By Michael Connor
On July 20, 1973, Bruce Lee, founder of jeet kune do, passed away in Hong Kong. He’ll always be remembered for his movies, which continue to captivate audiences around the world. Perhaps that’s why he was named one of the top 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Lee’s legacy lives on, and his art of JKD is practiced daily in countless countries. One of his many devoted followers is Dr. Z, a practitioner of the martial arts and the medical arts, as well as a filmmaker. He has a fascinating background and is planning an equally fascinating future.
Could you discuss your relationship to Bruce Lee and jeet kune do?
Martial arts is a way of life for me. Therefore, I think, breathe and practice it every day. I have been studying jeet kune do since 1982. I became an instructor in 1990 and taught it for approximately 30 years. In the past, I made various contributions to a number of magazines and journals. I was also a classmate of the late Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son. We both had been studying under the same instructors.
I furthered my education by attending the UCLA film school in the ’90s. This allowed me to expose jeet kune do to a larger audience of practitioners, as well as spectators.
Could you elaborate on why you attended film school?
I will give you the short version. In 1993 I was already a practicing doctor in Los Angeles. One day, a patient came in and said‚ “I am so sorry about Brandon.” I turned on the TV and was speechless and stunned for hours. I just could not believe it. The next year, I visited the gravesite of Bruce and Brandon at the Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle. I broke down and cried — and kept asking, “Why?” On the plane ride back home, I kept saying to myself, “I need to contribute something for the inspiration that they brought to the martial arts.”
A few weeks later, I decided to go to film school. Subsequently, I was able to produce 13 independent pictures, dedicating them to Bruce and Brandon as well as to the continuation of jeet kune do around the world. How I produced 13 pictures was through understanding the film industry. I bypassed a lot of hurdles using the principles of jeet kune do — being “simple, direct and effective.” While others using the conventional way [had to] wait forever until their budgets or productions were cleared, I was able to find ways to make it happen sooner.
Have you met many martial arts movie stars during your Hollywood journey?
Yes, I have. In addition, [I was] a jeet kune do classmate of the late Brandon Lee [in the ’80s] as he was growing up and being groomed to succeed his father. Showdown in Little Tokyo was a success, followed by Rapid Fire, and then came The Crow — fate, misfortune or whatever word you want to use prevented that from happening back in 1993. A couple of years later, Shannon Lee came on the cinematic scene, but somehow jeet kune do movies starring jeet kune do followers came to a halt.
Do you think Lee would have wanted his followers to continue on his cinematic quest?
Bruce Lee became internationally famous from his cinematic quest. His movies, we could say, were “jeet kune do movies.” In each and every one, he was teaching us jeet kune do. However, almost 50 years later, the lineage of jeet kune do–themed movies has come to a standstill. But I do think that he would have wanted his followers to follow in his footsteps.
How would you define a jeet kune do movie?
Any motion picture that has jeet kune do contents that are acted, produced or directed by an actual jeet kune do practitioner.
Would you agree that Lee’s contributions paved the way for other martial arts films to enter the market?
Yes. Those who were able to take advantage of the opportunity included Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan. Both individuals attained stardom as non-jeet kune do practitioners. In addition, his movies created an exploitation opportunity for others to imitate his persona for the sake of the box office and not his true art. Other martial arts–themed movies followed, [some with] classical practitioners promoting their kung fu movies, taekwondo movies, wushu movies, kickboxing movies and MMA movies — everything but the original jeet kune do movies. While others today are pushing for Ip Man 4, we are hardly talking about Bruce Lee II, the sequel.
Would Lee have encouraged others, including his students, to act in or to produce, for example, the Ip Man movies over his jeet kune do movies?
Let me answer your question this way: Would Bruce Lee want his followers to learn the traditional martial arts, or would he want his followers to advance in the art of jeet kune do or to learn to honestly express themselves? To me, the answer is obvious. But whatever you think the answer is, and although he left no will, it was evident that Bruce Lee did indeed want his followers to participate in his movies, in both supporting roles as well as being martial fighters. This was evident in his final movie The Game of Death.
I heard that you are about to launch the first of a series of jeet kune do movies. Would you care to elaborate?
In August 2019, the movie Gung Fu, JKD & MMA shall premiere in Los Angeles. [It’s] a feature film with the storyline of three martial artists coming together in a so-called “triple crown meeting” to discuss, share and demonstrate their own unique styles, techniques and fighting philosophies. But their conflict keeps escalating until the fight of no return. While the film is not in the league of Avengers: Endgame with a $356 million budget, it is a movie produced by and starring jeet kune do followers. Our mission is simple: to continue to propel jeet kune do forward and to continue with its cinematic quest.
Why did you decide to take this martial art to another level at this point in history?
In any given tradition, there are extraordinary creators who have started something and had to give it up, and Bruce was no exception. But the sad part was how much he would have achieved and contributed to the martial arts and to mankind. As a follower, it would be my duty to honor him, even [though] this is not an idea that some of the practitioners would share. As I just mentioned, jeet kune do movies actually paved the way for other martial arts to move ahead. What about jeet kune do itself? Surely, that should not be left behind. As Bruce Lee, my sigung, used to say, “Knowing is not enough; one must apply. Willing is not enough; one must do.” We are honoring him by doing.
Do you think this is going to make an impact in Hollywood or on the world stage?
I am optimistic, and my answer is yes. But how much remains to be seen. I want to quote you an ancient proverb and I think it is also a modern Chinese saying: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This is that single step.
— Michael Connor