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Set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1909, the story revolves around Huo’s student Chen Chen (Bruce Lee), who arrives late for the funeral and seeks to avenge his master’s death. After Chen Chen endures ridicule from the visiting Japanese entourage, headed by the weak and effeminate Japanese interpreter, we are only minutes away from one of Hong Kong cinema’s most important fight scenes. Of note, Wu Ping-ao, who played the wimpy interpreter, was imprisoned in real life for brutally stabbing his wife 10 times. Although kung fu film fans now know that it was Jackie Chan who flew backward across the yard during the final stunt when he was doubling for Hashimoto Riki’s villainous character Susuki, Bruce Lee’s earlier fight in the Japanese school had several impacts on Hong Kong cinema. First, after Bruce Lee is surrounded by the karate fighters, he kicks eight people with eight different kicks in one unedited wide-angle shot, so the audience can tell that Bruce Lee pulled off the stunts. It worked, and he used the same idea in the final mass-mayhem fight scene in Enter the Dragon (1973). Second, Lee introduced the world to the nunchaku, a weapon that swept through the imaginations of film fans and budding martial artists at that time. I saw this film as a college freshman at SUNY Cobleskill, and the crowd cheered when Bruce Lee whipped out the nunchaku during the final fight scene. Two weeks later, I hit my eye with a pair made from a lacrosse stick. Strangely, I did not get a black eye. Instead the skin turned green—a sign of bad chi.
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After the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), China was a fractured country that was sliced up, divided and handed out to Japan and European powers. The Japanese would play a large villainous role in Chinese history from this point on, so much so that a rift of hatred formed and grew out of the treatment Japanese forces inflicted on the occupied Chinese. One of the most notorious incidences from this period of history is the Rape of Nanking, in which Japanese troops killed 300,000 Chinese men, women and children and raped 20,000 Chinese women and girls. (See Seven Man Army). With the defeat of the Japanese in World War II, Hong Kong and the Republic of China (now Taiwan) kept silent on these sensitive matters. Because Japan’s post-World War II economy was U.S.-supported, they feared a backlash if they spoke up. Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury changed all that because his character defiantly defeated the Japanese martial artists in the film’s setting of 1909 Shanghai, when the city was under the strict rule of Japan. Lee single-handedly crashed through that barrier of silence, making sure no one forgot what it meant to be Chinese and to be a Chinese martial artist. He also gave his fellow Chinese a renewed sense of dignity and pride in the heritage of their martial arts, something that had been hurt during the Boxer Rebellion and missing since World War II. It is no wonder that Chinese crowds reportedly cried and gave standing ovations at every showing. I saw this film in Taiwan in 1979, and even seven years after its initial release, the normally quiet Taiwanese moviegoers were still cheering during the moments when Bruce Lee was beating the crap out of the Japanese. There are also several subtle insults that reflected Lee’s disdain toward the way foreign powers treated the Chinese people, specifically the Japanese. Some Japanese attackers wear their hakama backwards, which shows that the Japanese martial artists were not heeding the honor of their art. There is also a defining shot of a smug Lee proudly and defiantly posing in front of a portrait of Gichin Funakoshi, the father of Japanese karate. There are a few major historical things to point out. Huo Yuan-jia died in 1910, and karate was introduced into Japan in 1921 by Gichin Funakoshi, so there is no way that a Japanese karate school could have existed in the early 1900s in Shanghai, certainly no martial arts school of any kind that would have a picture of Funakoshi. Furthermore, Huo’s kung fu was mostly a melding of two martial arts styles: mi zong chuen and luo han chuen, which are cumulatively known as mi zong yi kung fu. However, after Huo died, other martial arts teachers introduced eagle claw, hsing-i, wu jian chuen and seven star praying mantis into Ching Wu’s training regimen. But the ultimate power of film and Bruce Lee’s persuasive message that the Chinese are not sick people is brilliantly depicted when Bruce Lee takes out several Japanese fighters in front of Shanghai Park. Bruce Lee performs a flying kick that destroys a wooden sign that reads, “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed.” To this day, based on this movie, millions believe that the sign really existed, while in reality it was merely a creation of the film.