Fists and Fury

The Political History of Kung Fu Movies

Growing up, one of the most quintessential Gen Z East Asian experiences was getting called some variation of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. As a kid, I took the comments in stride despite the obviously racist microaggressions since I idolized Bruce Lee. Looking back, those instances represent a lot of the virtues and problems with the American kung fu genre. Although its popularity has dwindled in recent decades, it goes without saying that kung fu films have had an explicit influence on nearly every action movie in America since the 1970s with its stylized choreography and fighting forms. For the Asian diaspora, the popularity and influence of kung fu films was a great thing at face value: Asian actors were finally being casted in lead roles and the popularity of kung fu movies also led to flourishing business for martial arts gyms. But as time went on, it became clear that the popularity of kung fu movies was a double edged sword. The same Asian actors who were given lead roles due to kung fu were pigeonholed into the same typecasts. Asian cultures were appropriated in mainstream films until kung fu was used as another form of mockery and stereotype rather than a tool of empowerment. So how did this genre that was once a breakthrough become a boundary for Asians?

Before examining the shifting roles of kung fu movies in America, we have to go back to the origins of kung fu media which have roots that were far more political than just aestheticized action scenes. Although the earliest instances of kung fu movies appeared during the 1930s and 1950s, the genre only became popularized around the 1970s in British occupied Hong Kong. Pioneers like Bruce Lee and director Zhang Cheh produced hit films like Fist of Fury, Five Deadly Venoms, and One Armed Swordsman. Although containing elements from China’s long-standing Wuxia films and novels, kung fu differentiated itself by avoiding overt fantasy elements and adapting more realistic combat. Characterized by ultra-violent action, sadomasochistic heroes, and tragic plotlines, kung fu movies quickly morphed into a vehicle for political statements that advocated for the decolonization of Hong Kong. Other prominent themes involved anti-imperialist portrayals of the Japanese invasion of China during World War II. One of the most famous examples was Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury which simultaneously displayed the brutality of Japanese imperialism and highlighted the oppressive colonial government who treated Hong Kong’s native occupants as second hand citizens. Even when kung fu movies became far more lighthearted during the 1980s with actors like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung who mashed up kung fu with comedy, their films still focused on decolonization with Chan often playing policemen being forced to serve corrupt British officials.

The popularity of the kung fu genre recommenced overseas with the release of Five Fingers of Death, a kung fu film starring Indonesian actor Lo Lieh which topped the American box office. Although Five Fingers of Death was the initial introduction for many Americans into kung fu, it was Bruce Lee who defined the genre with films like Fist of Fury, Enter the Dragon, and Way of Dragon. With these movies, Lee offered a stark opposition to onscreen Asian stereotypes during a time period rife with yellow face, Fu Manchu characters, and cold war fears towards Asian countries. Bruce Lee was also able to defy the stereotypes of emasculated Asian males by portraying hyper-masculine heroes with powerful physiques, impressive martial arts, and a refusal to be passive when confronted. One of the most notorious examples was Lee’s directorial debut, Way of the Dragon, in which he defeats Chuck Norris in a ten minute fight sequence in the Roman Colosseum. Revered as a classic action sequence, the scene also imparts unsubtle symbolism with an Asian man physically overpowering a white opponent in a historical site associated with white conquest. Due to such rejection of white supremacy through BIPOC leads and its anti-imperialist nature, kung fu films in America quickly became successful among marginalized groups like the Black community.

In the 1970s, Lee was a rare non-white leading man, and an unfeasibly cool one at that. His four (completed) films amounted to a picture of a world in which oppression – whether from drug lords, Japanese imperialists or cat-executing pseudo-Bond villains – was swatted aside with hyper-kinetic ultraviolence. You can see why his creed of righteous self-reliance appealed to black audiences, who were emerging from the civil rights struggles, but were still subject to plenty of prejudice.

— Phil Hoad
“Why Bruce Lee and kung fu films hit home with black audiences”

From Blaxploitation movies to the Wu Tang Clan to animations like The Boondocks, kung fu aesthetics became prevalent in Black culture. Unlike the use of kung fu in later mainstream Hollywood films, these works were less appropriation and moreso a cross-cultural adoption that exhibited how kung fu was able to empower marginalized groups beyond Asian Americans. A few examples include Blaxploitation films like Black Belt Jones and The Black Dragon’s Revenge which paid respectful homage to Bruce Lee while remaining true to the genre’s politics of combating racial oppression. This cultural exchange was also mutual when Bruce Lee adopted several Blaxploitation tropes in his unfinished film Game of Death starring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

Not all kung fu adoptions were nearly as benevolent. Since the late 70s, Hollywood has co-opted and caricatured kung fu with white protagonists and Asian stereotypes. Instead of being main characters like Bruce Lee, Asian talents were relegated to being side characters playing a limited set of typecasts like old mentors, Dragon Lady stereotypes, and jealous antagonists. We see this in the famous Karate Kid which had a majority white cast with the only Asian character being Mr.Miyagi, a Japanese stereotype. The same issues persist in its sequel series Cobra Kai which enlists almost no Asian actors or producers. There’s also Marvel’s Iron Fist, a comic book series loaded with Chinese influences inspired by Wuxia. Despite Iron Fist casting Asian roles, almost all of them played supporting roles while the main character was Daniel Rand, a blonde haired blue eyed white man. One of the most egregious examples may have been Birth of the Dragon, a 2016 movie which was marketed as a historical Bruce Lee biopic depicting his infamous fight with martial artist Wong Jack-Man. Instead, the film was actually about a fictional white man who learns kung fu from Bruce Lee. Beyond pushing Asians into secondary roles, these films stripped kung fu of its political punch and rendered the genre into nothing more but an aesthetic to be appropriated. 

However, despite all of these issues with American kung fu movies, it’s unfair to dismiss the genre as a relic of the past or just a stereotype for Asian Americans. kung fu allowed Asian actors to carve out a space in mainstream culture with adequate representations during a time when the industry was notoriously hostile or ambivalent towards Asian talents. My first time witnessing an Asian lead in a Hollywood production was through a Jackie Chan film. Beyond just representation, Chan played strong, humorous, and suave characters who remained unapologetically Asian with a thick Chinese accent and his background at the forefront. These movies revealed the fact that Asian actors didn’t have to forego their cultural roots or play into stereotypes in order to gain representation. 

Even though kung fu movies have faded from mainstream popularity, the genre remains alive and well with new talents reminiscent of the martial artists who defined kung fu for my generation. In Hong Kong, there’s Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series which continues to supplement its punches through politics with anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist motifs. In Indonesia, Iko Uwais exhibits some of the most innovative action sequences with films like The Raid and Headshot. Finally, in Hollywood, Andrew Koji stars in The Warrior, a kung fu western based on an old concept from Bruce Lee which was rejected by Warner Bros who retooled the idea for a white actor during the late seventies. The Warrior manages to reclaim Lee’s vision and continues the legacy of kung fu movies with resilient Asian leads, spectacular fights scenes, and striking political commentary reminding viewers that empowering kung fu media still exists and that the fight is never over. 

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