Bruce Lee and the Making of Kung Fu Masculinity

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  • Topic: Bruce Lee, Hong Kong action cinema, Wuxia
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Bruce Lee and the making of kung fu masculinity

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Course: Men and Masculinities in East Asia Spring term 2011 Essay by maria Filisch

Bruce Lee and the making of kung fu masculinity

In his introduction to the book “Masculinities and Hong Kong Cinema” Pang (2005) emphasises how gender, and in particular masculinity, has been an important “theme, ideology, and industrial structure that has ruled Hong Kong cinema for so many years” (p.2). While Bruce Lee is arguably one of the most popular and successful figures in the history of Hong Kong-made kung fu films, there has been little analysis of how masculinity is constructed in his films, or how it is interrelated with his success – and more specifically, with the constructions of race, class, and nationality his films suggest. 1 In this Essay, I want to tackle both of these questions with respect to Fist of Fury (1972), Way of the Dragon (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973).2 With Fist of Fury being one of his first and most influential big successes, Way of the Dragon marking Lee's début in script-writing and directing as well as one of the first steps to the establishment of the kung fu comedy sub-genre - and Enter the Dragon as a collaborative production of Hollywood's Warner Bros. and Hong Kong's Golden Harvest, I believe this choice allows for a discussion of the diversity as well as that of recurring themes and strategies in Lee's films. Steimer (2009) identifies a dual cinematic purpose in performers of certain genres – including the martial arts film: What she calls “narrative function” and “material function”: “All well-developed characters have a narrative function: the character's role in the development of the story and the effect that this has on the spectator. The narrative function of any identifiable character is marked in the degree to which their actions act as a catalyst for this development.” (p.381, italics in original) However I argue that Bruce Lee in his films also crucially employs what she calls a material function: “a corporeal contribution to the production, by virtue of their presence in front of the camera” (ibid.), which is achieved through techniques of body spectacle. I suggest that both the narrative and the material function performed by Lee's characters add to his specific construction of a masculine ideal, and that this ideal cannot be thought outside the context of questions of national and international subjectivity. 1 2 One notable exception can be found in Chan's (2001) insightful work in: Chinese American masculinities. From Fu Manchu to Bruce Lee. With the exception of The Big Boss (1971), these are the only films he fully worked on before his early death. However most of the interesting aspects of The Big Boss can be found in one of the films discussed as well.

Bruce Lee and the making of kung fu masculinity

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Putting Bruce Lee in perspective
To begin my exploration of Bruce Lee's films and their construction of masculinity and male agency, I want to briefly address two aspects which I think need to be considered in order to understand these films: the image of wu as Chinese ideal of warrior masculinity, the development of Chinese cultural nationalism in the context of the Chinese diaspora, and the developments in Hong Kong cinema in the 1960s and early 1970s – especially the trend towards a more masculinist cinema and a new style of martial arts films. In Chinese cultural tradition, masculinity is idealised in two complementary images: wen and wu. Whereas wen signifies cultural attainment and refers to the intellectual or civil sphere, wu connotes martial valour, military strength, force, or more broadly the spheres related to physical strength. 3 Just as wen, wu has been shifting and redefined over the course of the centuries, but its key values are: physical prowess and martial skills, bravery, loyalty to one's master and comrades, self-control and moral rectitude. A typical wu hero is therefore someone who is...
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