“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” – Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee, born Lee Jun-fan, was a Cantonese-American actor, director, philosopher and a martial arts maestro. Born in an entertainment family with a Cantonese opera-singing father and a seamstress mother, he had an in-bred talent to face the spotlight. Having begun his career at a tender age of six, Lee had starred in almost 20 Cantonese flicks by the time he was 18. That said, none of them were even remotely related to kung fu.
Having had a successful and well-accomplished career as a kung fu master, he carved and cemented his legacy in the West which continues to inspire generations today. Lee was a multi-faceted actor who transcended classification. Having enacted in nearly 31 films, he continues to inspire films and filmmakers. Tarantino recently received a lot of backlash for his portrayal of Bruce Lee in his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; however, this proves how even nearly 47 years of his death, he is a source of burning curiosity. Lee had suffered from cerebral oedema which led to his untimely demise.
His legacy continues to grow as hardcore fans continue reminiscing the master’s on-screen magic. A true philosopher and practitioner of Confucianism, the master was quoted saying, “Life itself is your teacher, and you are in a state of constant learning”. Bruce Lee lives in our hearts even today, his words of wisdom continue to fan determination and the zeal to succeed in us. The legend’s words, “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup,” resonate with us, as we derive inspiration and learning.
On what would have been the King of Kung Fu’s 80th birthday, we take a look at the 10 best films of all time that Bruce Lee has starred in.
Let’s get started.
The top 10 Bruce Lee films:
10. Sweet Time Together (Wai Gwong Cheung, 1956)
Having tried his hand at comedy, Bruce Lee, the King of Kung Fu, stars a the idiotic pubescent simpeloton who finds himself embroiled in bizarre romantic entanglements as he slowly develops interest in the opposite sex.
In this slapstick comedy, he stammers and stutters and twitches, tries to impersonate an adult in a hilarious sequence, and is outlandishly doltish yet wins the show with a splendid Jerry Lewis imitation, clad in a white sailor boy outfit and black horn-rim glasses. This is later seen in Fist of Fury nearly ten years later.
Watch the comedic genius of Bruce Lee unfold, below.
9. An Orphan’s Tragedy (Chu Kei, 1955)
Bruce Lee plays a happy-go-lucky orphan Frank Wong whose idyllic life at the countryside gets affected by the sudden arrival of an escaped convict who turns out to be his biological father. At 15, Bruce Lee is surprisingly good and the film is based on his performance alone.
Loosely based on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the camerawork is appreciable. The story is quite melodramatic and tedious, but Lee’s performance is refreshing and makes the film watchable (and surprisingly enjoyable).
8. In the Face of Demolition (Lee Tit, 1953)
Following the Second World War, millions of Chinese refugees flood into British colonies based in Hong Kong for shelter. It showcases the impoverished and despairing conditions the families survive in, living in a dilapidated and crumbling building, where an unemployed teacher helplessly takes up the job of a rent collector.
Bruce Lee appears briefly for less than five minutes, yet delivers an outstanding performance as a sincere and helpless son of a poverty-stricken tenant. The omnipresent plight of the urban poor is heightened by the characters who evoke pity making it one of the most popular and relevant melodramas of that time.
7. Marlowe (Paul Bogart, 1969)
In his first Hollywood cameo, lee starred in this film where a woman hires a private detective named Phillip Marlowe to help find her missing brother. Lee bagged this cameo after his kung fu student, Stirling Silliphant, Oscar winner and screenplay writer, created the character of a mob enforcer named Winslow Wong to accommodate his mentor into the script.
Lee is visibly and understandably nervous as he delivers his lines stiffly, conscious of his Chinese accent. However, he is back in his element during the action sequences where his stance was brilliant. However, the film tanked; Roger Ebert recognised the fight sequence and regarded it, but was problematic enough while addressing it as he did not care to research on his name or ethnicity. “Somehwere about the time when the Japanese karate expert wrecks his office (in a very funny scene), we realise Marlowe has lost track of the plot, too.”
6. The Kid (Fung Fung, 1950)
This was the second film in which Bruce Lee worked alongside his father. At nine, he landed his first leading role and showed exquisite acting prowess with exceptional emotional depth and charisma. As an orphan raised by his uncle and groomed by a crook, Lee’s character becomes a skilled troublemaker at the factory, wreaking havoc with his cheeky antics and cocky bravados. One of his signature moves as an adult included Lee throwing back his shoulders and then thumbing his nose; the pose was debuted in this film.
Since it was a box office hit, a sequel was planned but his parents refused to allow him to return to the spotlight. Lee demonstrated his extraordinaire by being a cheeky and cocky little boy.
5. The Big Boss (Lo Wei, 1971)
Cheng Chao-an moves to Thailand to work at an ice factory while living with his family. When the factory manager realises his magnificent combat skills, he is made the foreman and promised a meeting with the boss, until he learns of the furtive criminal operations within the company. This makes him undertake a dangerous and bloody mission which has an adverse effect on his family as well.
Although Bruce Lee starred alongside James Tien, a well-known star in Hong Kong, he overshadowed the latter, earning acclaim worldwide and cementing his position in Southeast Asian cinematic legacy. Bruce Lee also seemingly has a knack for playing naive guys who subsequently unleash their wrath and fury when faced with a dangerous obstacle. He was quoted saying, “He [Cheng] was a very simple, straightforward guys. Like if you told him something, he’d believe you. Then when he finally figures out he’s been had, he goes animal”.
Cheng is on the warpath with bloodlust, ripping apart his enemies with primal pleasure which sends goosebumps down viewers’ spine even today.
4. Fist of Fury (Lo Wei, 1972)
In his second contractual film with Golden Harvest which is also a period piece set in 1930s colonial Shanghai, alluding to Japan’s imperialism, features Lee as Chen Zhen, student of Huo Yuanija, a famous kung fu master, who had been killed by the Japanese. Chen sets out to avenge his master’s death as well as fights relentlessly to keep up the honour of the Chinese when faced with foreign oppression.
Bruce Lee is extraordinary and riveting in his fight sequences. His performance with an “aggressive boyish charm” sent a surge of nationalistic fervour among the young Chinese fans who wreaked havoc in the theatres. Although lee was not very successful in emulating the chambara style in Samurai films, his aggressive and agile fight scenes steal the show.
3. The Orphan (Lee Sun-Fung, 1960)
Ever since The Kid, Bruce Lee was waiting for a lead role in the film and finally bagged the role in this film which was coincidentally his last film in Hong Kong. The film plot revolves around a headmaster who, having lost his own family in a series of tragic events, becomes a father to the children at the orphanage while actively trying to reform the cocky and troublesome delinquent Ah Sam, played by Bruce Lee. The film also focuses on poverty which motivates these orphans to play the crook. Bruce Lee’s characterisation and hoodlum inspired young boys in Hong kong to emulate his swagger by smoking and breaking into sudden cha-cha, which created huge ripples throughout the conservative Cantonese society.
In his semi-pubescent voice, Bruce Lee shoots a volley of Cantonese slangs, delivering a powerful and emotionally charged performance. Having gained inspiration from James Dean’s character in Rebel Without A Cause, he is quite jarring on-screen. He laughs hysterically, then gets angry. He is volatile and often starts the cha-cha dance; Lee, indeed, delivers the best acting performance of his career on-screen. His character is highly misunderstood, and wants to love and be loved; Ah Sam watches an orphan hugging his mother with a distant look in his eyes as beyond the facade of cockiness and offensiveness. Bruce Lee adds a dimension and unbelievable depth to this character.
2. Way of the Dragon (Bruce Lee, 1972)
Chen Ching-hua and her uncle Wang are plagued by constant trouble from a crime lord who wants their property in Rome where they have set up a restaurant. To thwart this gangster and his vile attempts at destroying their business, Chen enlists the help of a young martial artist, Tang Lung (Bruce Lee), who, initially disillusioned by his surroundings, gradually comes around, performing some of the most brilliant fight sequences, including his fight with Chuck Norris which is arguably one of the most spectacular fights in the history of films.
Bruce Lee had hoped that his directorial debut would catapult his career to stardom in Hollywood. However, the humour was off-beat and the punchlines fell apart. Lee as Lung was quite entertaining to watch, as the naive rustic who is taken aback by the city life and later goes all out to express his feelings “by beating the hell out of everybody who gets in his way”.
1. Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973)
Although criticised for being “a low-rent James Bond thriller”, Enter the Dragon is one of the greatest martial arts films of all time. While this would have been Bruce Lee’s step into stardom, he died a month before the film was released, thus becoming a highlight of his outstanding career. The plot which combines martial arts with the emergent blaxploitation genre features a multi-racial cast to cater to the widest audience, according to the director. Bruce Lee is agile, intense and exudes raw charm on-screen as he kicks and punches through the crowd of bad guys. It is also one of the most influential and successful kung fu films of all time which inspired manga, comics, video games and more. It also influenced hundreds of kids in the West to take up kung fu, thus elevating the latter’s global status.
Revolutionary in its portrayal of kung-fu as well as the African-Americans and Asians in a post-World War post-colonial Asian society, the film is based on seeking revenge. Lee is a Shaolin martial arts maestro who is approached by a British intelligence agent Braithwaite to take part in the corrupt crime lord Han’s elite martial arts competition, along with Roper and Williams. While Braithwaite wants to expose Han’s involvement in drug trafficking and prostitution, Lee wants to avenge his sister’s death by killing Han’s bodyguard, O’Hara. Enter the Dragon helped create a niche for Lee’s legacy in cinema and beyond. Pay extra attention to the fight sequence at the end – fuzzy bear claws never seemed this vicious, right?
“Don’t think! Feel. It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”