Fist of Fury (1972): My favourite martial arts film of all time

MOVIE: Fist of Fury

RELEASED IN: 1972

STARRING: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Feng Tien

WRITTEN BY: Lo Wei

DIRECTOR: Lo Wei

PRODUCER: Raymond Chow

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHER: Yin-chieh Han

RATING: ★★★★★

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The fabled story about a student called Chen Zhen who exacted revenge against those who killed real-life wushu master Huo Yuanjia was inevitably destined for the big screen, launching an iconic character of Chinese modern folklore into Hong Kong martial arts film history. As it turns out, the first and one of the best interpretations of the tale of Chen’s ensuing vendetta became Fist of Fury, one of Bruce Lee’s most successful films and my all-time favourite flick.

Also known as The Chinese Connection (a name that was actually intended for The Big Boss but was mixed up in each of the US releases), Fist of Fury is a 1972 martial arts film written and directed by Lo Wei and starred Bruce Lee in his second major film role.

Much like in the stories that circulated the real Huo’s life, his death has been portrayed just as dramatically, and in Fist of Fury, the founder of the Jing Wu martial arts school dies from a mysterious illness. The school’s best pupil and the film’s hero, Chen Zhen, returns to the international settlement in Shanghai distraught and grieving on the day of his beloved master’s burial.

Like rubbing salt into an open wound, students from a rival Japanese bushido school from the Hongkou district gatecrash the eulogy, presenting the Jing Wu school with a framed banner in Japanese kanji calling the Chinese “sick men of Asia”, before taunting the students and challenging them to fight.

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While Chen’s subsequent encounter with the Japanese school on their turf saw their prideful, openly hostile members receive their comeuppance, Chen realised that in the wake of his attempt at settling the score, the tenacious school had retaliated even more aggressively – ransacking the Jing Wu school, attacking students and even enlisting the local authorities to try and throw everyone in jail.

Reluctant to hand Chen over to the police, the Jing Wu School devised a plan to help him escape Shanghai. But having discovered his teacher was actually fatally poisoned by the school’s cook and caretaker (played by Yien-chieh Han, the film’s fight choreographer and lead antagonist in The Big Boss), who were sent there to work covertly by the Japanese dojo master Suzuki, a newly-enraged Chen seeks to bring the murderers to justice.

However, the overarching influence of the Japanese authorities in the settlement who are baying for Chen’s blood, and the inability of the local inspector (also played by Lo Wei) to hold the Japanese school accountable for anything adds to the sense of foreboding tragedy that no matter what the outcome, it would be Chen and the Jing Wu School who will pay the ultimate price.

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So why does this movie remain my favourite of all time, bar none? It’s difficult for me sticking a favourite label on just about anything, and while it does star the incomparable Bruce Lee, any of the films exemplifying his famed martial arts career are just as praiseworthy.

But it is Fist of Fury that undoubtedly deserves the distinction of Bruce Lee’s most powerful cinematic performance, and serves as an engrossing exhibition of his skills both as an actor and as a martial artist. How could I not love this movie?

Each of the film’s iconic fight scenes easily managed to reach cult status in martial art cinema and even penetrated popular culture. One of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had across the entire genre would be watching the scene when Bruce Lee’s Chen visits the Japanese dojo for the first time and single-handedly takes on the entire school (and its instructor) in hand-to-hand combat.

Even when the Japanese students desperately attempt to grab at weapons or overwhelm him in numbers, Chen holds his own. Throwing down his shirt, he even manages to dispose of multiple, stumbling students in seconds as he introduced his enemies (and the world) to the brutal blows of his nunchaku in an expert, fearsome display of lethal ability.

Fist of Fury is the ultimate revenge film, with many emotions across the spectrum to swallow as Chen carries out his vengeance. There are intense confrontations and fight scenes to revel in, endless scheming on both sides of the conflict, a little subdued, romantic dalliance with love interest Yuan Li Er (played by Nora Miao) in the middle, and then more fighting and vigilante violence before a climatic showdown against Suzuki (played by Riki Hashimoto) and his right-hand man, burly Russian fighter Petrov.

Only a handful of films, no matter what the genre, are considered revolutionary and still worthy of our attention even decades after its release. Fist of Fury is a perfect example of this rarity. Combined with its emotive plot, electrifying fight scenes, as well as Bruce Lee’s own martial arts prowess and larger-than-life onscreen presence, this film is in a league of its own. While his first Hong Kong film, The Big Boss may have made Bruce Lee a star, Fist of Fury was the film that made him a legend.

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EXTRA BITS

[WARNING – SPOILERS]

  • Fist of Fury was actually one of the first of many major films that Jackie Chan worked on as an extra. He was even the stunt double for Suzuki in the scene where he is thrown through a shoji screen (paper door). Jackie would then go on to star in this film’s official sequel also written and directed by Lo Wei, New Fist of Fury (1976). Jackie plays young Taiwanese boy Lung, who would train under Chen Zhen’s fiancée (yep, Nora Miao again) to become Chen’s successor both in skill and in ideology.
  • Jet Li would eventually star in another incarnation of the Chen Zhen story in Fist of Legend (1994) as Chen. The story also continued with Donnie Yen in Legend of the Fist (2010). Coincidentally, Jet would then go on to play Chen’s master Huo in the film Fearless decades later.
  • Yuen Biao also made a minor appearance in Fist of Fury as one of Suzuki’s students.
  • I feel how the film addressing such strong themes as race and discrimination across social classes truly makes the central conflict resonate (shedding insight on the consequences of oppressive foreign occupation and suggesting the extent of how other races, considered upper-class citizens, could have influenced law and order). But interestingly the inclusion of this content was in fact a source of disagreement between Bruce and Lo Wei and because of these conflicts, Bruce quit working with him after the film’s completion.
  • Fist of Fury actually features some of the same Golden Harvest contract cast members as in Bruce Lee’s other films: The Big Boss, Way of the Dragon, and Enter the Dragon including Maria Yi, Little Unicorn, Chen Fu-Ching, Lee-Kwan, Lau Wing, Kam Shan and of course James Tien – a flagrantly familiar face across a range of martial arts movies from the late 60s to the early 90s.
  • In a poignant and very fitting finale, as well as to uphold the ideology that crime doesn’t pay, Bruce Lee insisted that his character had to die at the end, but die with honour – in a scene that to this day can almost move me to tears. Again! How could I NOT love this movie??
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