It seems that every day we’re reminded of how time flies. I can’t believe that this month marks the sixth year since the world lost two of its biggest martial arts film stars in two days. Interestingly, both will be remembered in part because of their connection to Bruce Lee.
On June 3, 2009, veteran Hong Kong kung fu film star Shih Kien died from kidney failure at age 96. In the West, he was best-known for playing the inscrutable Han in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973) — specifically, for the battle in which he sliced and diced Lee using his prosthetic hand in the hall of mirrors.
When Enter the Dragon came out, most of us had no idea that Shih had already starred in more than 400 films. In most of them, he played villains. It was the result of the typecasting that followed his very first movie role: He portrayed a Japanese spy in Flower in a Sea of Blood (1940).
Shih’s skill set was diverse. Not only did he act — frequently starring opposite the famous Kwan Tak-hing in Kwan’s early Huang Fei Hung films, among others — but he also served as an action director.
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In a rare appearance as the hero, Shih starred in Tiger’s Claw (1974). His hair-and-beard combination made him resemble Spock’s evil doppelganger in the Star Trek original series episode “Mirror, Mirror.” Shih’s scenes in Tiger’s Claw remind viewers of his portrayal of Han — in large part because every time he fights in that film, we’re treated to the soundtrack from Enter the Dragon.
Although his name is synonymous with cinematic villains, in real life Shih was a kind man with a heart devoted to eagle claw and choy lay fut kung fu. He had trained at Shanghai’s Ching Wu Athletic Association, the gym created by Huo Yuin Jia, the teacher of Bruce Lee’s character in The Chinese Connection (1972).
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A day after Shih passed, American martial arts film and TV star David Carradine died from what’s best described as a judgment failure. He was 72.
Carradine, of course, was renowned for his spot-on portrayal of Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine in the TV series Kung Fu (1972-1975). The role was supposedly created for Bruce Lee, but the studio decided that the series had a better chance of succeeding with Carradine as the lead.
Kung Fu gave most Westerners their first exposure to the teachings of Shaolin. Even more important, it was a most positive introduction, one that showed time and again that a true martial artist trains not to fight and prefers to heal rather than hurt. The philosophy that Carradine’s character embodied and that the actor embraced in real life stood in stark contrast to what was depicted in the most popular kung fu films of that era.
“From that perspective, it was important to show the true way of Shaolin and kung fu, so the show created a balance between the violent kung fu films and the peaceful calm of Caine,” Carradine explained in an interview. “It was about the whole yin-yang balance.”
“When I worked with David on Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004), I made it a point that when we were on location together to pull him aside and tell him how much I admired Kung Fu,” said Gordon Liu Chia-hui, the most famous Shaolin-priest character actor in Asia. “That series was a very important part of people in the West’s understanding of kung fu, and he played the role of what I think a Shaolin priest truly was.”
When my interview with Carradine was coming to a close, the actor waxed philosophical: “Each end is a new beginning.”
Tongue-in-cheek, I replied, “That’s like a sumo wrestler — heavy, man.”
He smiled, we hugged … and I never saw him again.
(Shih Kien Photos Courtesy of Warner Bros. / David Carradine Photos Courtesy of ABC)