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If it could take just one word to describe a star like Bruce Lee, the term “destined” would be a perfect fit for his story: a man born in 1940 in the States but with Chinese origins, turned into a timeless icon. His name already entered the collective culture long ago, including two worlds that are very different culturally and politically from each other, during a time when the bipolar conflict was freezing the relationship between East and West. Born in the Chinatown of San Francisco, Bruce Lee lives his first eighteen years in Hong Kong, where, guided by the Master Ip Man, he starts to practice kung-fu since the young age in the Wing Chun style, a martial arts school that will follow him his whole life and will be crucial for his cinematography and spiritual carrier. Bruce Lee’s attraction for fighting will be directly proportional to his Hollywood fame, that still echoes around the studios of Los Angeles.
The first appearance on the big screen for the Sino-American actor took place at three months old, when he was chosen for the role of a newborn baby in the movie Golden Gate Girl (Esther Eng, Hong Kong, 1941). However, it is with the international martial arts competitions that Lee obtains visibility and draws the attention on a personality of a certain type. The filmmaker of the tv serie Batman, William Dozier, had the opportunity to examines the videos of Lee at the international karate championship held in Long Beach on August 2, 1964. The exhibition included various exercises, among which the notorious One Inch Punch — used by Tarantino in a scene of Kill Bill — the push-ups made with only the thumb and the index finger and others that became famous one thanks to Lee. Dozier, impressed by the relevant physical capacities of the young man, invites him to an audition, by which he got the part in the tv serie The Green Hornet, broadcast from 1966 to 1967. The character played by Lee, Kato, had so much success that the title of the program is changed into The Kato Show afterwards, putting in this way, the main character of the show in the background.
However, it’s thanks to his first main role in The Big Boss (Lo Wei, Hong Kong, 1971) that Bruce Lee devoted himself to the big screen. The film tells the story of Chen (Bruce Lee), a young country boy who arrives in a small town where, helped by the cousin, manages to find a job in an ice factory. But the structure was actually the headquarter of a shady drug trade, keeping the workmen unaware of it; and if someone finds out the truth refusing to be quiet, he will be brutally killed. Since this first important performance of his, the character of Bruce Lee represents the classic american hero transposed in an eastern context, a positive figure, a fighter, a white knight, up for anything in the name of justice.
With his second protagonist role in Fist of Fury or the Chinese Connection (Lo Wei, Hong Kong, 1972), a martial arts movie destined to become a cult in a short time, Lee rewrites the History of Kung Fu Movies, a popular genre in the early 70’s that showed to be more enduring than others, renovating and reinventing itself constantly to this day. Especially thanks to the depth of the interpretation of Lee, the movie characters acquires different shades compared to the traditional ones, without falling into a typical cliché of the genre. The film was a huge success in Hong Kong, even more than the last one, enough that took the producers to play the foreign market card, giving, in this way, to Bruce Lee the opportunity to have what he wished for: the international fame. But the decent success of the movie forced him to return to Hong Kong, and the following Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse,Hong Kong/USA, 1973) will be the one to devote Lee to the Western cinematographic world.
But with the success, also the problems came along. At this point, Bruce is such a well known individual on a planetary level, that he starts to bump into enemies: “Toward the end of his life, Bruce seemed to be carrying a great weight.. something had set in. He was being bit on all sides by everybody.. and he had to have his guard up all the time.”, says the actor James Coburn. On July 20, 1973, precisely 44 years ago, Little Dragon (English translation of his Chinese stage name Li Xiao Long ) dies in the ambulance even before arriving to the hospital. The cause of death is an allergic reaction to aspirin.
The theories that seems to be the closest to reality than others, attribute Lee’s death to a group of American kung-fu masters, who are part of a committee, a sort of martial cult: his compatriots gave him a hard time when he went to America, because they were unable to accept the fact that an Asian was teaching his own discipline to the Western people.
Whatever may be the real cause of his death, the spirit of Lee stayed alive in his fans and to this day, his movies and his way of fighting are an inspiration to many: his statue proudly rises on the Avenue Stars in Hong Kong, as Dragon had never left.
Mattia Migliarino – Translated by Beatrice Birolo