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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 July, 2003, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
Bruce Lee: The kung-fu legend

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee was the first star of kung-fu
Bruce Lee introduced the world to the Hong Kong martial arts movie - and is still its greatest star. BBC News Online looks at his legacy on the 30th anniversary of his death.

Before Bruce Lee the kung-fu movie was nothing more than a cult, watched only by martial arts aficionados.

But the martial arts star changed all of that - after making four movies before his death aged 32, he turned the genre into one of the defining cultural movements of the 1970s, and an internationally-popular film form.

In his wake have come a raft of other kung-fu stars, such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan, who has carved out a successful comedy kung-fu career in Hollywood.

Lee was never going to win an Oscar for best actor, but his prowess as a fighter was second-to-none.

Individual style

In the four films he made - Fists of Fury (1972), Enter the Dragon, The Chinese Connection and Return of the Dragon (all 1973) - Lee became an overnight sensation. Enter the Dragon made him a star in the West.

It was his individual fighting style that made Lee so special, said film writer David Parkinson.

"There are no holds barred in his fight choreography and people look like they've been beaten up rather than involved in a stunt," he told BBC News Online.

"Only Jet Li has really taken his fight scenes as seriously - and Michelle Yeoh among the female fighters - as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung have always thrown in a knowing look at the camera or a slapstick element to their work."

Born in San Francisco in 1940, Lee's family returned to Hong Kong in 1941. His father, an actor and opera singer, had encouraged his son to act in films from the age of six.

The young Lee learned dancing - notably the cha-cha - and took up martial arts to protect himself from school bullies. He became a master at wing-chun, the kung fu style best used for close-quarter fighting.

Lee's coffin
Bruce Lee's death was a huge loss to Hong Kong cinema

From the age of 18 he lived in the US, studying philosophy at Washington University and marrying Linda Lee Cadwell. He also appeared in the TV series The Green Hornet as the kung-fu-loving sidekick Kato.

His unique style led to him becoming a martial arts tutor to big name stars such as Steve McQueen and James Coburn. By this time he had adapted a fluid, more flexible style of his own-making, called Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist).

Lee tried to get a Hollywood career going - even coming up with the concept of the TV show Kung Fu - but grew disillusioned. He returned to Hong Kong in 1970.

'Cultural gravity'

On his return he made three movies with the new Golden Harvest studio - all of which featured him as a friend of the people, using his skills to fight off drug smugglers and other evil types.

"I think the main thing about Bruce Lee was that he made Hong Kong martial arts an international genre and gave it a cultural gravity that was missing before and after," Mr Parkinson said.

" He could never be called a chop socky merchant, as his films were reverential to the ethos of the ancient styles of fighting and would much rather demonstrate classical moves that flashy cinematic ones."

Lee's breakthrough was with his fourth film, Enter the Dragon, which promised a Hollywood career that had so far evaded him. But the charismatic Lee was to die in July 1973 aged 32 of a cerebral edema, possibly brought on by a reaction to aspirin.

Lee fan with poster
Bruce Lee fans have marked his death at a Hong Kong exhibition

His funeral was the cause of national mourning in Hong Kong, with some 25,000 people coming to see his body lying in state.

"His early death has created a myth around him a la James Dean. His cult has ensured a greater posthumous interest than he ever enjoyed during his career," Mr Parkinson said.

"It perhaps also saved him from being pigeon-holed in Hollywood and from ageing, which is creeping up on Jackie and Sammo, or failing to sustain the momentum as Chow Yun Fat [star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon] has found."

There are signs the Hong Kong film industry, which mysteriously has not held Lee with as much respect as those overseas, is beginning to realise the debt it owes to him.

An exhibition of his life has been running in Hong Kong this weekend.

There is speculation his name will be on a new Hong Kong film Avenue of Stars, although it is yet to be confirmed.

It is unlikely to matter too much however. Around the world, the legend of Bruce Lee, 30 years on, remains intact.

Bruce Lee 'recreated' for comeback
15 Nov 01  |  Entertainment

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