  •    He was offered a job to train the Japanese army and turned it down.
  •    He later escaped to Hong Kong because he was a member of the Guomingdang. His wife stayed in Fushan and it remained that way for the rest of their lives.

There is much to love about The Grandmaster. It is not a martial arts movie in the traditional sense in where its conflicts are solved by fighting. No, this is a story about legacy. It’s about the deeply embedded Chinese Confucian value of improving the quality of life for future generations by passing on our culture and heritage responsibly. Every character in the film is driven by this single motivation and each take it to different places. To quote a line from the film, (I’m paraphrasing) “A martial artist’s biggest enemy is life itself.” Ip Man is a grandmaster not because of his physical prowess, but because he stood up to life (which ended up being quite tragic) and kept to his grand vision of spreading Wing Chun. This eventually lead Bruce Lee creating Jeet Kune Do, spreading Chinese martial arts across the world. I really love the fact that someone made a film about this.

To be frank, all of the big budget revisionist history films and wuxia films in current Chinese cinema bore me. The big budget action films are getting louder and more repetitive. As for the historical epics, I value the importance of reminding the next generation of the past but it ultimately culminates an overwhelming sense of gloom across the nation and it affects how China is perceived internationally because of its hate-mongering nature. It’s emotionally tiring as a moviegoer annually sitting through films in which Chinese people suffer as filmmakers and producers check off every historical tragedy we’ve been through in the last century.

Wong Kar Wai manages to present an age-old Chinese value without a blatant sense of nationalism or bitter finger pointing. It made me proud as a Chinese. This is a higher level of artistic achievement than simply revising history. After all, as filmmakers and artists, what are we leaving behind to the next generation? Are we making films to remind people of the past so we can carry the anger? Is that the extent of our cultural capital? Or can we bring them to another place with emotional breadth and positivity?

That’s what ultimately won me over about The Grandmaster. It was made with a lot of heart with its microscopic attention to detail and delivers a sincere message. It maybe esoteric, and even downright alienating to some viewers, but the rewards are worth the effort!

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