The story of Bruce Lee offers insight into ways cinema shapes popular culture and how some Asians struggle for identity and war against the prejudices and stereotypes of others.
The “awesome ability of film to shape our lives and culture,” is well attested. In 1953, Gary Cooper appeared in a movie in which he did not wear an undershirt. Undershirt sales in the United States plummeted for the next year. Few would disagree that movies affect us. What seems to be forever at issue are the ways in which we are so affected. Do movies reflect reality or do they help mold and shape reality? “The cinema is a double-edged sword. It helps us see what we might not otherwise have seen, but it also shapes what and how we see.”ii
It is no surprise then that a group of Canadian Asians have formed an organization called FILMI by which they seek to influence movies being made by and about Asians. The group states its mission in its vision statement this way: “As South Asians (living abroad), we often find ourselves trying to seek our identity in many ways, and the medium of cinematic ventures have played a strong iii part in understanding and creating such an identity.” FILMI acknowledges the role films play in the shaping of Asian identity and bears witness to the assertion that “Whether we like it or not, cinema assumes a pedagogical role in the lives of many people.”iv
This critique of the way Asians are portrayed in films has not been limited to Asian observers and scholars. Belton, in his critically acclaimed book on the movie industry, notes that “images of women, Blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and other minorities in American cinema have only an indirect relationship to the real status of these individuals within American society.” He goes on to argue that “the films do reflect American reality but in a distorted and displaced way. More often than not, they reflect back only what audiences want to see rather than what is really there.”vi
What I hope to argue in this article is that the movie, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” despite its entertainment value, is an intentional project to deconstruct notions of Asian identity and to construct a manner in which Asian Americans might negotiate more successfully their conflicted passage between being Asian and being American. The thrust of my methodology will be to analyze the demons of Bruce Lee. I will note the inner demon and the external demon that he must face and overcome.
In his epochal work, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois noted the “doubleconsciousness” of African-Americans as they struggled to define their identity. Speaking of the internal war that raged within African-Americans, Du Bois observed that “One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in vii one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Du Bois went on to explicate the strivings of the American Negro as “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”viii
Du Bois’ analysis was right on point at the time his work was published in 1903 and it remains relevant today as African-Americans continue to struggle to define themselves within the diversity of the American culture. This struggle is carried out within a context in which the African-American is said to be an American yet seems alienated from the mainstream of American culture and for present-day African-Americans, Africa seems far removed from their consciousness. I contend that Asian Americans suffer from the same degree of double-consciousness that Du Bois diagnosed as infecting African-Americans. As the noted Asian American director Wayne Wang has ix confessed, “So I’ve really been sort of schizophrenic and torn as far back as I can remember,” and “Asian Americans are continually asked to choose either an Asian or American identity.”x However, there are many who question why they should be asked to make such a choice. But even if such a choice could be made or rather Asian Americans were willing and able to make such a choice, they are conflicted about what that choice ought to be. Like African Americans, Asian Americans struggle to secure their own identity as well as to influence how others who make up mainstream American culture, particularly Caucasians, perceive them. I contend further that this struggle is evident in the movie, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” in which Bruce Lee struggles against internal and external demons. These are demons of identity – individual and cultural.
As I write this article, I am aware that there are Asian Americans for whom the problems of which I write do not arise. Maya Lin writes “Although I grew up almost completely oblivious to my Asian heritage, I have become increasingly conscious of how my work balances and combines aspects of my Eastern and Western heritages, I see my work as a voice that is of both cultures.”xi Maya Lin has found a way to negotiate the terrain of biculturalism without having to confront the internal demons Bruce Lee and many other Asian Americans must. However, she was unable to escape the external cultural demon for long. As she laments, “And I was naive about my racial identity. Race didn’t matter, and I did not perceive the difference until after I had won the xii competition…” Although she remains stable in her own identity as an American and comfortable with her Asian heritage, Maya is forever scarred by her encounter with the cultural demon of racism in which she is left with a “feeling of being other that has profoundly shaped my way of looking at the world – as if from a distance – a third-person observer.”xiii
At first glance, it would seem that Maya Lin’s status as a first-generation Asian American (she was born in the U.S. to parents who had immigrated here) shielded her from the internal demon that beset Bruce Lee and others. However, Lee is also a first-generation Asian American, although at the time of his birth his parents were in the U.S. visiting and later returned to Hong Kong where they remained. Further, much has been written about the Nisei who left Japan and settled in Hawaii and xiv underwent successful and accelerated acculturation. There is also a genre of film called “Asian Cult Cinema” used to describe films made in Hong Kong which are produced and directed by Asians and which star Asian actors. It is the Hong Kong cinema that gave us Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and other xv Asian actors who found fame and glory in America. Since the target audience for these movies is Asians, issues of identity seldom if ever surface as it does in Hollywood movies about Asians or directed by Asians. We have already seen in the quote from FILMI that there is a conscious effort among some Asian American moviemakers to challenge existing paradigms of Asian American identity and to construct more positive models.
Further, there are a number of Asian American filmmakers who have produced films that xvi “grapple with questions of Asian identity in widely divergent ways…” Feng cites as examples Michael Idemoto and Eric Nakamura’s “Sunsets,” Chris Chan Lee’s “Yellow,” and Quentin Lee and Justin Lin’s “Shopping for Fangs,” to name a few. Noting the crisis of Asian American identity in America, Feng argues:
If Asian Americans generally experience a crisis of identity – a crisis fostered by continuing American racism – it is not surprising that Asian American cinema continues to thematize that identity crisis, and that Asian American filmmakers face similar crises when attempting to market their films and themselves.xvii
He is careful to explain that by using the term, “Asian American cinema,” he does not wish to imply that there is such a thing as a homogenous Asian culture. He acknowledges the diversity of Asian cultures in America as well as the different patterns of acculturation that Asian groups have undergone in America. Thus, the Nisei mentioned above would not necessarily be representative of all such acculturated groups. Feng goes on to complain that “Mainstream America continually conflates Asian Americans and Asians, 240 years after the first Asians arrived on these shores.”xviii This error continues to exert itself among Americans who refer to such Asian American films as “The xix Joy Luck Club,” “Farewell My Concubine,” and “M.Butterfly” as “Asian cinema.” Feng’s complaint is that most Americans continue to view Asians as constituting a single community when in fact Asians make up a rainbow of cultures and identities.
In fact, argues Feng, the notion of Asian American “is a political category: the name of a coalition of Americans who have come to realize that their political situation – determined in part by:
The FILMI statement above, as well as the formation of the Chicago Asian American Showcase “as a counter to the limited and damaging representation of Asian Americans in the mainstream media”, attests to that these cultural demons exist and are no small thing.xxii
“Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” was released on May 7, 1993. It is based on the book Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, the autobiography of Linda Lee Caldwell, Lee’s wife. The movie starred xxiii, Jason Scott Lee, as Bruce Lee and Lauren Holly as his wife. The movie follows very closely Bruce Lee’s last film, “Enter the Dragon,” a film that was hugely successful and established Lee as an international star.
In the opening scene of “Dragon”, a young boy is walking along a dark street when he passes a row of iconic figures. These are demons from Chinese indigenous religions. The boy continues on his way until he comes to a faceless demon before which he stops and stares. Suddenly there is a rumbling sound like an earthquake and an explosion of smoke or mist. The young boy turns to face the source of the smoke when the faceless demon appears detached from the wall in which he was once embedded. The demon cannot be identified. It is enclosed in darkness although it is surrounded by light. To contrast the lack of identity of the demon, the camera zooms in on the face of the little boy and a light frames his face so that we can see clearly the terror that takes hold of him.
The zoom in this scene helps us to get inside of the young boy and to see and feel what he sees and feels. The boy’s face helps us to experience the terror of the young Bruce Lee. We are horrified and forced to the edges of our seats as the demon approaches the boy and is about to kill him when the scene shifts to Bruce Lee’s father.
The father goes into his son’s room and insures that the boy is safe. He then places another mirror or charm on the windowsill to ward off the demon. It is obvious that the boy in the dream is Bruce Lee. These two scenes help to establish the theme of the movie and are worth unpacking for our analysis. We learn at the outset that there is going to be a confrontation between Bruce Lee and the demon at some point in the movie. The confrontation occurs quickly in the scene where Lee goes to a party for Asians and some uninvited U.S. Navy personnel appear.
We now have before us the demons that Lee must defeat. There is the inner demon of what one character says is fear, hatred, and anger. Then there is the external demon of racism. Before I leave these scenes, it is important to note one more aspect of the narrative that these scenes bring into focus. That aspect is revealed in the initial confrontation between Lee and the leader of the servicemen when he tells Lee to go get a girl of his own. Lee responds that the young lady is one of his own.
I am of the opinion that this brief exchange sets before us the conflict between Lee’s Asian and American identities. We do not yet know that Lee was born in America. That knowledge will be revealed to us in the next scene. However, when Lee claims the young lady as one of his own, he sets the stage for the conflict that will be exposed when he arrives in America and declares himself to be an American.
Such a conflict lends nobility to Lee’s quest to slay the demon and is more credible than a mere struggle to overcome superstitions as has been advocated by several critics, perhaps most
Ebert and other critics miss the mark when they label this idea of the demon as “silliness” and other demeaning concepts. What they fail to appreciate is the role spirits play in the lives of the Chinese and other Asians.
A “major feature” of Chinese indigenous religion is “the veneration of ancestors.” Fisher explains the importance of proper respect being paid to one’s ancestors. She notes that “ghosts who have been ignored or ill-treated during their lifetime can cause so much mischief … that many efforts were made to thwart them, …” Demons then, at least within the context of Chinese culture, more often than not are the spirits of ancestors. That is why great respect must be shown to ancestors. For instance, Bruce Lee was not present at the death of his father. Therefore, in obedience to Chinese tradition and in order “to obtain forgiveness for not being present when his father died, Bruce crawls on his knees across the floor of the funeral home towards the casket wailing loudly and crying.”xxviii
I do not contend that the demons of Bruce Lee are ancestors or other spirits. While we are not made aware of the nature of the demon that haunts his father, it is clear that the demon of Bruce Lee is an inner demon. The external demon is a construct of this article and is not mentioned in the film, although it is manifested in the number of scenes in which Bruce Lee encounters racism.
The film makes it clear that the demons of Bruce Lee are neither ancestors nor superstitions. As Bruce says in the film, “It’s not a dream. … Superstition is a name people give to their ignorance.” Later on, a family friend says to Bruce Lee, “The demon is your inner fear.”
What then is the inner fear of Bruce Lee that manifests itself as a demon? This article argues that the demon represents Bruce Lee’s conflict of identity. What Bruce Lee fears is being caught between two worlds without belonging to either. He fears being a nameless creature marooned on an island of lost identity. It is no wonder then that his demon is faceless. The demon lacks identity because Bruce Lee has not yet grounded himself in a stable identity. His first encounter with the demon demonstrates this conflict.
This first encounter with the demon is significant because it takes place after Bruce Lee has opened his martial arts studio to non-Chinese and has decided to marry a Caucasian woman. He is torn between his Asian and American cultures. His Asian culture forbids teaching the martial arts to non-Asians while his American culture prohibits interracial marriages. These defacto taboos converge to disrupt the psychic of Bruce Lee and it is from this disruption that the demon emerges. Clearly, Lee is at odds with both of the cultures he seeks to dwell in. He finds himself estranged from both cultures and now has to literally fight his way into acceptance.
A few scenes later, Bruce confronts the mother of Linda Emery, who he will eventually marry, and declares that he is an American. His future mother-in-law retorts, “You are an American citizen, you are not an American.” Bruce shatters the cup he is holding and bolts from the house.
This scene serves to magnify Lee’s own fear of not being American enough. He has been sent to America because he was not Asian enough to abide by the laws of occupation and the expectations of his father. Now, he is being told that he is not American enough.
Lee’s next encounter with the demon occurs when he returns to Hong Kong to attend his father’s funeral. This encounter is brief – again attended by blinding light and smoke. The demon emerges from the floor, suggesting perhaps that it is a product of Lee’s subconscious mind. It could also represent the etiology of the demon from Lee’s father as stated by Lee’s Kung Fu teacher. The demon emerges from the grave of Lee’s father. I doubt this latter reading, as it would have made more sense to have the demon appear at the funeral. At any rate, nothing happens and the scene fades away. It is interesting to note that, as pointed out above, Lee is feeling guilty about not being present at his father’s death. He is also in conflict regarding his identity and whether his Asian or American nature will win out. The appearance of the demon solidifies this conflict and affirms our earlier analysis that the demon is not superstition but a product of Lee’s subconscious mind. The director is careful to frame the appearance of the demon so that spectators will have no difficulty realizing that the demon is inside of Lee and represents a conflict that is internal to the young man.
Were this not the case, then an opportune moment for the demon to reappear would have been the scene in the theater. Lee and his white girlfriend go to a theater to see the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This scene comes after the one in which the interracial couple is denied service at a restaurant. As the couple watches the movie, they respond to it quite differently. “The couple loses unity and abstraction: Linda brightens, Bruce darkens, they part toward opposing edges of the frame [as] a grossly made-up Mickey Rooney [bolts] upright in bed to bang his head on his own idiotically positioned lamp.” As the movie within a movie continues, the audience around Bruce and Linda erupts into laughter at the cartoon image of the Asian being projected on the screen. “The next shot is again of Linda in close-up but holds her face a little longer; she turns right to share her pleasure and her smile suddenly fades,” as she discovers the grimace on Bruce’s face and notes he is not amused. For the first time since Linda declared her love for the movie, she and Bruce are framed together as she says, “Let’s get out of here.”
Morris approves of the deconstruction of the idea of the spectator that permeates the scenes involving the movie within a movie for they help us to understand something about how audiences see movies and the fact that people watching the same movie at the same time can have different reactions to it. The relevancy of this to our project is that it helps us to understand Lee’s action in sitting through the movie even though he hates it. “[P]eople routinely sit through a film they dislike in order to please their loved ones, not fun but no big deal; and the editing credits “Dragon’s” audience with a capacity for involvement in more than one way of seeing.” And more importantly, we come to understand what Morris says is “neither a hardline identity politics nor an unforgiving war on Linda’s sense of humor; it is a parable of change and reciprocity.”
This change is not just in Linda; it is with the audience as well. “Looking with Linda we can see the beauty and lightness of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and then see what her partner sees – coarse racism dressed as refinement.” We can see this change in the later scene where Linda and Lee watch the television show, “Kung Fu,” an idea of Lee’s for which part he was turned down because of concern for his Asian appearance. In this scene, the couple is framed together and the expression on their faces is almost identical.
Here in this theater on the West Coast would have been an opportune moment to have the demon emerge to dramatize Bruce Lee’s rejection of the images being projected on the screen. However, the director’s refusal to do so indicates the dichotomy the director wants to maintain between Lee’s internal demon and the external one. The external demon is never manifested into a central image – it is always diverse and complex. We see it in all of its raw and earthy hues. I am of the opinion that what the director wants the audience to understand is that the racism that Lee encounters is real and is not reflective of Lee’s internal conflicts. Racism is not a demon that emerges from Lee. It is a demon that is resident in American culture. Morris agrees for she says that “‘Dragon’ is one of the more powerful treatments of institutionalized racism in a film industry (as well as in film images) that U.S. cinema possesses.”xxxiv
We see racism in the scene when Lee meets Linda’s mother who warns her daughter about having a “yellow” baby and when she tells Lee that “You are an American citizen – you are not an American.” We also see racism in Lee’s confrontation with the boys at college, in his having to wear a mask to cover his Asian face when he plays Kato.
It is no wonder that Lee decides to return to Hong Kong. It is there that he stars in his first feature-length film, “The Big Boss.” The film is successful and Lee becomes a star of Hong Kong cinema. Lee wants to be a “Chinese hero.” He has turned his back on America as is dramatized by the scene where Linda confronts him and says that she and the children are going back to America. Lee goes into a violent rage as he talks about his stardom in Hong Kong and his non-being in America. This scene is pivotal and climatic for the movie. For it is when Lee decides to return to America that he encounters his inner demon for the final time. His final confrontation with his external demon comes during the filming of the concluding scenes for “Enter the Dragon,” upon Lee’s return to Hong Kong.
We enter this scene slowly. We are shown a storm outside the studios where the film is being shot. The wind overturns a lion sculpture. This scene parallels an actual event that occurred during the filming of the movie when a typhoon struck. The following excerpt from “The Timeline” is instructive:
1973 – July 18 (Age 33): Hong Kong – A bad Feng Shui deflector, placed on the roof of Bruce’s Cumberland Road home in Hong Kong is blown off the roof by heavy rain and winds. The deflector had been placed on the house to protect Bruce and family from bad Feng Shui; previous owners had all been plagued by financial disaster and it was believed this was because of the incorrect positioning of the house. The deflector was to ward off evil spirits.xxxv
Bruce Lee dies two days later. It is easy to become distracted by the connection between the storm and Bruce’s death. I do not wish to minimize the complex nature of Chinese belief in spirits and forces of nature. However, I am convinced that these matters do not impact the nature of the demons under review here. Bruce Lee’s demons are his own internal fear and the racism of American society. He is not struggling against some external force of nature, although he does pay homage to it as represented by his own use of charms and mirrors in the film. As a Chinese American, he cannot do otherwise. Moreover, to suggest that the demon finally caught up with Bruce Lee and killed him is diametrically opposed to the conclusion of our movie. It is to that movie that we now return.
Bruce enters a room of mirrors. The demon will emerge from one of the mirrors. The room of mirrors helps to frame what it is the director wants us to see. What we are supposed to see is that the demon is in fact a reflection of Lee’s sub consciousness. Lee has finally come face to face with his inner demon! No light attends the arrival of the demon during this last encounter. I believe that is because the director wants to show that Lee is submerged into his sub consciousness. The demon has not come to the surface; Lee has traveled to the depths of his being.
This is the most violent of Lee’s encounters with the demon. There is an earthquake, a storm, rain, wind, the elements of nature help to establish the violence of the confrontation, and its metaphysical implications. The demon assaults Lee with ferocity and beats his head against the wall and then throws him against his gravestone (which by the way is Lee’s actual marker at his grave). As we watch this scene, the words of bell hooks echoes in our mind, “Sometimes you have to break down to breakthrough.” Yes, Lee breaks down. However, for the first time in the movie, Lee fights the demon rather than run from it.
Lee’s son, Brandon, appears and the demon releases Lee and heads for his son. Lee pulls a set of nunchucks from the mouth of a stone lion and attacks the demon. This is the first time that Lee has actually attacked the demon instead of running from it. Lee kills the demon. He is immediately transported back to the movie set where he hurries away and rushes home. Our next scene shows the outside of Lee’s home and then Lee at home with his son and daughter. His daughter says, “We had a typhoon.” Lee replies, “I know. But it’s over now.”
What is over? I contend it is Lee’s long struggle with locating a stable identity. He is now comfortable with his identity as an Asian American. He has defeated his demon of fear and hatred that kept him dangling between two worlds without belonging to either one.
Lee has arrived at that pivotal moment achieved by other Asian Americans who have struggled for identity in America. As one author recalled her own triumph, “We were reclaiming our stake in a land and a history that excluded us, transforming a community that was still in the process of becoming. We were following our destinies as Asian Americans.”xxxvi
Sociologists have claimed that for acculturation to take place, “intergroup conflict had to disappear and prejudice and discrimination on the part of the host society had to be eliminated.”xxxvii
Lee, Zia, Lin and others have proven the sociologists wrong time and again. They demonstrate that “groups continually adapt, construct, and recreate in response to changes in the host society and within the groups themselves.” Lee defeats his own inner demon of fear and having done so; he is able to overcome the demon of racism. He cannot slay it. However, that is not determinative. For always we humans find ways to live with forces we cannot kill but which we can defeat on occasions and erect walls of control around. Those of us who live in Southern California have been unable to eradicate earthquakes from our land. However, we have learned to construct earthquake-resistant buildings and we have learned to adapt ourselves in ways that help us to live full lives even in the face of constant threats of earthquakes and despite the prediction of the “big one” that ever looms in our consciousness.
The terrain of identity, particularly for those who have been dislocated to an alien culture, “is simultaneously ambiguous and contested, familiar and queer, and hence fraught with fear and hatred, affection and attraction.” These sentiments are resident in the dislocated as well as in the host society. This dichotomy is represented in the film “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” by the inner and external demons of Bruce Lee who comes to slay the internal demon and to overcome the external one. The movie is proof that “American cinema reveals, both directly and indirectly, something about the American experience, identity, and culture.” It is ironic that death was Bruce Lee’s reward. But death too often seems to be the crown that bestows eternal life upon heroes. This ironic twist of fate is what makes for great tragedy.
Nevertheless, Lee offers a meaningful and coherent way in which Asian Americans can negotiate the slippery slope of identity formation. First and foremost, they must confront and defeat their inner demons of fear and hatred. Having done so, they will find themselves less threatened by the demon of racism as Lee demonstrates through his success at the box office that brought him increased power and influence.
Of course, I am not suggesting that Asian Americans learn Kung Fu and enter the acting profession. Maya Lin, Helen Zia and other Asian Americans represent the vitality of availability of other roads to success. To paraphrase an old cliché, there is more than one way to establish an identity.
1I am indebted to David S. Reynolds for this term. See his essay, “Hawthorne’s Cultural Demons: History, Popular Culture, and The Scarlet Letter, chap. in Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (and Each Other), Mark C. Carnes, ed. New York: Simon & Schuster (2001) 229-234.
2At least we do not know this from the movie. It may be that we, or some of us, know this as a historical fact or by having read the book on which the movie is based.
i. Bryan P. Stone, “Cinema, Theology, and the ‘Signs of the Times,’” chap. Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema, St. Louis: Chalice Press (2000), 5. ii. Stone 6.
. Thomas Weisser with intro. by Max Allan Collins, Asian Cult Cinema, New York: The Berkley Publishing Group (1997), 2. xvi. Feng supra.
xxvi. Mary Pat Fisher, “Taoism and Confucianism,” chap in Living Religions, Univ. of Phoenix Special Ed. Series, Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc. (1999, 1997, 1994, 1991), 178. xxvii. Ibid. 179-80. xxviii. “The Timeline,” http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~chenj/brucelee/brucelee.htm.
. Meaghan Morris, “Learning from Bruce Lee: Pedagogy and political correctness in martial arts cinema,” chap. in Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies, eds. Matthew Tinkcom and Amy Villarejo, London: Routhledge (2001), 180. xxx. Ibid.
xxxi. Ibid. 181. xxxii. Ibid. xxxiii. Ibid.
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