These Bruce Lee Films Are Really Blowing Up
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May 17, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 20* (we seem to be missing the May 10 issue in our paper archives)
Hong Kong's answer to 007
by Tom Costner
Within the past month Chinese action movies from Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio have been the top-grossing films in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, the West Indies, Peru, Chile, Mexico, and the United States. Clearly the movie world has a warrior epic phenomenon on its hands. Why? How long will it last? Where do we go from here?
"FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH" is the Shaw Brothers martial arts feature which has created the lines at American box-offices.
As a fan of Shaw Brothers movies for several years, I'm surprised that they haven't moved uptown from their limited Chinatown releases until now. They have all the action and violence elements of the post-James Bond and post-Shaft melodramas currently in vogue, and technically are much better constructed.
While Run Run Shaw's films may be schlock on one level, certainly they are art on another. Generally they are well photographed in Deluxe color, skillfully edited, and complemented with good technical credits. They have much more class than the basic spaghetti western or Hollywood B film of yesteryear.
Even more curious than the slow move to general theatrical release in this country and elsewhere is the fact that "Five Fingers of Death" is not outstanding Shaw Brothers fare. The action sequences, as usual, are well handled, but are limited to the superhuman rather than the supernatural. Actors leap and catapult in ways no ordinary mortal could, but at no point does a character levitate or stop a waterfall by mere raise of his hand. In "Five Fingers" the emphasis is on hand-to-hand combat without weapons in the conventional sense. Guns and swords are replaced by hands and feet trained in the arcane art of kung-fu. The formula shifts from the fastest gun in the West to the fastest hands and feet in the East. The main problem with "Five Fingers" is what happens when the hands and feet stop flying: very little. In most of the other Shaw Brothers features I've seen, the legato passages have been better handled.
Even if "Five Fingers" isn't vintage Shaw Brothers, the Manhattan audience reaction has been amazing. I don't think I've ever heard an audience yell louder when the good guys struck blows against evil and injustice. Seldom have villains been more loudly hissed. Oddly enough, the audience in the first-run house on Broadway was more unified against the wrongdoers than a 42nd Street audience I later observed.
What packed in the crowds in New York was the combination of a very well-edited tv trailer plus favorable word of mouth. Print advertising was minimal. "Five Fingers" was market-tested in the midwest prior to the New York opening, and the results there indicated widespread acceptance. Obviously people everywhere, ghetto residents and midwestern middle class alike, need a fantasy escape from the daily pressures of 1973.
The kind of escape the Chinese warrior film offer is abstracted violence. Only mythic blood is let. One is aware that the action onscreen is far removed from everyday life, in a way that neither "French Connection" and "Superfly" can approach. The villains can never be real threats or enemies; they are not people one could get mugged by after leaving the theatre. The martial arts films seem to me to offer fulfillment for the idea that physical prowess and strength are necessary to survive in today's world.
One of my pet theories, charming in its simplicity, is that violence aspects. Clearly there is the hostilities of the audience, rather than a catalyst to transfer acts witnessed onscreen to their private lives. Certainly kung-fu movies act as placebos; the audiences shed their aggressions inside the theatre and return to the street purged. "Five Fingers" is rated R, entirely because of the violence aspects. Clearly there is no sexual titillation. The two female leads are treated purely as sex objects, and they are treated purely indeed -- there is not so much as a rubbing of noses.
With the success of "Five Fingers" assured, Warner Brothers and others have more Shaw Brothers sagas on the way. At least one of these films stars Bruce Lee, the Burt Reynolds of the Orient, and the superstar of the Shaw stable. It will be interesting to see whether Lee's new success will cause his career to parallel western superstars who become independent producers and tax-avoiding corporations.
I predict that the Chinese movie fad will burn itself out fairly quickly, but not I hope before the Shaw Brothers women warrior flicks have had a showing. In some of these epics, whole platoons of women warriors take on like numberers of men, and wounds are handed out with no sexual discrimination whatever; the women take just as many lumps as the men. I'll be waiting to read what Gloria Steinem has to say.
Travel note: when you're in Hong Kong, take the guided tour of the Shaw Brothers studio. It makes the Universal City tour in Hollywood pale in comparison. You might even get to shake hands with Bruce Lee.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]