Bruce Lee and the Hong Kong film industry

In the 1970s, local studios used kung fu and Bruce Lee to push for international exposure

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 March, 2013, 10:13am

Hong Kong's studios have relied on the international market to bolster profits since its first golden age in the 1930s.

Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, Taiwan and pre-1950 mainland China were the chief "foreign" consumers of Hong Kong's Mandarin, Cantonese and other productions, but distribution globally, apart from Chinatowns in the US, was elusive until the rise of kung fu in general and Bruce Lee in particular.

As can be seen from the Hong Kong Film Archive's The Cinematic Matrix of Golden Harvest programme, Lee's studio, Golden Harvest, built upon his worldwide fame - first, by shooting The Way of the Dragon (1972) in Italy.

The first group of these films is being screened as part of the 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival.

But it wasn't until Lee's next feature, Enter the Dragon (1973), that Hong Kong was remade as an international setting in a manner totally unlike that of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) or The World of Suzie Wong (1960). These were Hollywood blockbusters with Caucasian male leads in which the natives were little more than extras or sex objects.

Enter the Dragon, by contrast, was the product of a home-grown studio showcasing a home-grown idol, and using an array of non-Chinese personalities to support him.

Not that Enter the Dragon was very Hong Kong in terms of its James Bondian plot or, for that matter, scenery - with two-thirds of the film taking place on a mysterious island that could just as easily have been in the Mediterranean or Caribbean.

There was a significant connection to Cantonese cinema in the casting of iconic baddie Sek Kin as the villain. But generic chinoiserie and bland multiculturalism were the dominating styles, the latter embodied by John Saxon, Jim Kelly and sex kitten Anna Kashfi.

Enter the Dragon, by contrast, was the product of a home-grown studio showcasing a home-grown idol

None of that really mattered, though, for the focus was on Lee and his amazing display of martial artistry that transcended the plot's banalities.

Lee's death just days before Enter the Dragon's release did not stop the acceleration of its internationalisation. Busty blondes cropped up in features, and second- and third-tier foreign "stars" - none of them close to Lee in global stature - suddenly found themselves jetting to Kai Tak airport.

Not that studios didn't try. Perhaps the most ingenious attempt was undertaken by Golden Harvest in A Queen's Ransom (1976) by audaciously building an entire thriller around a personage even more renowned than the late Lee: Queen Elizabeth II.

Directed and written by Taiwanese filmmaker Ting Shan-hsi and with the prominent role of senior police detective essayed by another Taiwanese, Ko Chun-hsiung, the perspective was not quite "Hong Kong" and yet not un-Chinese. Despite frequently ludicrous shenanigans and the presence of ex-007 George Lazenby, the script was unusual in its topicality. Rare for its era, the narrative skilfully integrated newsreel footage to make its central focus an actual event, the queen's 1975 visit, along with referencing such matters as the Vietnamese refugee problem.

The adventure's internationalism extended to a wide-ranging display of local iconography, not the least of which was the detective's cosmopolitanism invoked by his perusal of a copy of the South China Morning Post.

Enter the Dragon , Saturday, 7.30pm, HK Film Archive; A Queen's Ransom , Sunday, 5.30pm; June 1, 7.30pm, HK Film Archive. Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival and The Cinematic Matrix of Golden Harvest programme