Before July 20, 1973, Li Xiaolong was a successful Hong Kong actor who had yet to make it big on the international stage. Then on that day in a flat in Kowloon Tong, either from heatstroke or possibly from a fatal reaction to headache medication or even cannabis (the debate continues), Xiaolong, the 32-year-old actor and martial artist on the cusp of stardom, died, and Bruce Lee the movie megastar and cult icon was born. Fifty years have passed since then, and if anything, Lee’s star shines brighter now than ever. His image is used to sell everything from t-shirts, to key-chains, to water bottles, to cushion covers (and that’s just the official website), and his philosophy, of the ‘methodless method’, or of having no structure and no limits as a way of defining structure and limit, is nebulous enough to appeal to all sorts of generations and demographics.
It is exactly this ‘formless form’ that I think makes Lee such a universal icon, one that traverses boundaries and eras like few other artists of our time. Lee was able to craft an image, deliberately or not, that is so shapeless, so water-like, to conjure his most famous phrase, that it can flow through and fit almost any mission.
“He was our first post-racial superstar,” says Bey Logan, a Hong Kong-based film executive, martial art club owner and author of Bruce Lee and I. “He was a man without a country, who transcended language and cultures, and who had an indefinable charisma that has outstripped all the other accolades you can throw his way.”
Since his death, Lee has been invoked by countless people. Hong Kong people love him as a son and their greatest export; ethnic minorities love him as a role model and resistor of white oppression; martial artists laud his speed and technique; street fighters accept him as the real deal; poets and philosophers acknowledge and study his words as well as his actions; filmmakers love his on-screen magnetism and allure.
“There’s a scene in Enter the Dragon where there’s a group of people fighting, and Bruce is just standing there, unmoving, but you can’t take your eyes off him. It’s like he was an ‘inaction star’ as well,” says Logan.
For any Lee fan, two questions occur. One, what could he have become, had he not died? Two, how much did his death create the legend?
He was a poet and a fighter, a dancer and a philosopher, diminutive in life, a giant on the screen, a shapeless form whose death enhanced his living story
To the first question, it would be curmudgeonly to withhold the kind of global success his legend has enjoyed. He died six days before the release of Enter the Dragon, the film that shot him onto the world stage and that was already being given the kind of pre-release buildup that comes with blockbuster hits. Booked on various TV shows and with an animated series and clothing line in discussion, Lee would have been aware that this was his big break. The door was open. He just had to walk through it. Unfortunately, he died on the doorstep.
To the second question, it could be said that the “best” way to become a popular artist is to die. Vincent van Gogh is probably the most famous — selling very few paintings in his lifetime and dying in poverty, and there are many others who never knew the global fame and adulation they would inspire, from authors like Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath and Franz Kafka, to musicians like Johann Sebastian Bach and Chris Buckley. So, death certainly can be a shortcut to idolatry and fame. And Lee’s filmmaking talents were not obvious. “There were other major Hong Kong actors and directors at the same time doing great work,” says Logan. “Jimmy Wang Yu for example was a better director than Bruce, based on the evidence. When there’s no fighting going on, some of Bruce’s scenes can be pretty stiff, so there are aspects that are very dated for sure.”
But we can forgive those imperfections, I think. Lee was one of the first Hong Kong martial art actors, when he returned to Hong Kong after spending many years in the US, to have the courage and confidence to make his own suggestions on set, to choreograph his own fights. This was what set the films ablaze, with never-seen-before fighting techniques and shots that blew much of what had come before out of the water.
Logan points to one comparison to illustrate Lee’s entrancing charm. “Jackie Chan — an exceptionally talented actor and filmmaker — has made 60 films and has five books written about him, a couple of which he wrote himself. Bruce Lee made five films after his Hong Kong return, and has 60 books written about him. There are scenes where he is flowing in slow motion, and they are just indelible on the mind. There’s magnetism there, an intrinsic energy that just puts him on an entirely different level to anyone else.”
He was a poet and a fighter, a dancer and a philosopher, diminutive in life, a giant on the screen, a shapeless form whose death enhanced his living story. If we are not human beings having spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having human experiences, as Logan believes, perhaps the life of Li Xiaolong, which in death transformed into the legend of Bruce Lee, an inspiration for all, is evidence he is right.
The author is a journalist and editor covering travel, culture and lifestyle stories from around the world. He also makes short documentary videos that uncover lesser-known people and their creations.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.