Rewatching *Enter the Dragon* (some minor spoilers)

by on August 14, 2017 at 2:37 am in Film, History | Permalink

Yana and I saw this Bruce Lee movie last night over Dan Klein’s house, for me it was my first viewing since my undergraduate days.  A few points struck me:

1. Hong Kong is portrayed as a poor, dumpy ghetto; this was 1973.  The Technicolor shots of the city are gorgeous.

2. Black Power, in the character of Williams [Jim Kelly], is shown to be a fundamentally moral and emancipatory force.  And as was so common in movies from the 1970s and 80s, the black guy “gets it.”

3. The main villain, Han, reminded me of Chairman Mao, except that the role of the West in the opium trade is inverted and placed on Mao [Han] himself.  It is no surprise that Mao’s China banned the movie.

4. Bruce takes on and defeats a whole group of unimpressive karate experts — was that intended as an anti-Japanese slam?

5. Angela Mao, who played Bruce Lee’s sister, steals the show.  She now lives in Flushing, Queens (NYT).

6. The American male heroes seem not to mind that the women they are given to sleep with are essentially slaves, held under coercion or otherwise dubious circumstances.  The movie seems not to mind that the male heroes do not mind.  And an analogous film today would not have nude scenes, for several reasons, one being the desire to sell it to…China.

6b. The politically incorrect ranking in terms of libido is black > white > Asian, without any apology or attempt at subtlety.

7. Many scenes reminded me of the James Bond flick You Only Live Twice, and also Dr. No.  It is a common theme in movies from that time that a hero can use a diversion to take over a command center; is that still done?  The final mirrors trick seemed to be taken from Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai.  Yana remarked that many of the underground sets looked like they were borrowed from Star Trek, and that the “turn the corner” suspense scenes seem to have anticipated Star Wars.

8. “Jackie Chan appears as a guard during the underground lair battle scene and gets his neck snapped by Lee.”

9. The score by Lalo Schifrin remains compelling and Bruce dominates every scene he is in.

10. As was often the case in those times, the exposition is relatively slow, much of the action is saved for the last half hour, and finally the film just ends.

1 Donald Pretari August 14, 2017 at 2:51 am

John Saxon is one of my all-time favorite character actors.

2 Shian August 14, 2017 at 9:46 pm

6b. Please explain.

3 A August 14, 2017 at 3:03 am

In Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee identifies a Japanese spy, who had been posing as a Chinese chef, by the darkness of his nipples.

4 Albert August 14, 2017 at 8:44 am

Do you know of a better way to tell them apart?!!?!?!?!

5 gregor August 15, 2017 at 6:25 pm

I know that movie as “The Chinese Connection.” It’s probably my favorite Bruce Lee movie.

6 prior_test3 August 14, 2017 at 3:46 am

In 1973, Hong Kong’s per capita GDP was 1,936 in current U.S. dollars, more than 20 times less than today. http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?q=GDP+per+capita+hong+kong&d=SNAAMA&f=grID%3a101%3bcurrID%3aUSD%3bpcFlag%3a1%3bcrID%3a344 Hong Kong has not always had a reputation for being a rich free market beacon, after all.

And as for that ghetto part? You are aware of this, right? ‘Kowloon Walled City was a largely-ungoverned densely-populated settlement in Kowloon City in Hong Kong. Originally a Chinese military fort, the Walled City became an enclave after the New Territories were leased to Britain by China in 1898. Its population increased dramatically following the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. By 1990, the Walled City contained 50,000 residents within its 2.6-hectare (6.4-acre) borders. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was controlled by local triads and had high rates of prostitution, gambling and drug abuse.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kowloon_Walled_City

Not this should be taken as a suggestion that any Bruce Lee movie should be considered a historically accurate documentary, of course.

‘And an analogous film today would not have nude scenes, for several reasons, one being the desire to sell it to…China.’

You are aware of this film technique called ‘editing,’ one assumes. It is how nude scenes can be found in movies, though when they are shown on an airplane, for example, they are not seen. Or the idea of filming two different scenes, and choosing the appropriate one to edit in? – Animal House, for one example, had a Belushi/pillow fight scene where one version is suitable for a movie theater, while the other is suitable for broadcast in American (at least that is my memory – it is quite standard to film one version of a movie scene for some audiences, and another version for other audiences).

7 Todd K August 14, 2017 at 11:52 am

“In 1973, Hong Kong’s per capita GDP was 1,936 in current U.S. dollars, more than 20 times less than today…Hong Kong has not always had a reputation for being a rich free market beacon, after all.”

You need to use PPP in constant dollars, not current dollars for an accurate comparison. According to the World Bank, Hong Kong’s GDP per capita in constant 2011 dollars was $54,000 in 2016. In 1990, it was $27,000.

Japan’s GDP per capita in 1990 was also around $27,000 and $17,000 in 1973 as its high growth period had ended. Hong Kong was also probably around $17,000 in 1973 – definitely a highly growing capitalist city then – so 1/4th the level of today, not 1/20th.

http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.KD?locations=HK&page=5

8 RoyLC August 14, 2017 at 4:45 pm

Hong Kong was almost unrecognizably different in 1990 vs 1970. Just going by GDP per capita Japan was twice as wealthy as Hong Kong in 1970, and in the 1970s Hong Kong had a somewhat different income distribution as well, in 1976 Hong Kong had a Gini coefficient of 0.429, while in 1972 Japan it was 0.354.

Since the topic was slums, much of Hong Kong, not just the Walled City was not wealthy.

9 prior_test3 August 14, 2017 at 5:04 pm

As you wish – however, one can reasonably assume that the UN data is roughly comparable to the World Bank’s when making a comparison.

As other people note, Hong Kong was a very different place 4 decades ago, and not wealthy.

10 Bernard Guerrero August 14, 2017 at 5:42 pm

Coming in at half of Japan’s GDP or roughly a third of the US’ in 1970 does not strike me as particularly poor, particularly given that the rest of the neighbors were well below 20%…

11 Todd K August 14, 2017 at 6:15 pm

1) Where is the link for Hong Kong’s GDP per capita in constant dollars PPP at half of that of Japan in 1970? They were very close in 1990, the earliest WB data has for PPP comparisons, at $27,000 for HK and $29,700 for Japan.

2) I see a table in a book that shows Japan’s post transfer gini coefficient at around 0.32 in 1973. Where are the gini stats for Hong Kong? Even if Hong Kong was at 0.43 then, it doesn’t skew standard of living comparisons that much.

3) Japan was also almost unrecognizable in 1973 with a GDP per capita PPP about where Mexico is at today whereas by 1990 it was where Portugal is today.

12 RoyLC August 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm

In 1972 Hong Kong was going through a mania for soft core movies, what would later be called Category III, nudity was everywhere in that period. It was not just in Hong Kong, remember these were the days of the “art” porn film in the West. However if you look at movies from the 1980s you will see a dramatic decline. A more recent example was South Korean movies in 1997/98 right after the Supreme Court abolished mandatory censoring, a flood gate had just opened, everyone was making this sort of movie, but by 2000 their was a lot less skin.

Btw, there was another Category III boomlet, though generally less raunchy in the mid 1990s which is often tied to efforts to make money before Handover, but was really more about the changing demographics of film audiences in HK. As families stopped going to the movies and even teenagers began to take up video games, the ticket buying public was more and more composed of older single men.

13 Matt August 14, 2017 at 4:28 am

As was often the case in those times, the exposition is relatively slow,

It always surprises me today to watch a movie like Shaft, or even the bit later Dirty Harry and see how much standing around talking there is, and also how much comparatively longer takes they are. Some of that, surely, is to do with cameras and the like, but just a different style, too. (It also always busts me up that Dirty Harry wears a sweater vest and a blazer. Times change.)

14 peri August 14, 2017 at 10:31 am

I watched a dreadful Clint Eastwood movie on the broadcast channel “Movies!” (which advertises such things as Life Alert and end-of-life insurance). “Eiger Sanction,” I think. I figured I would enjoy the alpine scenery. Unexpectedly, there’s like 45 minutes of slow set-up in the Southwest desert, including an interminable scene in which Clint, having decided to force himself on the mute, sullen half-breed woman, pursues her at a leisurely jog through the canyon – for like twenty minutes!

I will give Clint this – he makes no effort in his “acting” to disguise his attitude toward women.

.

15 Thor August 14, 2017 at 1:00 pm

C’mon. Eastwood was a middle of the road actor back then, just important enough to leave spaghetti Westerns, but not more. The film is perfectly representative of the production values, and political values, of its day, neither of which were controllable by Eastwood. (it’s unlikely he had any power over the script or the director.)

16 Ted Craig August 14, 2017 at 1:21 pm

“it’s unlikely he had any power over the script or the director.”

Eastwood was the director.

17 peri August 14, 2017 at 2:59 pm

The script would have been a slender thing in any case, but Clint Eastwood was the director, as well as actor-jogger.

18 dan1111 August 14, 2017 at 10:32 am

I wonder how much of it was budget considerations? It’s a lot cheaper to film “standing around talking”.

19 JWatts August 14, 2017 at 12:38 pm

Budgets probably were a consideration, but there was a lot of exposition in even big budget movies of the time.

It’s certainly noticeable in the James Bond movies of the 1960’s compared to the later ones. Re-Watch “From Russia With Love”.

20 carlospln August 14, 2017 at 4:41 am

” Hong Kong is portrayed as a poor, dumpy ghetto; this was 1973″

Earth to TC: all of Asia was poor & dumpy in the ’70’s, especially the cities

The scene entering HK Harbour is tremendous-&, there aren’t even any Mid Level apartments!

21 Todd K August 14, 2017 at 11:57 am

Earth to Carlospin: see previous post on GDP per capita in constant dollars using PPP. In 1973, Japan was at $17,000, as with Hong Kong, about where China is today and where Shanghai and Beijing were at around 2008 during the Oympics.

22 GHQ August 14, 2017 at 6:48 am

In case you are interested in reading the (unauthorized) script, here it is:

http://www.global-training-report/dragon.htm

The mirror scene definitely borrowed from Lady from Shanghai, according to the guy who transcribed the movie. Said he did it almost from memory, having seen the movie that many times.

He also transcribed the Chinese Connection, another classic Bruce Lee movie. This was made for a Chinese audience so the anti-japan elements are more conspicuous.

23 Rock Lobster August 14, 2017 at 7:02 am

Tyler,

I’m wondering if you’re familiar with the Ip Man films (they’re on Netflix) and what your thoughts are on them. Ip Man is very loosely and very fancifully based on Yip Man, Bruce Lee’s real-life kung fu teacher.

The parallels to the Rocky movies are very noticeable. A friend of mine told me this is not a coincidence and there was some delayed connection between Rocky in the US and Hong Kong kung fu movies.

24 David August 14, 2017 at 7:52 am

#2 is a trope of the period, the so-called “Numinous Negro.”

#10 similarly is just “the way they did things then:” for those of us who grew up with this, it’s still a bit disorienting to be dropped /in medias res/ as soon as–often while–the opening titles roll. I just watched one of the great classic war films, /Where Eagles Dare,/ for the umpteenth time, and it’s the same drill: a lot of sneaking around, setup, and exposition for the first two hours (!) of the movie, with all the “action” (SPOILERS: from when the blond Nazi guy sounds the alarm to the takeoff, so in essence the escape from the castle, the drive to the airfield, and the race to get in the air before the German army shows up) concentrated in the last half-hour or so.

Minor correction: in #9, it’s LALO Schifrin, not Lao Schifrin.

25 WB August 14, 2017 at 7:54 am

You forget point 11: It’s unbelievably entertaining, and it remains one of the great action films.

26 collin August 14, 2017 at 8:07 am

So it was B James Bond Movie with the great Bruce Lee ;making it classic?

2) It was 1973 and the height of the Blaxploitation cycle. People forget that Martial Arts movies were popular in the US cities. Also it might have been WB testing whether Jim Kelly had the ability to act and he would lead movies afterwards.

27 Ted Craig August 14, 2017 at 9:10 am

“Hong Kong is portrayed as a poor, dumpy ghetto; this was 1973.”

Just like NYC and London in that same period.

28 Ted Craig August 14, 2017 at 9:15 am

Most of Tyler’s critique was addressed in the “Fistful of Yen” segment of “Kentucky Fried Movie”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcXEvhc31k8

29 Lex August 14, 2017 at 10:21 am

“Take him to Detroit.” “No. Not that. No. Please, anything but Detroit.”

30 Bernard Guerrero August 14, 2017 at 5:47 pm

“These are lost drunken men who don’t know where they are, but do care! And these are men who know where they are and care, but don’t drink.”

31 Daniel Klein August 14, 2017 at 9:33 am

Speaking of Kentucky Fried Movie, don’t miss Point-Counterpoint (69 seconds):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-sVlZ_SaKnk

32 Rich Berger August 14, 2017 at 10:04 am

When are you going to rewatch Wayne’s World?

33 Lex August 14, 2017 at 10:30 am

#4
Yes, obviously: anti-japanese and, in particular, anti-karate. Martial arts films are predicated on a contrast/ranking of fighting techniques.

34 Xmas August 14, 2017 at 10:37 am

Jackie Chan has a story about that fight:

https://youtu.be/U8CtOqJy6xM

35 Pshrnk August 14, 2017 at 11:26 am

#10. Action without exposition is pointlessly boring.

36 coyote August 14, 2017 at 2:42 pm

#9: People who have not seen the movie assume it is about Lee and his fighting, and certainly he is … balletic for lack of a better word. But he has a charisma on screen that is just amazing. I love the scene with him sitting bored waiting for the “diversion” to strike the control booth.

37 RoyLC August 14, 2017 at 5:05 pm

There is a very good movie that was filmed inside the Walled City, as it was being demolished in 1982, whose English title was “Long Arm of the Law.” Aside from being a very good picture it foreshadows most of the crime film trends made famous by John Woo and Johnny To. A desperate group of sympathetic illegal immigrants serving as footsoldiers, a police informer, massive gun battles, and so forth, and the Walled City is used very effectively, most of the extras were residents.

38 Infopractical August 14, 2017 at 11:38 pm

“6. The American male heroes seem not to mind that the women they are given to sleep with are essentially slaves, held under coercion or otherwise dubious circumstances. The movie seems not to mind that the male heroes do not mind. And an analogous film today would not have nude scenes, for several reasons, one being the desire to sell it to…China.”

Long gone are the days when powerful men can get away with this without hiring the Podesta firm or making a contribution to the Clinton Foundation.

39 John Dougan August 15, 2017 at 12:10 am

No one else noticed the (admittedly brief) portrayal of the British administration?

40 Adrian Ratnapala August 15, 2017 at 4:00 pm

It’s been my impression that modern films (with some noble exceptions like the whole Tarantino corups) do action worse than in the past. Action scenes I see nowadays are just confusing with lots of short cuts and impossible to understand — and there presumably is nothing to understand. Such a medium would not be able to transmit even so simple a “plot” as create-a-diversion.

And yet in general films seem to be getting more clever. My guess is that action scenes in the old days were written for both grown men and teenage boys. Now the grown men have less influence on the action-flick market.

41 Dilan August 15, 2017 at 5:58 pm

Seen Enter the Dragon (original cut) several times.
I wouldn’t really bother overanalysing a 70’s Kung-fu flick. Expecting anything “deeper” from the genre at the time is too much. You have to watch enough martial arts movies prior to this one to appreciate the progress it achieved for martial arts films and especially for Asian actors. Convincing character motivations etc weren’t really a priority; the producers wouldn’t have funded something that ambitious. Read Jackie Chan’s autobiography to get an idea of how hard things were even in the 90’s, it’s a great read.

Agree with a poster above, Ip Man is the film to go deep into. A great film, well rounded characters, that wouldn’t exist without Enter the Dragon. It attempts explicitly to address the China-Japan conflict, and plenty will disagree with it.

RIP Jim Kelly

42 istanbul gezilecek yerler August 16, 2017 at 6:37 am

No one else noticed the (admittedly brief) portrayal of the British administration?

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