Bruce Lee Still Kicks High

A couple walks past a giant poster of kung fu legend Bruce Lee during an exhibition at Hong Kong's Art center marking the 30th anniversary of Lee's death Wednesday, July 16, 2003. Lee died 30 years ago Sunday, at just 32. He had barely become an international icon, but his early death enhanced the legend and he still enjoys the loyal support of fans worldwide. AP

Before Jackie Chan, before Jet Li, there was Bruce Lee.

The man whose name is synonymous with kung fu died 30 years ago Sunday, at just 32. His early death only enhanced his legend, which lives today in the hearts and fists of Hollywood.

Lee's movies still sell. Internet shrines abound, examining his best quotes, his smoothest moves and conspiracy theories about his death.

Martial arts stars Chan and Li are following a trail blazed by Lee, whose devastating fighting style overshadowed his philosophy and nationalism.

Chan said that when he started out, Lee's presence loomed so large he made a conscious effort to be different. The result was Chan's signature comedic style.

"Bruce Lee kicked high, I kicked low. Bruce Lee punched with an 'AAHH!' After I punched, I made a funny face," Chan said in a 1995 interview with The Associated Press.

Oscar-winning director Quentin Tarantino, an avid fan of Hong Kong cinema, draws inspiration from Lee's movies in his upcoming action thriller "Kill Bill." Besides the martial arts sequences themselves, star Uma Thurman, playing the world's deadliest female assassin, has a sword fight while wearing a yellow outfit similar to the one favored by Lee.

Lee died of an edema, or swelling of the brain, in the home of a Hong Kong actress. The coroner described it as "death by misadventure," fueling speculation that drugs or other factors may have been involved.

Adding to the mystique, Lee's son also died under unusual circumstances. Budding actor Brandon Lee was 28 when he was fatally wounded on a movie set in 1992 by a dummy bullet mistakenly loaded into a prop gun.

Eventually, Bruce Lee's life story was deemed worthy of a movie itself —"Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" was released in 1993.

Lee is buried at the Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, where he once studied philosophy at the University of Washington.

On screen, Lee's acrobatic style drew from various disciplines other than Chinese kung fu — also known as wushu — including Korean tae kwon do, Japanese karate and Western-style boxing, according to Law Kar, a film researcher who has studied Lee.

"He took the essence of Chinese wushu and enhanced it," Law said.

Lee practiced "real kung fu," Law said, unlike Jackie Chan, who was schooled in Peking opera's mock fighting and gymnastics.

"That's choreography," Law said.

Lee's philosophical side was evident in an 18-page treatise detailing his own school of fighting — Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist). "I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns and molds," Lee wrote.

Lee's grounding in martial arts translated into a visually appealing display of artistry. His slender but muscular frame unleashed lightning-quick kicks in an excited fury, punctuated by high-pitched shrieks and animal sounds.

Always seemingly in a state of heightened awareness, Lee projected an aura of invincibility — one trademark was tasting his own blood from a wound.

"His maneuvers, his screams — the whole package taken together makes him unique among movie stars," said 33-year-old Wong Yiu-keung, chairman of the Hong Kong-based Bruce Lee Club.

Lee displayed skill as an actor in some early films, but the genre that made him famous didn't show that. "You don't really need to act in kung fu films," Law said.

Lee first became known to U.S. audiences as sidekick Kato in the 1960s television series "The Green Hornet."

He played in a series of Hong Kong films in the early 1970s that propelled him to stardom first in Asia, then Europe and eventually the United States.

His Hollywood debut came in 1973 with the hugely popular "Enter the Dragon," a box office success Lee never lived to witness. He died a month before the film hit U.S. theaters.

By the 1980s, Lee was a commercialized icon, a far cry from his start as a working class hero.

Many of Lee's earlier 1970s films had moral undertones, involving nationalist and antiestablishment themes that resonated with the masses.

In 1972's "Fists of Fury," Lee portrays a young worker who takes justice into his own hands after discovering his factory is a front for a drug-smuggling operation.

Brimming with Chinese pride, Lee's characters fought off foreign oppressors.

In "The Chinese Connection," also released in 1972, he plays a character who seeks revenge for the death of his kung fu instructor at the hands of a Japanese gang. In one scene, he smashes a sign saying "No dogs or Chinese allowed" with a kick.

"He always stood on the side of the people," said Law.
  • Melissa Cheung

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