The Bruce Lee effect

Box office clash sees Chinese martial arts hero kick Iron Man’s metal butt

The Bruce Lee effect

Lynn Xiong: prefers her men to come with a kick

It was East-versus-West in the Chinese box office last week, with Hong Kong martial arts film Ip Man 2 going head-to-head with Hollywood comic book adaptation, Iron Man 2. With an array of gadgets, better special effects and a bigger budget, surely Iron Man was odds-on to send the Chinese superhero packing?

Not so. Ip Man 2 – a biopic on the kung-fu grandmaster of the same surname (and the teacher of the indomitable Bruce Lee) – brought in Rmb100 million ($14.63 million) in its first week, while Iron Man 2 earned only Rmb60 million over the same period.

“For a long time Hollywood blockbusters have beat our films, now Ip Man has won back some dignity,” declares action movie star Donnie Yen, who plays Ip in the film.

The original Ip Man (2008) focused on the wartime occupation of China by the Japanese. But the sequel opens in 1949 with its protagonist moving to Hong Kong to open a martial arts school, teaching a style of kung-fu called Wing Chun.

The film is more than high-flying kicks and chops. Ip Man’s box office success in China, critics say, has much to do with its nationalistic appeal. In the film’s final showdown, the grandmaster risks his life to bash up a racist British boxer named Twister. And – spoiler ahead – when Ip finally triumphs, audiences in some theatres in Beijing have been erupting in celebration, says the China Daily. The honour of Chinese martial arts is upheld.

“After years of poverty and inferiority in contemporary history our sense of national dignity is in some ways still on shaky ground and so sometimes it’s as well to have it reinforced by enchanting ourselves with a rather chauvinistic story like this one,” says film critic Wang Wen of China Radio International.

Others say the portrayal of the Wing Chun master as a brave and honest man, and a devoted husband to his wife – played by Lynn Xiong (pictured) – has also struck a chord. But it is the commercial potential that has producers most excited. There is now talk of Ip Man 3, with Taiwanese heartthrob Jay Chou (see WiC58) playing Bruce Lee, says the Apple Daily. The producers are pinning their hopes on renewed interest in Lee creating another box office hit.

Even though he was hugely popular overseas, Bruce Lee was not well known in China itself. Most Chinese are unfamiliar with his kung fu classics, like Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon, because they were released during the Cultural Revolution. Bar a few Albanian blockbusters, film imports were pretty much banned altogether.

Lee, the first ethnically-Chinese celebrity to achieve an international following, died in 1973, at the age of 32. But it wasn’t until recently that the Chinese began learning more about him. Last year state-run CCTV broadcast a mammoth 50-episode biography of the kung-fu star.

In Xichun, Lee’s ancestral hometown in Guangdong province, local officials are also cashing in on his legend, with a Bruce Lee Paradise park. “Lee’s image and reputation are becoming more and more familiar now in [China],” says Chen Xian, a manager at the park. “He’s someone the Chinese people should be proud of.”

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