Pulling his punches

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 November, 2010, 12:00am

Seventy years after his birth, it remains impossible to escape Bruce Lee's influence across Hong Kong: from children wearing his defiant image on their T-shirts, to faded film posters for sale in our backstreet markets, to the golden statue which stands guard over the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront.

The city will honour the memory of its greatest film star with a movie marathon at the Film Archive on Saturday, 70 years to the day the actor and martial arts legend was born.

The four-film programme - along with a seminar titled 'The Art of Bruce Lee's Cinema' - will bring the curtain down on anniversary celebrations which have been going on all year.

From a retrospective at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival in March and April, to an exhibition of Bruce Lee memorabilia that toured the city's shopping malls in August and September, to today's release of the Raymond Yip Wai-man-directed biopic Bruce Lee, My Brother, the actor's fans have been able to celebrate his astonishing, but all too brief, career.

For the people running the city's official Bruce Lee Fan Club, the year has also marked a turning point in their efforts to have the memory of their hero respected in Hong Kong.

Plans to open a Bruce Lee Museum on the site of his former residence at 41 Cumberland Road in Kowloon Tong are continuing, and the club has scheduled a press conference tomorrow afternoon, at which, they say, there will be 'significant news that will be important to all Bruce Lee fans and to Hong Kong', according to club president W. Wong.

'We will announce a gift to the public from the fans of Bruce Lee to honour his memory,' says Wong. 'Bruce Lee belongs to Hong Kong and so far there has not been enough here to honour him - but we are working hard to change that.'

When Lee was struck down by cerebral edema (swelling of the brain) on July 20, 1973, in Hong Kong, he was just 32 years old and only starting to achieve the international acclaim he had worked so hard for. Blockbusters such as The Big Boss (1971) and Fists of Fury (1972) had marked Lee as a massive star locally, but it was the release of Way of the Dragon (1972) that saw the Hollywood power brokers open their doors to Lee, after he had spent years on the fringes of that film industry trying to break in. His impact is still being felt today.

Lee was born in San Francisco, but he is widely regarded - certainly in this city - as Hong Kong's own, emerging in the 1960s as the city itself was looking for an identity.

'Lee was multidimensional. He was a great kung fu star but there is also this myth that surrounds him,' says Sam Ho, who programmed Saturday's Film Archive retrospective. 'He was the first Hong Kong star to project himself globally and, in a way, project Hong Kong globally - and his impact is still being felt around the world today.'

Hence fans in his birthplace of San Francisco will be holding a massive gala to mark what would have been Lee's 70th birthday which includes talks and a guided 'Bruce Lee Tour' of the city led by his daughter, Shannon, and his wife, Linda. Shannon Lee has also asked her father's fans from across the globe to send birthday cards through to the Bruce Lee Foundation in Los Angeles (www.bruceleefoundation.org).

There was also a special Lee programme at last month's Tokyo International Film festival, while toymakers in the US have released a range of collectables to mark the occasion.

The Film Archive's movie marathon is in response to public demand. Ho says the organisation was inundated with requests for more screenings of Lee's films following the success of April's HKIFF retrospective. 'He is still such a star,' says Ho. 'He was a classically tragic figure - he rose quickly and faded quickly.'

The retrospective shows how even from an early age, Lee had something special.

'From the age of 10 you could see that he totally understood his character,' says Ho. 'Although he grew up around film sets this was obviously something instinctive - he knew how to relate to the camera and to the audience. He loved the camera and the camera loved him back.'

Laurie Lau, a co-organiser of the 2009 Hong Kong International Kung Fu Festival, started watching Lee's films in the 1970s and was hoping to mark the 70th anniversary of his idol's birth by staging the 'Bruce Lee 70th Anniversary - Thousand People Nunchaku Show' on Saturday. After failing to find a suitable venue, Lau now plans to stage an 'international Bruce Lee pilgrimage' for fans next year that will take in Hong Kong, and the Lee clan's ancestral villages around Foshan in Guangdong.

Lau believes he speaks for all Lee fans when he explains the effect the man had back then - and even now 27 years after his passing. 'He put Hong Kong on the map,' says Lau. 'He showed us what we could achieve if we worked hard for our goals.'