This week, Flash Point director Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3 will make its way stateside, having premiered on Christmas Eve in Hong Kong. The film, the latest in a series chronicling the eponymous real-life Wing Chun expert — and mentor to Bruce Lee — is being positioned by its star, Donnie Yen, as his final kung fu movie. That alone makes it a notable release, particularly for US fans of the series, which has developed somewhat of a cult following here since Well Go USA imported it in 2010. Stranger still, it features Mike Tyson in a starring role. And yet there’s one detail that’s even weirder.
The series has long flirted with references to the Enter the Dragon star, and with this presumably final installment, it came very close to consummating that relationship. Bruce Lee Enterprises brought a lawsuit against Ip Man 3’s production company Pegasus Motion Pictures because the producers of the film expressed an interest in featuring an entirely CGI recreation of Lee. The digital Lee never materialized and Danny Chan, an actor famous for his resemblance to Lee, was eventually cast.
Why was Pegasus willing to jump through these hurdles — putting up the money, extending the post-production, risking lawsuits — just to include a digital ghost in the first place? Could it possibly have been worth it?
To know the answer, you need to understand Bruce Lee’s unparalleled legacy. In the late ’60s, Lee guest-starred on a number of American TV shows, including Ironside and Blondie, but his first starring role was in the short-lived Green Hornet series. Canceled after only one season, the show featured Bruce Lee as the sidekick character Kato. He even teamed up with Adam West’s Batman at one point. It failed to reach a large enough audience though, and fed up with only getting supporting roles and bit parts, Lee headed back to Hong Kong. There he starred in his first kung fu movie: The Big Boss, a film that would inaugurate the highest-profile period of his brief career.
It plays almost like a horror movie. Director Lo Wei keeps the action muted for most of the film, teasing out Lee’s character. You see him defeat a whole gang of foes with just a few well-placed kicks, and you get the sense that we’ll only see glimpses of his true fighting prowess. The climax comes in the form of Lee punching through a man’s chest — a superhuman display of strength that delivers on the film’s tacit promise.
Lee’s 1972 film Fist of Fury has the same effect, but in a different way. Lee plays a young man who returns to his hometown to exorcise the occupying Japanese force. He has to defeat the Japanese, but his conflict isn’t nearly as simple as a brawl. Fist of Fury categorically demonizes the the Japanese, and the fights become abstract conflicts between China and Japan. In the process, it settles the mantle of superhero on Lee’s shoulders; he becomes the avatar of an entire country.
While his films were framing Lee as someone innately greater than his own mortality, Lee was busy doing that work for himself. During the all-too-brief height of his power, he developed a philosophy and martial art style called Jeet Kune Do. The fighting style, which would later be employed by characters like Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop, is Cantonese for “the way of the intercepting fist,” and Lee emphasized its adaptability and fluidity. The martial art was just a metaphor for the philosophy though, and Lee made frequent reference to its underlying principles throughout his life. In Bruce Lee: Artist of Life, a posthumous collection of private musings and correspondence, Lee writes: “This was exactly what Professor [Ip Man] meant by being detached — not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.” This idea even found its way into his work: In Enter the Dragon, he says that his style is “…the art of fighting without fighting.”
Through this broad Confucian philosophy and high-profile engagement with the public, Lee established himself as a public thinker in the same way that Tupac Shakur would years later. He became bigger than his filmic personas; he distilled himself into quotable, digestible morsels. It didn’t hurt that Jeet Kune Do schools proliferated all over the world. Today, the martial genealogy of countless students has Lee as a common root.
But all of this is meaningless without the martyrdom of Lee. Six days before the Hong Kong release of Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee suffered “death by misadventure,” as authorities classified it. While it would later be postulated that he suffered cerebral edema (an excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain), it was initially unclear what had killed him. Some blamed the Triads, one of China’s organized crime outfits; others blamed a curse. One theory even blamed the cannabis found in Lee’s stomach at the time of his death.
The point is: the suddenness of his death, combined with the bizarre official cause, led people to theorizing. There was never any closure, and this was exacerbated by the release of Enter the Dragon. Within a single week, fans were slammed with the double-whammy of Lee’s abrupt, bizarre death and seeing his onscreen ghost. It created the same festering wound that causes people to see Elvis at the carwash and to claim that Coachella’s Tupac hologram is the genuine article.
This wound was reopened five years later when Golden Harvest released Game of Death, a feature that interspersed unreleased footage of Bruce Lee with crude recreations and poorly cast lookalikes — so poor that the scenes with Lee in them are suspect, and you stop trusting your own eyes; he becomes a second-order simulacrum of himself. The film revolves around an actor (Lee) faking his death and concealing himself in anonymity (yeah, basically this Chappelle Show sketch about Tupac). The film was more or less an embarrassment: there’s actually a scene where a picture of Lee is taped to a mirror and the camera is positioned so that the mask ends up covering a Lee lookalike’s face. But like James Dean before him, Lee died with a legacy untarnished by the inevitable decline that plagues so many performers, including successors Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
Lee’s body of work is short and undiminished by length, and he played characters who were symbolic and superheroic. He starred in movies that told their audiences explicitly that Lee was at such a high level that he rarely deigned to show off his skills. His career was cut short by the kind of thing that fuels conspiracy theorists for decades. Outside of his work, he framed himself as deep and timeless, doling out one quotable sound bite after another. By his own hand, Lee was less of a person and more of a symbol. And, to paraphrase those Christopher Nolan Batman movies, a symbol is incorruptible; a symbol is everlasting.
Understanding Lee in this way, Wilson Yip’s attempt at appropriating the Fist of Fury star’s phantasm isn’t macabre so much as it is mercenary. It’s not about a bizarre fascination with a dead man; it’s not about the idolization of an actor with an incredibly brief career. The story of Ip Man doesn’t require the inclusion of Lee, but Yip knows that Lee’s image has a certain draw, a certain currency. While the prospect of CGI Bruce Lee was quietly squashed, it’s understandable why Yip would risk so much to include Lee in Ip Man 3. Lee has a unique (and uniquely international) cache, and the sheer spectacle of seeing him brought back to life would’ve been bizarrely compelling in and of itself.
But we’re denied that spectacle, so we’ll just have to settle for the simple pleasure of watching Mike Tyson duke it out with a stone-faced Donnie Yen.