YOU see the shadow first. Then he emerges, slight of build, in a dark-blue, full-sleeved tee-shirt. The night is ominously quiet.
He stops before a bed of shrubs, then takes out a coiled rope from a bag slung across his shoulder. Then he lifts one of the flower pots.
You can almost hear the collective gasp.
The tension had been building up and nerves were taut in the darkened movie hall. In the stillness of the night, invisible perils seemed to lurk everywhere. But this was unexpected.
Hidden behind the flower pot lay a snake, coiled in deadly trap.
A part of your mind wills him to go back. He had risked enough. What need for more?
Lee takes in the situation, left hand slips into bag, then he strikes, too fast even for the serpent.
If the mirror scene in Enter the Dragon is the movie’s unforgettable climax, Lee’s encounter with the snake is its pivotal moment. That moment of reckoning when intelligence is pitted against venom. Protagonist against humankind’s primordial deceiver. Choice between retreat and curiosity, the existential moment that precedes Lee’s literal — and figurative — descent into the underworld and successful return.
At its best, Enter the Dragon is a thriller with breathtaking fight scenes, that is, if you are a Bruce Lee fan; passably watchable, if you aren’t. But it is around these two moments in the film, the snake scene and the final mirror-room confrontation where Lee takes on the film’s bad guy, Han, that a hint of Lee the legend also unravels — specifically his combat philosophy of mind over situation, mind over illusion of situation. The spin-kicks or the one-inch precision punch that he perfected over the course of his brief career as a martial artist were the necessary tangible extensions of that worldview.
For those not familiar with the 1973 film, Lee — his character too goes by the name Lee — is a Shaolin martial arts expert hired by British intelligence to bust Han’s suspected drug and prostitution racket. Lee eventually kills Han in the villain’s hidden room of multiple mirrors in a bruising finale, his martial arts skills far superior than Han’s combined advantage of steel claws and familiar terrain.
Lee was dead by the time he came on screen in what would be his last completed film. Real dead, not screen dead, of brain edema, an unspectacular exit for someone who seemed spectacularly immune in his chiselled invulnerability, his body more like a work of art than blood, flesh and bone. He was not yet 33 when he died on July 20, a month before the film’s August 19 official release in the United States. He would have been 80 this November 27.
The real-life Lee’s death was indisputably un-Bruce Lee like. A crushingly prosaic death, apparently from a reaction to a painkiller. But by then he had done — and left behind — enough to intrigue generations of fans, those who lined up to watch his movies and others who years later would turn on their TV sets to catch those movies.
He intrigued another category of fans too — the one that dug into Lee’s worldview, his philosophy, captured in his written works, to find out what the man was like behind the legend. It appears that Lee the man was similar to Lee the idea. And relevant in his thoughts even today, 47 years after his death, and not merely for aspiring martial artists or long-bullied underdogs who would take away from his films, if not the balletic symmetry of his movements, then certainly his air of supreme self-confidence.
A suggestion of Lee’s combat philosophy comes early in the film when he talks to his teacher just after he had vanquished a competitor.
Teacher: I see your talents have gone beyond the mere physical level. Your skills are now at the point of spiritual insight…. What are your thoughts when facing an opponent?
Lee: There is no opponent.
Teacher: And why is that?
Lee: Because the word “I” does not exist.
“I do not hit,” Lee goes on, holding up his fist. “It hits all by itself.”
What Lee effectively does here is rid action of all extraneous intention, lifting it to a form of preternatural purity where violence becomes like poetry, distilled from all that is dross. The closest to perfection that anyone can come to “art for art’s sake” in combat sport. And Lee was obsessed with his art, which he saw as a fusion of soul and body, the intelligible and the sensible.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a dismantling of binaries, of alternate reversal of hierarchies — sport’s nearest equivalent of what deconstruction is to philosophy and literature.
But Lee did not merely deconstruct. What he also did was reconceive differences in the various forms of martial arts to arrive at his own flexible system that he called Jeet Kune Do — or the way of the intercepting fist.
Absorb what is useful, he would exhort.
But to reach that state one has to break down the mind’s barriers and its constructs. Lee dwells upon this in his writings — in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life — a posthumous collection of his private letters, notes, essays and poems.
“We can see through others only when we see through ourselves,” Lee wrote in an essay titled The Passionate State of Mind. “Lack of self-awareness renders us transparent; a soul that knows itself is opaque.”
It’s Lee’s form of self-education, essential to seeing through illusion and all opacity. “We know ourselves chiefly through hearsay,” he warns in another passage.
Let’s go back again to Lee’s conversation with his teacher at the film’s beginning. “The enemy has only images and illusions…,” the teacher tells Lee. “Destroy the image and you will break the enemy.”
The same words recur towards the end — in the form of Lee’s silent reminiscence inside the mirror room — before he begins smashing the mirrors inside Han’s exotic museum. Han’s multiple images fall away as the glass begins to shatter, reducing his advantage of ambush by delusion.
Mind over situation, mind over illusion of situation. Get the drift?
Lee wasn’t a man content with merely winning a fight. What he aimed for was a mystical consummation of the contest, his teasing, nimble toes floating within and out of reach as he wove a spell, insinuating himself into the minds of those around him.
It helped that he had a stare that seemed to penetrate to the bones but gave nothing away.
It was part of his aura that he cultivated along with his body. Lee was never built like your average action hero. His was no bulging brawn and rippling bicep. He was just 5’8” and weighed 64 kilos but looked intimidating nevertheless, a sort of lethal gravitas.
That gravitas had a lot to do with self-belief, which Lee had in plenty, nursed by his philosophy of not being limited by limitations and expanded by his eclectic approach of style as no-style.
“Be like water,” was his advice.
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water…. Be water, my friend.”
At its basic, it was a call to adaptability, not only in sport — combat or otherwise — but in life, too, in a world riven by seemingly unbridgeable chasms and crystallized differences.
Water, Lee would say, could penetrate the hardest of substances. It could take any shape and was never hurt no matter how hard it was hit. How could a mere serpent compete with someone who brought such formless flexibility to the fray?
Or, even a man armed with steel talons in a room of illusions?
Yet, the irony is hard to miss. The enduring appeal of Lee’s real-life art today rests mainly on an illusion, the cinema screen.
For once, though, there is no conflict. Lee the screen artiste and Lee the martial artist are the same — in the balletic beauty of their art.
Ananda Kamal Sen