Fists of Legend and Fury: What Asian American College Students Can Learn from Jet Li and Bruce Lee

Glenn Omatsu
Originally appeared in "Pacific Ties, the UCLA Asian Pacific Islander Newsmagazine." Reprinted with author's permission

Late 1972 in a small movie house in S.F. Chinatown: It's opening week for Bruce Lee's "Fists of Fury" (renamed "Chinese Connection" in the U.S.), but there are no stretch limos or Hollywood stars here. This audience consists of middle-aged Chinese immigrants -- most of them garment workers, laundrymen, and waiters from nearby restaurants -- who have come to be entertained after a hard day of work. They are here to see a film set in Shanghai in the 1920s and to watch a Chinese American actor who has become a Hong Kong star after two movies. All is quiet until the scenes where Lee destroys a framed calligraphy penned by Japanese imperialists declaring Chinese the "sick man of Asia" and a sign stating "no dogs or Chinese allowed here." The crowd responds with loud, sustained applause.

Early 1974 in a giant "second-run" movie theater in a deteriorating section of downtown S.F.: Bruce Lee has been dead for more than six months, but his legend in America is growing and his first and only U.S.-produced film, "Enter the Dragon," now draws multiracial crowds. This theater is packed with inner-city youth -- Black, Asian, and Latino males. The floor of this theater is so sticky that you can hardly move your feet. Throughout the film, the crowd cheers raucously, especially when Bruce Lee beats up legions of villains and Black martial artist Jim Kelly takes out two racist cops. After the show, youth spill out into the streets practicing Bruce Lee moves.

Early 1998 in Chinese immigrant video stores across America: There is a new martial arts legend in Chinese immigrant communities, and he's not Jackie Chan. With charisma, grace, and explosiveness, Jet Li of the People's Republic of China has established his name in the crowded field of martial arts actors. Although best known for "Once Upon a Time in China," Jet Li's 1995 homage to Bruce Lee called "Fist of Legend" is regarded as a classic among many immigrants, especially youth. However, this film -- and Jet Li himself -- is largely unknown to another sector in our community: Asian American college students.

Revenge. Honor. Patriotism. These are words that most would use to describe Jet Li's "Fist of Legend" and its predecessor, Bruce Lee's "Chinese Connection" -- two action-packed films from different eras of Hong Kong cinema. Of course, there are those who will dismiss these films as simply "martial arts films." They are that, but they are more. Contained in both is an intricate political message -- one with special significance for the destiny of young Asian Americans today.

On the surface, the plot of these movies is basic Kung Fu Theater. A martial arts student, Chen Zhen, seeks to avenge the poisoning of his master in Shanghai in the 1920s.

However, what begins as an individual pursuit of vengeance evolves into a patriotic crusade when the student learns that those responsible for his master's death are Japanese imperialists who are establishing their dominance over China.

In "Chinese Connection," Bruce Lee gives an intense performance as the tormented and driven Chen Zhen. While others in his martial arts school are unsure how to respond to the death of their master and the growing oppression around them, Bruce Lee's character acts decisively. He demolishes single-handedly Japanese imperialists, their Russian cohort, and their Chinese collaborators.

Jet Li's "Fist of Legend" is not a simple remake of the Bruce Lee classic; rather, it is an extension of the Chen Zhen legend. Most viewers will quickly notice that unlike "Chinese Connection," the Japanese characters in this film are not all evil, vicious, and decadent. Yet, the redefinition of the Japanese in the film speaks to a larger theme. Here, resistance against imperialism is no longer simply the activity of one heroic individual; instead, it is the collective actions of many. Jet Li's Chen Zhen is clearly the center of this film, yet his heroic actions are framed by the equally heroic activities of others.

"Fist of Legend" begins and ends with two linked images related to this theme. At the beginning, a group of Japanese students pass out leaflets in Kyoto, declaring that "Japan belongs to the people, not the Emperor!" -- only to be dispersed by a group of thugs. At the end of the film, Chen Zhen is spirited out of Shanghai by supporters to continue efforts to organize against the Japanese imperialists. And since this film is titled "Fist of Legend 1," it is likely that a sequel will continue the saga of Chen Zhen and Chinese and Japanese patriots who oppose imperialism.

These two films are, after all, ferocious fighting films designed to showcase the talents of their stars, and viewers seeking intricately choreographed fights will not be disappointed. Several scenes deserve mention. Near the end of "Chinese Connection," Bruce Lee defeats a seemingly invincible Russian opponent. His victory symbolizes China's ability to not only stand up against Japanese oppressors but western imperialists as well. In the second half of "Fist of Legend," Jet Li battles two different Japanese opponents. The first is a karate master who is his senior in both age and experience. This fight is characterized by honor. At one point, Chen Zhen blindfolds himself so as not to take unfair advantage of his opponent blinded by a dust storm. The duel between the two masters ends without a winner, although through this experience Chen Zhen learns from his opponent that he will need to develop both a defense and offense to defeat the Japanese imperialists. This knowledge prepares Chen Zhen for the climactic fight in the film, his battle with the sadistic Japanese general -- the symbol of fascism and militarism.

"Fist of Legend" and "Chinese Connection" are important films for Asian American college students today -- not because they relate to so-called "Asian heritage" but because they are political. But will Asian American youth have the political consciousness and historical understanding to truly appreciate these films? Or will they see them simply as other Americans do -- as "martial arts films"?

To truly appreciate these films, Asian American college students need to learn from an often ignored sector of our community: immigrant garment workers, waiters and waitresses, laundrymen, and small merchants. These were the first in America to embrace Bruce Lee and, today, they are the first to appreciate Jet Li. They are the people who can teach all of us the significant political message of these films: namely, the power of individuals to fight oppression and, in the process, to inspire others to discover the fighting spirit within themselves.

Webmaster's Note: I don't necessarily agree with the author's viewpoint in this issue. for example I feel the impact of these movies on Chinese-Americans is much different then the impact on Japanese-Americans.

Revived 1/11/00