Rated R for a lot of violence, but also a really weird scene of a striptease that has absolutely nothing to do with the storyline, yet is played out slowly and in full. I was so jazzed to say, "Ah, Fist of Fury only has a lot of violence and cartoonish blood." Then there's this whole nudity thing that seems completely to play up how shameless some kung fu films get. I also suppose I should mention that the movie discusses racism, but I'm not quite sure who is being more racist. R.
DIRECTOR: Wei Lo
There's a lot of great things that come out of watching a lot of movies, especially if they aren't all from one genre or one country. The more I branch out, the more I learn about cultural norms and I end up becoming interested in the politics of a region or a time period. Like, I wouldn't say, "I know this history because I watched such-and-such of movie", but it does open some doors to cultural literacy. But to truly understand something, you can't just watch one movie and say, "Done. I now know everything." I'm dancing around the fact that, because my knowledge of kung fu films is limited, I don't exactly know if this movie is racist or not.
Yeah. I'm trying to judge something entirely based on an exploitation film from the 1970s. I can't help it. I have known that, in the past, that there has been animosity between China and Japan. I think I gleaned this from a YouTube video. (Again, I'm a history minor and an English teacher. I should do better.) I think a lot of it came from Japan's long history of being an isolationist country. But that was always just a fact that I didn't have much investment in. Like a lot of history, it may just sound like a fact until you find out the cultural relevancy of such a fact. With the case of Fist of Fury, the film centers around the fragile and volatile relationship between the Japanese and the Chinese in Shanghai about a century prior to this movie. Again, this is very specific, yet crucial cultural knowledge that affects the movie. Fist of Fury paints the Japanese in an extremely poor light. They are bullies who instigate the events of the movie for almost unknown reasons. Honestly, it seems like the film's only motive for having the Japanese as the bad guys is because they seem like overt racists. And the message of Fist of Fury is that sometimes, racism just needs to be kicked in the face.
But the problem is, is that accurate? I have no idea. The film, starting off with the death of Chen Zhen's teacher, is simply "because." I am probably going to talk a bit about how the plot itself is extremely flimsy, but I want to steer back to the racism element of the whole thing. The movie posits that the death of the teacher is a mystery. This mystery aggressively points to the Japanese as the culprits. Post-funeral, the Japanese insult the mourning Chinese kung fu students with a plaque labeling the teacher as "The Sick Man of the East." They had it framed and everything. It kind of seems like they really went out of their way to insult everyone for what seems like no reason. This is the kind of over-the-top racism we see in cinema, but rarely in life. (Racism is a very real problem. It just rarely looks like what we see in Fist of Fury.) Sure enough, the Japanese were behind the death of the teacher and the only explanation behind it was, "Because they're Japanese."
See, this is where I can't pick a side. The racism behind the whole story is almost comically implausible. The Japanese murder the head of this school. Let's pretend it is because this teacher was the head of a rival school. (That also seems silly, but it allows me to say the murder wasn't entire race based. Also, it seems like there would be a lot more Chinese people to kill than simply the head of a kung fu school.) They do so through stealth, opting to poison the leader and make it seem like natural causes. Why come forward then, waving the insult in the deceased's face? There was a lot of effort to ensure that there would be no investigation into the murder of this man, but the swagger of the Japanese in this film adds a motive for murder where none existed previously. So again, back to racism.
I suppose that we have similar cultural shortcuts in America. I'm definitely not trying to compare the Japanese in Fist of Fury to the Nazis of American cinema, but we do have shorthand for cultures that are bad. The Nazis deserve to be scorned in every form of art and entertainment. We kind of do the same thing to the Russians. If America needs to punch someone in the face, we have two cultures that kind of allow it simply based on a rich history of distrust and opposition. I can't be wagging a finger so hard at Fist of Fury because, for all I know, the Japanese served the role of the Russians in a lot of our cinema. (Maybe I should be looking at how Hollywood continues to divide two countries in the name of nationalism. Who knows?) But there's a lot of "We're not being racists! They are the ones who are the racists!" going on in the movie.
But even with the racism in or the racism out, the story is really flimsy. Like, I enjoyed Fist of Fury way more than The Big Boss. This is a year's difference for Bruce Lee and it just seems like a more put-together film. It feels cinematic as opposed to studio lot. (Although we DO get a lot of shots of that one road...almost like it is on a backlot.) The Big Boss wasn't exactly a think-piece, but it did understand that maybe there needs to be some level of plot. Maybe the story should hold back on Bruce Lee going right into punching. But Fist of Fury ignores that concept and allows Lee to just start punching people to death almost from moment one. And we get the Bruce Lee that we kind of associate with. He makes all of the noises in this one. The punches are held longer, trembling fist and all. Heck, we even get one of my favorite memes in this movie. (In Giphy, type "skeptical" and you'll see what I'm talking about.) I'm never going to preach Fist of Fury because of its lack of plot, but I do really respect the spectacle going on. Fist of Fury may be far more cinematic and epic than The Big Boss, but it also never really tries to step out of its britches. It is a movie that understands that people just want to see a lot of death by punching and that's cool. Lee is a rock star in this movie. It's all about fight choreography and pushing the lines of plausibility. It's so odd that Chen Zhen is able to take on the entire school himself when he's in the mindset of not killing anyone, but his entire kung fu school is decimated by the opposing school when he is not there.
Because I'm obsessed with morality in stories, I do want to look at Chen Zhen as anti-hero. There isn't exactly a winning situation in the story. Because the Japanese school is so antagonistic in the movie, the option to do nothing doesn't really seem plausible. I mean, the absolute right thing to do, if this were reality, is nothing. If I owned a kung fu school and someone called someone I love "The Sick Man of the East" or something, I would do nothing while they were there, then talk about them constantly with people who shared like-minded views before stalking them on Facebook and scoffing at their posting of Daily Wire, Breitbart, and Church Militant articles all over their pages. But that wouldn't make much of a film. We cheer when Chen Zhen takes justice into his own hands because that's the crux of the film. But he is constantly rebuked for his willful disobedience of his master's rules. We know that Chen Zhen is in the wrong for his actions because the other students comment on this regularly. Also, we know that Chen Zhen isn't the one who has to deal with these consequences. (It's implied that Chen Zhen is shot to death at the end, right?) Like The Big Boss, the Chinese studio system kind of mirrors the film noir era of needing crime to be punished, regardless of how justifiable it may seem. Is he killed? Like, it really really nods towards it, but I hear that there's a sequel to this movie? Sure, it stars Bruce Li, but that ending is a little ambiguous.
Anyway, it's a very watchable movie, but it doesn't exactly knock it out of the park. That script is super lazy and really relies on Bruce Lee's abilities and charisma to hold the film together. That's okay, I guess, but I hope that the following films have a little more meat on them.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.