A Detailed Post-colonial Analysis of Bruce Lee’s “The Way of the Dragon”
There have been many Hong Kong martial arts films that respond to the colonization of Hong Kong, however I have chosen to produce a detailed, post-colonial analysis of Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon because this film fights the stereotypical view of the orient and offers counter representation of the male body so that men are no longer feminised.
In 1972 Bruce Lee wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Way of the Dragon, Lee’s third major martial arts film made. There have been many Hong Kong martial arts films that respond to the colonization of Hong Kong, however I have chosen to produce a detailed, post-colonial analysis of Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon because this film fights the stereotypical view of the orient and offers counter representation of the male body so that men are no longer feminised, and perceived as ‘the sick man of China’ (LI, 2001, p. 526).
In An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory Helen Tiffin argues that,
‘Post-colonialism can be characterized in two, related ways: one which constructs it in terms of those societies whose subjectivity has been constituted in part by the subordinating power of European colonialism, and another which conceives it as a set of discursive practices involving resistance to colonialism and colonialist ideologies and legacies.’ (Tiffin, 1997, p. 232)
It is the first of these two examples that Hong Kong falls under. Hong Kong is consistently referred to as being a hybrid country and having no real nationalism. Hong Kong has been colonized by Great Britain, westernized and even capitalist-polluted, so there is no question really as to why Siu Leung Li (2001, p.515) believes that ‘Hong Kong’s relation with ‘Chineseness’ is at best an ambivalent one’ as it states in the article Kung Fu: Negotiating Nationalism and Modernity. Siu Leung Li (2001, p. 516) also argues that ‘In Kung Fu cinema, the restoration of a strong china and of national pride under colonial conditions is often effected through a fetishization of the male kung fu body imagined as an empowering fighting and self-defensive skill.’ When related to The way of the Dragon it is easy to see that Bruce Lee was trying to enforce this notion. Before martial arts films China had been bound up with the concept of the Oriental, where the men are stereotyped as weak and passive. Lee obviously wanted to show that Hong Kong was no longer the weak and passive nation that the West so often stereotyped it as, and so symbolically used the idea of a strong and muscular man who can physically beat any other nation through his own unique style of fighting. Siu Leung Li (2001, p. 517) also states in the article ‘the film builds upon a deep structure of binary opposition.’ This is certainly true in the plot as Lee chose to focus on diasporic Chinese people living in Italy who encounter racism. However the Italians, and so white people, are referred to as the ‘other’ and instead Italy is shown to be the exotic country and Hong Kong as the country that has produced this kung fu martial arts pro who has been sent over to honour and protect his family. Perhaps the film uses kung fu as a fantasy way of solving their problems but at the same time weapons, more often than not guns, are symbolically referred to as the weapon that the weak use. Natural strength permanently wins over guns somehow and the people who use them are perceived as weak and not honourable. Guns are also linked to cultural politics in Lee’s The way of the Dragon as they are connected to the identity of violence in the West and also to modern technology that was present in the West, which in addition enabled colonialism in the first place. The way that Lung is shown to be stronger than all the Italian gang members who use guns is simply enhancing the notion that the Chinese man is not this weak man with feminine qualities, but instead this strong, muscular kung fu expert that can beat the “bad guys” even without a gun. Of course the film does not make out that this skill comes completely naturally to Chinese men, they have to put in a lot of effort and eventually get there through hard work and patience. This idea in the film, and in most martial arts films is perhaps a metaphor for Hong Kong’s strive and strength in positioning itself as its own country, therefore responding to its nations struggles and showing this through films to politically address issues. ‘…to be nationalistic and anti-colonial, one’s imagination turned to kung fu.’ (Li, 2001, p. 519).
Bruce Lee was initially rejected by American popular culture and so decided to go back to Hong Kong to be able to truly show his potential and express his masculinity, as Jachinson W. Chan states in Bruce Lee’s Fictional Models of Masculinity ‘Bruce Lee’s rejection by cultural producers in America marginalized not only Lee’s identity as a Chinese American but his representation of masculinity as well.’(Chan, 2000, p. 372) Bruce Lee wanted to prove that racism in the American media industry could be overcome, and that an Asian man could function just as well in any lead role aired in America. And so in his production of The way of the Dragon (or Return of the Dragon as it was called on release in America) Lee set out to show that the Asian man could be the main heroic character that audiences related to and that was no longer seen as the inferior character or race. Much like what Chan (2000, p. 377) is trying to point out when discussing this film, ‘These characteristics counter stereotypical racial categorizations of Asians, and the opening scene illustrate the ways in which Asians are treated as inscrutable objects’. Throughout the film certain colonial fantasies are reversed, and in the mere opening scene this is even suggested by the reaction of the white European woman and the fact that an Asian man is standing next to her at the airport. She seems fascinated by the fact that someone of a different race is stood along side her, and she just can not help staring at his face. ‘The traditional cinematic male gaze is reversed, and the power hierarchy is reinscribed as one based on race, not gender.”’(Chan, 2000, p. 377)
Gender of course is another key theme in The way of the Dragon when analyzing the film in a post-colonial context. Most post-colonial martial art films rely heavily on gender in their films, and so it is used as one of the most successful ways of portraying the Chinese man as the flawless, sensuous, muscular and strong heroic character that he is. The kung fu style film is anchored around the male body, they are about pushing the male body to the limit and the effect of one body on another. The male body is also fetishised and so the audience gets pleasure in looking at the male body and the representation that is derived from it. Whenever there is a fighting scene in The way of the Dragon Tang Lung will automatically find himself fighting without a top on, ‘The plethora of scenes in which Tang Lung rips off his shirt to show off his muscular body demonstrate the power of his martial arts and his sexual power.’ (Chan, 2000, p. 378). There is always an emphasis on muscles in this film and in many other martial arts films, hence the best way to present the body as a spectacle and at the same time suggesting that the body holds a post-colonial meaning in context. The male body can also be shown to be a metaphor for Chinese people because this notion of the spectacle is finally fighting back against the stereotypical views of the Chinese that were for many years repressed. ‘Flesh itself is not power; body-building is not an end in itself – it is the superb martial arts that give unsurpassed aura to the muscular body to make it a spectacular body and a metaphor for the cause of the ‘Chinese pride’.’ (Li, 2001, p.526) Of course China and Hong Kong were not always perceived in this light, before the martial arts sub-genre emerged Siu Leung Li (2001, p. 525) notes that China had been metaphorically represented as ‘a mother raped thousands of times’, ‘an impotent father’ and ‘not a masculine ‘real’ man’ all representations and symbolic references that I am sure China and Hong Kong were not sad to dismiss and lose once the martial arts films spread globally and formed a new representation of the Chinese man.
Chinese women however were barely represented in this genre of film at that time, and arguably the reason for this would be because they would contradict the vision of the Chinese man that was being depicted. Women were associated with the orient, the fantasy space that is feminized, and of course this is the exotic notion that the martial arts genre was trying to counter and get free from. In most martial arts films there is a resistance to feminism and more often than not women are either just ornamental or they help to bring the downfall of the hero. It’s as if the notion of nation ness excludes the female gender because they would be contradicting what the pristine body and skill the male is trying to portray. In The way of the Dragon the only female role is that of Chen Ching Hua, a family friend. You assume that she is to be Lung’s love interest but instead just paves the way for Lee to use his kung fu fighting skills, as it is her restaurant that the Italian mobsters are trying to take over. The only other female that is shown in the film is an Italian lady who Tang Lung does not understand. Under the instructions of Chen Ching Hua to be polite he finds himself back at this lady’s apartment. His initial reaction is to admire his muscular physique in a mirror as he seems more mesmerized by this than the woman undressing in the room next door. When he does eventually realize what the lady had in mind he conjures a hasty exit as he does not understand and is confused. There are no other sexual interactions within the film (this may be because it has been suggested that Bruce Lee was not a fan of them, or any good at them) yet there are certainly plenty of sexual references and connotations. ‘Although he does not have any explicit intimate sexual relations with any of the female characters, the image he presents on screen is sensuous and arousing.’ (Chan, 2000, p. 378). Chan goes on to discuss how he believes that the representation of the half naked torso shows not only physical power but also sexual power. The morning scene in which Lung is just simply doing his morning exercises also holds strong sexual images as it juxtaposes ‘… a display of his body, with a silhouette image of two male and female figures embraced in a sensuous manner.’ (Chan, 2000, p. 378) Jachinson W. Chan then turns to the idea that Bruce Lee’s character is not only seen sexually in a heterosexual light but that the character of Mr. Ho also sexualizes him. Since Lee’s character is the object of sexual desire for Miss Chen and Mr. Ho Chan suggests that his sexual preference is never resolved as Tang Lung leaves without any relationship with either sex being formed. This film does not however oppress the female characters, instead it concentrates on losing the image of the “sick man of China” by ‘…providing a more complex masculinity that upholds violence and power over other men as markers of manhood while denying an exaggerated heterosexist assumption.’ (Chan, 2000, p. 380)
From the rest of the assortment of characters in The way of the Dragon other post-colonial identities are portrayed. Mr. Ho is the gay character. He is also a traitor, yet the interpreter for most of the meetings held between the Italian mobsters and the restaurant owners that Lung is there to help. Bruce Lee decided to put the stereotypical view of a Chinese man in, the view that Lee has been trying to counteract, however this character was put on the side of the Western Europeans, perhaps a contradiction in itself. Uncle Wong is another character that could perhaps be analyzed more. This character, although he doesn’t fight, is perhaps there to embody the mentor character that is so influential in a lot of martial arts films. He is characterized as the older and wiser man who must now be protected, and his young protégées must be loyal to him. Yet just before the final fight scene in the coliseum he is shown to be corrupt and actually working with the Italian mob all along. Like Mr. Ho, Uncle Wong’s stereotypical character has been taken out of the usual stereotypical context, and is actually not to be trusted. The second most important character in the film that really places this film in a post-colonial context is the character of Colt that Chuck Norris plays. Colt is the character that the Italian gangland leader enlists to bring down Tang Lung, and get control of the restaurant that caused all the uproar. It is this fight scene at the end that has made The way of the Dragon the phenomenal success that it is, and created such a cult following. The scene is ironically set in a Roman Coliseum, where fights till the death regularly used to take place. Naturally it is the naked chests of Lee and Norris that put this scene into a post-colonial context. The character of Colt has a hairy chest and is somewhat bigger built than Lung who has a smooth upper torso and a smaller frame. Norris’ character here is being shown as the grotesque villain (yet the villains usually do not show their upper body as this is associated with the hero who ‘has nothing to hide’). Although Colt is the character that is representing the West in this ultimate fighting sequence he is also representing the “other”. Here the normal roles have been reversed, as it is rare for the white character to be referred to as the “alien other”. Audiences are relating to and rooting for Lee’s character to be triumphant. Chan refers to the warming up before the fight as ‘sexual foreplay’ and states that ‘The camera focuses on the eyes of the two opponents with close-up shots, intensifying the homoerotic relationship between them.’ (Chan, 2000, p. 378) Colt is also representing a typical western identity, this is most noticed when he first appears on the screen. He walks off the plane with typical cowboy style boots and sunglasses; retrospectively Lung is also associated mainly with clothes from the East, which was later often referred to as “kung fu dress”.
As far as Kung Fu films in a post colonial context go, Bruce Lee’s The way of the Dragon is an ideal martial arts film to show how the Chinese felt they had been repressed as a nation and how stereotypes of genders had been formed. Lee felt (as did many others before him) that he had to show the West that Chinese men were not feminized in any way shape or form, and could be just as strong and sexualized as any other man, regardless of their race. Despite the fact The way of the Dragon is located in a contemporary setting, the film still represents traditional China versus the modernized west, and the martial art form of kung fu was Hong Kong’s retaliation to the West’s modern changes. Martial art films put forward the idea that a healthy body equals a powerful body. Many hidden metaphors are underpinned in this and other martial arts films. Metaphors that really support the argument for the counter orient perspective that Hong Kong was so sick of being compared to. Bruce Lee wanted it acknowledged that Hong Kong was now a defusing hybrid that was able to produce its own artistic culture. The way of the Dragon is mainly famous for the popular and artistic fighting scene at the end between Bruce lee and Chuck Norris, and so the underlying struggles for China and Hong Kong are not so often noticed. Yet, as backed up by Siu Leung Li and Jachinson W. Chan, it was this 1972 martial arts film that helped the West to eventually start to realize that Chinese men did not all configure to the stereotypical portrait that had been painted of them. Instead they are a strong, independent race that simply decided it was high time they fought back for their nation.
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