Rated R for being completely shameless at times. There's a scene that involves nudity and prostitution, really for no reason. I mean, that's me putting my Western morality on this film, pointing out the completely unnecessary nudity when the entire movie is violent as get-out. It's that 1970s violence that has that red-red paint for blood. (I honestly love when I see that over-the-top red for blood.) But lots of people die. A kid dies! Also, the movie involves drugs and the protagonist gets silly drunk at times. Regardless, a pretty solid R.
DIRECTORS: Wei Lo and Chia Hsiang-Wu
I can't claim to be a Bruce Lee expert. I really can't. I've seen Enter the Dragon and I know some things about Bruce Lee. I did giggle when that scene happened in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. (Yeah, I know it upset his family. I am trying to figure out what side of history I want to be on with that battle.) I don't even know that much about Kung Fu films. I have seen The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and that's about it. But when I saw that Criterion was releasing a Bruce Lee box set, let's say that I got a little more than excited. I love when Criterion gets a little bit more fun. While I'll probably hold off on investing in the Godzilla box set, mainly because that sounds like a chore to me, I have to say that these were the movies that seemed like a good time.
I'm going to go out on a limb, but martial arts films of the '70s had to be a subgenre of the exploitation film. Without much in the way of depth, the movies often relied on spectacle. Filmmakers had to be pushing the line for insanity and one-uppsmanship. Watching a movie like The Big Boss definitely feels like you are watching a really fun sideshow act. It's not exactly a high budget adventure and a lot of things don't make a lick of sense, but the narrative is a way to carry the audience from stunt sequence to stunt sequence. I would like to point out that, for as much teasing as Dolemite gets for its low production value, there's not THAT big a difference between something like The Big Boss and Dolemite. I know that Bruce Lee had finished his work on The Green Hornet years before this point, but it's really interesting to see that the filmmakers were banking on Bruce Lee to be this breakout star from The Big Boss.
You get the vibe that the filmmakers knew that Bruce Lee was a big deal. For all I know, he was a big deal by this point. But there's this decision to give Lee shackles from being involved in the movie until it was necessary. I don't think I've ever seen a character so artificially neutered for the majority of a movie. Because Lee can kick anyone's butt, apparently, he wears a necklace to remind him of a promise that he made his mother. Okay. I don't know if anyone is buying the reality of this situation. Maybe this is my white privilege talking, but I don't think that people run into the problems that Cheng Chao-an runs into on a daily basis, so much so that his mother gave him a charm to remind him not to get involved in so many violent altercations. Seriously, he comes to town and gets a snowcone. From there, he is instantly a witness to a gang shakedown of said vendor. Then the bullies mess with a kid selling dumplings. Because Chao-an is wearing his spiritual promise, he can't get involved. From there, he links up with a guy who acts as an avatar for Chao-an. It's obvious that Chao-an is going to be the hero of the story. That would be a heck of a weird Chekhov's gun if Chao-an actually kept his promise for the remainder of the story. But Brother Tsu temporarily acts as the hero of the story. What Bruce Lee isn't allowed to do, Hsu becomes the A- version of the hero. His Kung Fu is good, but clearly not as good as Bruce Lee's.
The Big Boss has convinced me that you aren't really good at Kung Fu unless you can do that magic jump. That magic jump thing is fake, right? I mean, I have to believe that. There's never such a good shot of it that it looks convincing. But you know that someone is good at Kung Fu if they can't vertically leap over groups of people. Like, it has nothing to do with punches or kicks, but simply if you can leap over folks. There's a moment where Cheng Chao-an is surrounded by a group of guys that we know he can beat. He does the vertical leap to get out of there and it looks like he can escape because of said vertical leap, but he just runs a few feet away and allows himself to get surrounded again. You know that the fight with the titular big boss was going to just be two dudes doing the vertical leap over and over again.
I was going to save my favorite part of commentary for the end, but I'm too excited to write about it. Can I preach forever how the ending is perfect, but just for me? So with exploitation films, the rule of law is pretty all over the place. Like, the protagonist is surrounded by death, but he's allowed to just walk away into the night. Not so much with The Big Boss. Cheng Chao-an spends the movie looking for Brother Hsu. A lot of the movie is the idea that the evil organization is slowly corrupting this guy to make him a bad guy. Okay, sure. I get that. In the course of that, he gets drunk, sleeps in a brothel, and a prostitute gets naked next to him. He has to be corrupted, but forgivable. But when he regains his moral footing, the organization just kills everyone around him. He returns to his house and everyone is dead. He's the only survivor of that house because he wasn't at home. He then goes to attack the drug lord at his home, killing all those guys on the way. Maybe he didn't kill all of them. Regardless, he gets into this glorious battle and is covered in blood. Like, he definitely killed the drug lord. The cops show up and, thank goodness, don't say, "Thanks for killing that drug lord." No, the movie ends with Cheng Chao-an being dragged to jail. Yay! There's actually a consequence for breaking the agreement that he made with his mother.
I can tell you why this is the perfect ending for me. Besides the fact that it probably mirrors reality way closer than what other stories do, it is also a story that follows through on a sense of consequence. There are so many movies that offer a binary situation, but don't follow through on a sense of consequence. Usually, we get, "His intentions were good and he achieved good, despite the fact that he broke a cardinal rule." I'm looking at you, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (I think.) Instead, Cheng is told by his mother that, if he fights and gets involved in other people's problems, he'll face problems. Yeah, it's really vague what's the actual consequence. But I love that there is an actual consequence.
But it really is a pretty shallow story, even when it comes to story. One of my biggest takeaways from watching a purely martial arts movie is noticing the weirdest character motivations ever. Cheng is new to the community. Brother Hsu is the guy who got him the job. Instantly, the foreman comes down on him. The first thing that Cheng does? Discovers cocaine in the ice. Of course, he doesn't really read it like that for some reason. But when Brother Hsu starts looking for missing co-workers, everything bursts into violence. (Remember, the story is there to chain together fight sequences.) This is where motivation gets all weird and characters become remarkably shallow. Because Cheng is good at fighting, he's made the new foreman. No one bats an eye at the motivation behind this choice. Everyone things that justice has prevailed and that it makes perfect sense that the new guy who can fight becomes the boss. But within hours of becoming the new foreman, he screws up and hangs out with the manager. Everyone then hates him. I get what the movie is trying to do. It's trying to become more than about fighting. But there's no real message that we can realistically graft onto. Because everyone's motivations and choices are so goofy, it distances the viewer.
But then why are these kinds of movies so much fun? Because that's absolutely the case of what's going on here. Yeah, it is a very flawed and very goofy film. But it also is really charming. You know, charming with blood and softcore stuff. It's a fun movie and exploitation films tend to be fun. But I enjoyed it. It's a good time.
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.