Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Whither the Dragon?

Below is an excerpt from a newspaper article on the legacy of Bruce Lee. You can read the complete article by clicking on the title of this post.

Whither the dragon?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The death of Bruce Lee 34 years ago left a gaping hole in the Asian pop culture continuum -- one that no star has been able to successfully fill since. Jeff Yang talks to filmmaker Justin Lin and the stars of his new film "Finishing the Game" to discuss the Dragon's deep impact and lasting legacy

Death causes some people to vanish from sight; others, it makes immortal. Bruce Lee, the man they called the Dragon, unquestionably belongs to the latter category. Lee passed out of the living world into legend 34 years ago this month; the cause of his death on July 20, 1973 was labeled "misadventure" by medical examiners, "assassination" by conspiracy theorists, and "mystical curse" by even wilder conspiracy theorists. Strangest still are those who maintain, as with Lee's childhood idol Elvis Presley, that the Dragon faked his demise and still walks the Earth today, watching the carnival surrounding his legacy with a combination of pride, amusement, and consternation.

In recent years, that carnival has attained a Cirque du Soleil level of surreality. Until the project was finally staked through the heart this January, Rob Cohen (director of the Bruce Lee biopic "Dragon") was intent on resurrecting Lee in a film called "Rage and Fury," featuring a fully CGI "digital actor." Meanwhile, Lee's ancestral village, the town of Shunde in China's Guangdong Province, is constructing a "Home of the Dragon" amusement park, featuring an on-site martial arts academy, a roller coaster with Lee's scream as soundtrack, and dozens of roaming audioanimatronic "Brucebots" patrolling the grounds. And David Bowie and David Henry Hwang are reportedly collaborating on a Bruce Lee musical, bound for Broadway in 2008.

Of course, for Asian Americans, the funhouse aspect of living in the P.B.L. (Post-Bruce Lee) era has always been apparent. We revere the man for his unique stature as one of the small pantheon of folk heroes to our name; the San Francisco-born, Seattle-buried Lee is undoubtedly the best known and best-loved Asian American in history. Yet there's also a level of angst and resentment at how his mythic status has defined how the world sees us, especially those of us who are males.

That ambivalence is a powerful theme of Justin Lin's "Finishing the Game," a darkly comic mockumentary purporting to tell what happened when Hollywood decided to try to complete Lee's final, unfinished work, "Game of Death," using a double to replace its deceased superstar. The film, due out in October from IFC films, is an homage, and a loving one. But it's also a critique -- not so much of Lee the man, but of the Rube Goldberg apparatus that his life and death set in motion, as Lin and his cast said in a conversation I had with them on the day after the 34th anniversary of Lee's transfiguration.

"Like a lot of Asian American guys, I had a love-hate relationship with Bruce," says Sung Kang, whose character in the film, Cole Kim, is a self-styled "country boy" hoping to break into Hollywood as Bruce's stand-in. "I admired what he could do physically, but I grew up in the South, and the only experience every kid in my school had with Asians was kung fu cinema. The first question they'd ask me was always, 'Do you know kung fu?' And if I said no, they'd pound me. That's when I started becoming an actor. I realized, 'Hey, if I pretend I know this stuff, maybe they won't pound on me every day.'"

Anyone familiar with the real-life "Game of Death" knows that in one of its most mind-boggling scenes, Bruce Lee's stand-in looks at his reflection in the mirror, and -- in a low-tech attempt at preserving the illusion that he's Lee -- the filmmakers cut to a cardboard cut-out of his face pasted onto the mirror's surface. From a metaphorical standpoint, every time any Asian American guy looks into a mirror, we see that cardboard cut-out of Bruce Lee's face, staring back out at us.

The Game of Life

"It's easy to put on a show and be cocky, to feel pretty cool. I could make all kinds of phony things, I could show you really fancy movements. But to express myself honestly, to not lie to myself ... that, my friend, is very hard to do. You have to train, you have to keep your reflexes, so that when you want them they're there. When you want to move, when you're determined to move [you have to be ready] to take not one inch less."

-- Bruce Lee, the "lost interview," "The Pierre Berten Show," 1973

So, let's play a game. Imagine, if you will, that Lee's life hadn't been cut tragically short. Imagine he'd never taken the fatal pill that apparently triggered an allergic reaction, swelling his brain until it burst against its sheath of bone.

If he'd lived, he'd be 66 years old right now -- over twice the age he was when he died, and a year into his senior citizenhood. He might be one of the grand old men of Hollywood, palling around with Jack Nicholson at Lakers games, sitting on special juries at Sundance and Tribeca, holding fundraisers for Barack Obama. Or he might be a "Where are they now?" quiz-show answer, a bitter straight-to-video shadow of his younger days, a campy reality-TV self-parody.

The problem with heroes cut down in their prime is that we make the same mistake we make with stock market investments -- we assume that the hockey-stick of Google's earnings will continue forever and ever, based on historical trends, into infinity. Bruce Lee's stock was soaring when he was, er, delisted -- so our projections for where he'd be today are based on the notion that his stardom would have continued. And that's not necessarily the case, as Roger Fan -- who plays Dragon-clone "Breeze Loo" in "FTG" -- points out.

"When we were starting out with the film, I was doing research for the role," he says. "And I came across that "'lost' Bruce Lee interview-the one where he talks about what it's like being an Asian American male in Hollywood. And it was really interesting ... here he was on the cusp of global superstardom, and you could still hear the anger in his voice -- there's definitely a bitterness there, about being an Asian man in a white man's industry."

Lin agrees. "Having been in Hollywood for a few years now, it's very obvious from that interview how pissed off he was. And I think that that was what drove him. It was that combination of getting screwed again and again, and fighting it. Coming back again, bigger and angrier. You wonder what would have happened if he'd lived, to that balance of tension -- what direction he might have gone."

What might have happened? Lee might have broken away -- fled a system that wouldn't let him grow, wouldn't let him be anything more than an icon of action, rage, fury; transformed his martial-arts teaching into a life-coaching/self-help empire ("How to Kick Ass and Influence People"). He might have broken down -- given into studio demands, diluted his canon with slews of sequels and half-baked remakes -- "2 Fists 2 Furious," "The Chinese Connection: Reconnected," "Mentor the Dragon."

Or he might have broken through. Kicked down the Tinseltown gates. Remade the establishment in his own image, through sheer box-office firepower. Because that, in a nutshell, is what didn't happen, and still hasn't happened. No Asian American Hollywood player has ever commanded the power to literally be able to call the shots -- mandate casting, green-light projects singlehandedly, direct production agendas away from the industry's creatively retarded, risk-averse norm. No one has ever been closer than Lee, whose pure profitabililty and international draw might have eventually given him the blank check that comes with unbounded commercial success.

During his all-too-brief career, with a handful of TV appearances and four completed movies to his credit, he drew unparalleled crowds; every one of his films proved to be an international blockbuster, and "Enter the Dragon," his magnum opus, is counted as one of the 20 most profitable films of all time -- having grossed nearly half a billion dollars since its original release against a production budget of just $500,000. Beyond simply breaking records, the success of Lee's movies sparked the global embrace of martial arts cinema, ultimately paving the way for the opening of Asia's film industries to the world. The whole world: As a testament to his cross-cultural appeal, one movie theater, in Iran, of all places, played "Enter the Dragon" every day for six years, consistently drawing in rapt audiences from the film's premiere in 1973, until 1979, when the Islamic Revolution forced it to shutter its doors.

And "Game of Death" was poised to be bigger still. If Lee had lived, he'd have finished the movie himself, preventing its reckless whirl into the hellstorm of exploitation and misguided homage in which it was ultimately consumed, and delivering what promised to be the most ambitious and complex work of his career to date. It featured Lee as a reluctant hero blackmailed into a one-man siege against a mysterious pagoda filled with deadly martial artists and human monsters; but Lee hoped it would be perceived of as a window into his philosophy -- as the story of a man's progress not to victory, but to enlightenment.

So it's wonderful to think that Lee might have ridden a "Game of Death" global juggernaut into a deal that would have let him do more than just make his own films without studio interference -- that Lee, by instinct and training someone who'd always reached down to bring people up, might have become the idol who made Hollywood safe for his people.

"We've been going across the country talking to people, especially young people," says Fan. "And we've realized that this next generation, who've grown up in a multicultural world -- they're ready to see different faces, different stories. But there's a disconnect out there, because the media is controlled by a very small group of people, who see the world in a certain way. They're only comfortable serving up a 1940s Americana point of view. And we don't have someone at that table who can counter that, the 50-, 60-, 70-year-old guys who run things and can push people out of that comfort zone. We don't have studio heads. We don't have marquee stars."

And maybe things could have been different. "Bruce could have been that guy," says Kang. "Who knows?"

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