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Old November 8th, 2012, 02:00 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is online now
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Join Date: Jul 2009
Location: The British Empire
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Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting

“Never tries to run away,
dies and lives another day!


Theme from Live and Let Die, written and performed by Stevie Wonder

The mystique and allure of the Orient had gripped Western culture for millennia, dating all the way back to the Roman Empire, whose wealthy patricians greatly coveted the exotic goods produced under the contemporary Han Dynasty of Ancient China. In the many centuries following the Fall of Rome, no single Western civilization could rival the opulence and splendor of the Far Eastern dynasties until the eighteenth century, with the rise of the (European) Great Powers. But even before their decline began in the early 20th century, Orientalism had re-ignited, thanks in large part to rise of Imperial Japan as another Great Power. For better or for worse, it was that island nation which would come to be seen as the foremost representative of the region in the minds of Westerners, from that point forward. Even its status as the most bitter and hated enemy of the United States in World War II (and coming in a close second in British and French estimation, behind Nazi Germany) could not permanently extinguish such underlying curiosity.

As soon after the war (which had very nearly destroyed Japan) as the 1950s, the Land of the Rising Sun was again making its mark on the Western popular consciousness. This drive was spearheaded by director Akira Kurosawa (fittingly seen by some of his colleagues in the Japanese film industry as “too Western”), who had crafted some of the most acclaimed and influential motion pictures ever made, including Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, and Yojimbo. By the late 1970s, many of these had been adapted for overseas consumption, either with Kurosawa’s blessing (The Magnificent Seven) or without it (A Fistful of Dollars). That many of his films had themes associated with the Western genre was no accident; the director he idolized above all others was John Ford, a four-time Oscar-winning director from the Golden Age of Hollywood who had come to define the genre. Kurosawa, in turn, had attracted something of a fan club of his own, from the rising “New Hollywood” generation; members of which included Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, John Milius, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. [1] It was largely through his inspiration to their development as filmmakers that he would achieve his greatest (though somewhat more indirect) impact in popular culture. Though his work was generally well-regarded in Japan, it was stateside that he met with his greatest plaudits; it echoed the situation of the previous generation, when Anglo-American director Alfred Hitchcock became the darling of the French nouvelle vague, which coined the “auteur theory” in order to describe him; it quickly spread to encompass both Kurosawa and many of his “New Hollywood” acolytes.

The ease of the cultural translation from the Japanese jidai geki genre (set in the feudal period prior to the Meiji Restoration) to the American Western genre would also facilitate other cultural translations from elsewhere in the Orient, principally the products of Chinese culture. In the 1970s, most of the Western bloc had formalized relations with the People’s Republic of China, following the awarding of the permanent Security Council seat in the United Nations to that state (at which time it was revoked from the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan). Any relationship between Red China and the United States remained non-existent, however; among major US allies, only Israel had also declined to establish relations by the end of the decade. [2] However, and in marked contrast with Japan (and its short-lived empire), Chineseculture reached far beyond the borders of even the former Imperial state, at its territorial apex at the turn of the century. These outposts included several key strategic holdings formerly (Singapore) and currently (Hong Kong) held by the British, giving them direct access into the wider culture of the Anglosphere; the Chinese diaspora also included a large and entrenched population in the Americas, particularly the United States and Canada. This was also true of the Japanese diaspora, of course; but the Chinese were both more concentrated and far less assimilationist, having more in common structurally with a subculture (akin to, say, African-Americans). This allowed them to form the nexus of the Asian-American community, and it was not surprising, given their mutual second-class histories, that some solidarity could be found between Black and Asian minority populations).

Naturally, the primary catalytic force behind the Orientalism of the 1970s was a Chinese-American, named Bruce Lee. Born in San Francisco, Lee’s parents were from Hong Kong; his father was full-blooded Cantonese, and an actor and opera singer; his mother, on the other hand, was the scion of an aristocratic family which was mixed-race – part-Cantonese, and part-British. The couple were in the United States because Mr. Lee was on tour with his performing company; they were gone almost as soon as they had arrived, back to Hong Kong … just in time for the Japanese to invade in World War II. After the war had ended, and the occupation had lifted, the young Bruce found himself routinely getting into fights with some punks who were up to no good, and started making trouble in his neighbourhood. After one too many fights, his parents got scared, and then they enrolled him into martial-arts classes. The need for self-defence quickly matured into a passion, and then a discipline, which would inform his entire life.

Martial arts were generally regarded by Orientalists as central to Far Eastern philosophy and spirituality, which differed from the somewhat more rigid belief systems traditional in the West. Both China and Japan had long been dominated by syncretic religion, a combination of native rites (Confucianism and Taoism in China, and Shinto in Japan) with Buddhism, imported from the Indian subcontinent (which, indeed, took root far more strongly in the lands to which it had immigrated). The hippies and counter-culture of the 1960s had immediately embraced many of these ideas; not entirely shocking, given their epicentres in locations with large East Asian immigrant populations. Bruce Lee got the chance to disseminate his discipline among the lay population in the West when he returned to the United States to further his academic studies in 1959; he immediately began instructing anyone willing to learn, which would become his primary vocation throughout the 1960s. However, following in the footsteps of his father, he also attempted to break into acting; his most high-profile role in the era was that of Kato, sidekick to the Green Hornet in his short-lived eponymous series. It lasted for only one season – 1966-67 – and is best-remembered for its close association with the contemporary Batman series (whose own success had resulted in it being made in the first place), culminating in a crossover, wherein Lee (and his co-star, Van Williams) appear in Gotham City opposite the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder. However, Lee was unenthusiastic about his supporting role, believing himself to possess the chops – both as an actor and as a martial artist – to be able to carry a show on his own shoulders. At about the same time, he began to devise his own system of martial arts, which eventually became known as Jeet Kune Do. However, the general public continued to use many terms for Chinese martial arts, including wing chun, properly a single style which Lee himself had practiced prior to developing his own techniques; kung-fu, a Western neologism; and wushu, which was the standard Chinese term. [3] It was not to be confused with two other well-known Asian martial arts, karate and judo, both of which were Japanese in origin.

But becoming a star stateside would not prove nearly as easy as developing a new martial art, which was limited only by his own talent and discipline, both of which he had in abundance. However, celebrity required shattering societal restrictions, and that required opportunity and influence. Fortunately for Lee, he had devised his own means of creating these for himself: a new television series, a star vehicle which would depict the life of a Chinese-American in the Wild West; it was a logical historical setting for a person of his ethnicity, and this character focus would put a new spin on quite possibly the hoariest of television genres. He approached a number of studios with the idea, including Warner Bros. [4] and Paramount, but only Desilu Productions, which had established a sterling reputation for racial progressivism in its already-existing series, was willing to make a show on his terms. The Way of the Warrior would begin airing in September of 1972, and would carry on the tradition set by previous series including Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and Night Gallery, in not shying away from pressing social issues, though in this case it would do so in a strictly historical context. [5]

Lee was a highly charismatic and attractive performer, and his series became an instant hit: it was “serious” and able to attract strong critical notices, but at the same time it had a massive popular appeal through the unique take on a time-worn setting, and spoke to an audience largely ignored by other programs. It was therefore only logical that the series entered the Top 30 immediately upon its debut and remained there throughout the entirety of its run. The key 18-49 demographic loved the show; young men loved the clever and stylistic action sequences, and young women loved the lithe, toned body of Bruce Lee, who would rarely pass on the opportunity to go shirtless for a scene, becoming one of the premiere male sex symbols of the 1970s. Most notably, The Way of the Warrior performed superbly in two key minority demographics: Asians (obviously) and Blacks, who as a proportion of the population were far more numerous than Asians, but nevertheless seemed to embrace Lee and his martial arts wholeheartedly. The emphasis on racial discrimination and bigotry constantly faced by his character on the show obviously struck a chord with them; his constant fighting with “the Man” (who, this being the Wild West, was merely the ringleader of whichever band of troublemakers happened to be riding through that day) appealed greatly to the Blaxploitation ethos. Indeed, martial arts in that genre of films quickly developed a more Oriental bent to them in general, even notwithstanding the budding sub-genre of “Blasian” fusion movies within Blaxploitation. Chinese-American choreographers became an integral part of this rising “Black New Hollywood” movement, making the name something of a misnomer. In addition, The Way of the Warrior became an overseas smash, and the most popular American program of the 1970s throughout the Orient, excluding Japan (though even there, it was very well-received). Needless to say, it became a veritable institution in Lee’s home turf of Hong Kong, inspiring a veritable flood of imitators within the native film industry. [6]

By the 1976-77 season, Lee was beginning to feel that he had made the most of the creative opportunities availed to him by working on The Way of the Warrior, and wanted to transition into action movies, having already heard of the success of the many films that he had inspired back in Hong Kong (which, upon crossing the Pacific, were also doing surprisingly well at the American box-office). The major studios were well aware of how popular he was overseas, which bolstered him as it had done for other established foreign “name” actors in the past, such as the Mexican Ricardo Montalban, who had proven very popular with the Hispanophone audience in the 1950s. Desilu was already transitioning from dramatic, action-adventure series back toward the sitcoms for which they had first made their name in the 1950s and 1960s, so the studio had no major qualms with one of their two remaining dramatic hits coming to an end. Thus, the series concluded a five-season run of 120 episodes in the spring of 1977. [7]

Meanwhile, that most internationalist of movie franchises, James Bond, found itself indulging in both Blaxploitation and Asian Martial Arts with the two films directed – appropriately enough – by the American Kurosawa acolyte, Steven Spielberg. Having made a name for himself with Jaws, the wildly successful film adaptation of the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, he was invited to fulfill what he had always stated to be a dream of his, ever since Dr. No: directing the latest adventures of 007. The next Bond film after the smash Moonraker was called Live and Let Die, and would premiere in 1976. [8] As they had done with Moonraker, the studio opted to tap into the zeitgeist, but their chosen exemplar – the Blaxploitation genre – had aged enough that it was already slightly dated by the time that the film actually reached theatres. However, this proved beneficial, as by 1976, many Blaxploitation films had grown increasingly sophisticated and creatively ambitious; thus, Live and Let Die fit that aesthetic in a way that it would not have done a few years before, when the genre lived up to its name, in terms of exploitative filmmaking techniques. Black audiences would also flock to see the film, which featured Billy Dee Williams an American CIA agent, the “Black James Bond”, as the media naturally described him. Talks of a spinoff film featuring the character ensued, though they quickly fizzled. Stevie Wonder, at the very height of his career, performed the popular theme song, which (as was typical in his lyrical content at the time) emphasized the possibilities of reincarnation and spiritual rebirth. The song reached the Top 40 in the United States (and was included on his Grammy-winning album, Songs in the Key of Life), but had a decidedly more lackluster response in the UK, finishing well behind “Moonraker” by Queen (who were emerging as major musical superstars). [9] Locations chosen for Live and Let Die included the Gulf Coast of the United States, and various islands in the Caribbean – a nod to both Moonraker and to the first Bond film, Dr. No.

The Man With the Golden Gun followed, in 1978. As with Live and Let Die, it focused on an established fad of the era in which it was developed: the Oriental Martial Arts film. However, on this occasion, the producers were able to ride a wave, as opposed to hoping to revive one, as had been the case with Moonshot Lunacy in 1974, and Blaxploitation in 1976. Therefore, the film was naturally a massive success. Location filming was done in (among other places) Hong Kong, putting the substantial talent pool and industry resources available in the area to good use – and most of the people involved were happy to contribute to as venerable a franchise as James Bond. In an echo of the role held by Oddjob as chief henchman to the titular Goldfinger, the right-hand to the primary villain of the film, Scaramanga, was a skilled Chinese martial artist. He was played by stunt performer Jackie Chan, who won over casting agents with his charisma, along with the willingness to do two jobs for the price of one. [10] (He would also serve as a choreographer for many of the other Hong Kong performers, as he was well-regarded within the industry). Harold Sakata, who had played Oddjob, was sadly unable to capitalize on his exposure following Goldfinger; Chan, on the other hand, took the cachet from his appearance and would emerge by the turn of the next decade as the biggest male star in Hong Kong. It was to his credit that his turn in the Bond film was actually quite atypical of his later, more comedy-oriented career, owing more to Buster Keaton than even to Bruce Lee. Spielberg, for his part, declined to direct a third Bond film (tentatively planned as For Your Eyes Only), eager to move on to other films, and to other genres


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[1] And Robert Altman, though he is a nobody ITTL because his career stalled after M*A*S*H bombed at the box-office.

[2] ITTL, the last major US ally to establish relations with Red China up to this point was Australia, which did so in late 1975; this is because the strongly pro-US Coalition government was successfully re-elected in 1972 (only to be defeated in the following election).

[3] The term “kung-fu”, used near-universally IOTL to refer to Chinese martial arts (only the most ardent Sinophiles would instead use the native term wushu), was popularized (though not originated) by two OTL sources which do not exist ITTL: the series Kung Fu (1972-75), which here instead exists as The Way of the Warrior, and the Carl Douglas song “Kung-Fu Fighting”, released in 1974, as a direct result of the popularity of Hong Kong martial arts films, a wave which will not exist without Bruce Lee to head it.

[4] Warner Bros. was the OTL studio to develop Kung-Fu, which (it has often been said) stole the idea from Bruce Lee without giving him credit or even casting him in the lead (instead choosing the white American David Carradine to play the half-Chinese Kwai Chang Caine).

[5] IOTL, Kung-Fu would occasionally touch on these issues, though not with nearly the same depth or sincerity as The Way of the Warrior ITTL. Lee plays a full-blooded Chinese-American (as opposed to the “half-Chinese” character played by Carradine), and the show additionally dwells on the plight of what were then known as “Negroes”, many of whom were cowboys (continuing the idea of twisting a hoary genre inside-out). This naturally creates a cross-racial appeal for Lee from the very beginning.

[6] The genre of films inspired by Lee was IOTL described as “Bruceploitation”, largely springing up after his death in 1973, contemporary with his rising popularity ITTL.

[7] Kung Fu ended production after a mere three seasons in 1975, though a revival series (also starring Carradine) would air on the PTEN syndication package in the early 1990s.

[8] More details on the timing, development, and production of Moonraker ITTL can be found in this update.

[9] More elaborate “prog”-type songs in the Queen catalogue eventually give way to sheer bombast and virtuosity, as was also the case IOTL, though I obviously know better than to pin down such gifted creators and specify how similar their specific songs would be to OTL, given the dramatically different environment in which they are written.

[10] IOTL, Chan worked as a stunt performer for Bruce Lee himself; ITTL, he gets his start in the later Bruce-less Bruceploitation films, only to have an earlier break.

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I hope you all enjoyed that look at East Asia! Contrary to popular belief, I did plan to focus on that region of the world; I merely wished to avoid one country (or two countries, depending on your reckoning, and the precise, chronological geopolitical situation) in particular. Also, I know that a number of you were asking after the martial arts situation ITTL, so I hope that this sheds some light on it for you. Yes, Bruce Lee lives as well, and the manner in which he inspires the Hong Kong film industry is rather more indirect than IOTL, though it does yield much the same results. Spielberg also has two more massive hits on his resume in the 1970s, though some of you may be wondering about some of his OTL works of the period. Your questions will be answered in due time, I assure you. (I still have to deal with that friend of his, too… the one with the flannel.)

Special note: Please observe that I have used the sensitive term
“Oriental” to refer only to regions or concepts, and not to people. Thank you
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Last edited by Brainbin; November 8th, 2012 at 02:15 AM..
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