Sunday, April 06, 2008

Re-enter the Dragon

The martial arts legend explodes back on the pop cultural landscape with a miniseries, theme park and even a Broadway show devoted to him.

It's been more than three decades since Lee fell into a sudden coma and died at age 32, just before the release of his first Hollywood production Enter the Dragon (1973). Though he was already a star in Asia by then, it was this movie that ushered in a kung fu craze and gave the West its first Asian action hero.

Lee paved the way for Asian stars (Jackie Chan, Jet Li) to break through to the West and his unique fighting style – a self-developed combo of kung fu, boxing, and grappling – provided a blueprint for the mixed-martial arts exemplified by the increasingly popular Ultimate Fighting Championship matches.

For these reasons, Lee remains a prominent icon. But his daughter Shannon Lee-Keasler feels his popularity is regaining momentum as several projects will introduce Bruce Lee to a new generation over the next few years. Though Lee-Keasler couldn't go into details, an animated series and some musical short films are under development. A Broadway musical based on Lee's life, featuring music penned by Tony award-nominee David Yazbek (The Full Monty), is expected to open in 2009.

Even a theme park is being built in southeast China, which will include a martial arts academy and a memorial hall.

"I do think it's a good time," Lee-Keasler said recently over the phone from her Los Angeles home.

"A lot of people in Hollywood and the film industry have been wanting to do productions with the Chinese government. But also with the Olympics and the spotlight of the world being on China this summer, in general, I really feel there's just a resurgence of interest in my father."

Lee's re-emerging profile and the Beijing Olympics go hand-in-hand – China Central Television (CCTV), the official state TV network, will broadcast a 50-part series chronicling Lee's life to coincide with the Olympics.

The Legend of Bruce Lee is being filmed in China, Hong Kong and the U.S. and features an international cast. Lee-Keasler, who is an executive producer of the project, says CCTV will distribute the series worldwide this summer to promote Chinese culture.

In many ways, Lee is a perfect emblem for the Beijing games. Despite his unremarkable five-foot-seven stature, he truly was an athletic specimen – his unmatched speed and agility allowed him to perform those dazzling moves, while his wiry, chiselled physique drew admiration from Schwarzenegger himself.

His status as an internationally recognized Chinese star also fits, although his connection to the host country is perhaps a stretch.

As Lee-Keasler notes, Lee was born in San Francisco, grew up in Hong Kong during British governance and never lived in mainland China.

"Quite honestly, I don't think my father was quite keen on the communist government in China," she says. "I think it is quite interesting the Chinese government has sort of grabbed hold of him as a symbol, but at the same time it's understandable."

Lee-Keasler says she didn't fully realize her father's popularity in China until representatives of CCTV approached her for The Legend of Bruce Lee.

She remembers one executive telling her he believed "there are two Chinese people beloved by the Chinese throughout the world, and that is Confucius and Bruce Lee. He said to me that he really feels it's their duty his legacy lives on."

Chinese kung fu, or wushu, is China's national sport and is deeply imbedded into the country's heritage and mythology. Beijing even unsuccessfully lobbied the Olympic committee to include wushu as an event in this summer's games.

But China's love affair with Lee may also stem from how he fought to change perception of the Chinese in the West.

Before Lee, Chinese males were largely portrayed in Hollywood films as docile, bumbling servant-types or evil genius villains like Fu Manchu. According to Lee biographer Bruce Thomas, his onscreen heroics "broke through the limits of the Chinese stereotype in the Western world and remade the image of the Asian man."

Thomas, who will publish a revised biography this spring, says as much as Lee was a Chinese hero, he bridged cultures by teaching kung fu to westerners despite being forbidden to do so by Chinese elders. He also defied social convention by marrying Lee-Keasler's mother, Linda, his former student and a non-Asian.

"There are times I looked at his journey and went, `Oh, it must have been so lonely,'" says Keira Loughran, an actor and playwright from Toronto who wrote and starred in Little Dragon, a play about a Chinese-Canadian girl who explores her identity through studying Bruce Lee.

She says his struggle between two cultures epitomizes the "classic Canadian experience, especially as a visible minority."

"I wasn't one of those kids who grew up with Bruce Lee so I learned everything about him through my research – about how much he had to fight within in his own culture, but also how much he wanted to unite everybody."

It was Lee's spirit that captivated Loughran, which is exactly why Lee-Keasler believes her father will continue to win new fans.

"My hope is that, 30 years from now, he will still be around and making an impact," Lee-Keasler says.

"He was just this amazing ball of energy that people can still feel and be inspired by."

There remains the intriguing possibility of using computer-generated effects to bring Lee back to the big screen.

In fact, two recent projects – one by a Korean film company and one helmed by Hollywood director Rob Cohen (who did the highly dramatized 1993 Lee biopic Dragon) – aimed to create a photo-realistic version of Lee, which would have made him the first digitally reanimated actor in a film.

This would have allowed the filmmakers to finally recreate Lee's unique fighting style, something human actors have struggled to mimic effectively.

Lee-Keasler, who is a managing partner of the company that controls the rights to Lee's image, says while the potential for this kind of film exists, both projects have been shut down.

"On the one hand I'm intrigued, but on the other hand, I think it has to be really thought through and done well," she says. "I haven't yet come across a project with all the right elements lined up."

Unlike some other famous tough guys, Bruce Lee can't make a comeback to cement his hero status.

Then again, he never really needed to.

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