By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Admirers of Bruce Lee, including his daughter and goddaughter, gathered at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo on Nov. 15 to celebrate his 75th birthday.
The martial arts legend, known for such films as “Fists of Fury” and “Enter the Dragon,” died in 1973 at the age of 32 in Hong Kong, leaving behind a wife, Linda, a son, Brandon, and a daughter, Shannon. He was born on Nov. 27, 1940 in San Francisco.
Presented by Visual Communications (represented by Executive Director Francis Cullado), the program began with a video message from actor Daniel Wu, star of the new AMC series “Into the Badlands,” who said that Lee was “a tremendous influence on me throughout my entire life since I was a kid watching him on TV.”
The 1998 documentary “Bruce Lee: In His Own Words” was screened along with an excerpt from “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey” (2000), including an extended fight scene between Lee and Filipino American martial arts instructor Dan Inosanto from “Game of Death,” a film that Lee never completed.
“Angry Asian Man” blogger Phil Yu moderated a conversation with Shannon Lee and Diana Lee Inosanto, who was named in honor of her father’s friend.
Lee, who is president of the Bruce Lee Foundation, made her acting debut in a small role in the 1993 biopic “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” which starred Jason Scott Lee and Lauren Holly as her parents. Her other acting credits include the Hong Kong action film “Enter the Eagles,” the TV series “Martial Law,” and the science-fiction TV movie “Epoch.” She executive produced two documentaries and a TV series about her father.
Inosanto, who has been named Woman of the Year by Black Belt magazine, was a stuntwoman for such TV shows as “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” and such films as “Face/Off,” “Wild Wild West” and “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” She trained actress Melissa McCarthy for the big-screen comedy “Spy” and wrote, directed, produced and co-starred in her own film, “The Sensei.”
Inosanto remembered watching the “Game of Death” scene between Lee and her father being filmed. “Back then they filmed everything without sound, so us kids could run around … make all kinds of noise.”
The scene exemplified “the original vision of Shannon’s dad,” she said. Other completed scenes had Lee fighting hapkido master Ji Han-jae and basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Two unfilmed scenes would have pitted Lee against Hwang In-Shik and Taky Kimura.
Shannon Lee noted, “When they cut together what they released commercially in ’78, they only used 11 minutes of the (original) footage … It’s so fun to see the humor and the philosophy. A lot of that got cut out. It’s still fun. It still thrills.”
Lee fondly recalled home life with her parents. “There were constantly people over doing privates or doing group workouts. My father was always working out … Brandon and I getting in trouble because we would always interfere with the adults’ workout … Real moms, real dads, dealing with family life in fusion with this whole martial arts culture … nothing but great memories in the backyard.”
Asked about her favorite movie or TV show featuring Bruce Lee, Inosanto chose the 1971-72 series “Longstreet,” which starred James Franciscus as an insurance investigator who is blinded in an explosion. Lee, who was friends with series creator Stirling Silliphant, guest-starred in four episodes as Li Tsung, a martial arts instructor who helps Longstreet to overcome his disability.
“His philosophy was weaved into those episodes (about) a blind man finding another way to reclaim his life and finding a new strength within himself,” Inosanto said, adding that the “fingerprints of his influence” can be found in subsequent shows, including “Kung Fu.”
Shannon Lee didn’t have just one favorite but mentioned “The Way of the Dragon,” known for its climactic battle between her father and Chuck Norris. “So many great fight scenes … getting to see his sense of humor because he wrote that film … such an amazing combination. There are so many moments (in his films) that I love for different reasons.”
Inosanto said that she and others have been working to “keep the teaching alive, keep the philosophy alive through my dad’s academy … That whole group of original students, they were trying to preserve the memories and make sure he wasn’t forgotten … Martial arts magazines back then made a huge difference … Shannon’s done so much amazing work with the foundation, with Linda, making sure that the memories are preserved. There’s just been a hunger for his philosophy.”
Noting that her father trained A-list actors like Steve McQueen and James Coburn but faced resistance when he tried to get leading roles in Hollywood, Lee observed, “Struggle is in a lot of ways a much better teacher than success. Struggle can show you where the resistance is and can also show you paths that you can take … He believed very much in himself. Thank God that he did and that he had this innate confidence (as well as) the skill to back those things up.”
At the age of 21, her father made a list of goals, one of which was “to show the world the beauty of Chinese martial arts.” “He very much adhered to his own philosophy, ‘Be like water’ … There was really no question of giving up … Such a lesson for all of us to take,” Lee said.
Bruce Lee once said, “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it.”
Discussing the increased visibility of Asian Americans in mainstream entertainment over the past year, Shannon Lee commented, “When he came on the scene, he was this amazing, powerful, graceful man on screen, and he showed everybody that a Chinese man, just like any man, can be powerful and strong … It started this wildfire of wanting to learn martial arts, of wanting to do martial arts films … It’s really a shame that there wasn’t more that came from that, and I think it’s because the powers that be that were holding my father back at that time were still in power … It was treated as an anomaly … still feeling that this would not be really widely accepted.”
Inosanto added, “The stars and planets have aligned and we are seeing some shows out there now with Asian American leads. I think it’s so important … It’s the new generation coming up the ladder. We need the executives in Hollywood, we need the writers, the directors, the producers to continue to open up that spectrum.”
Now that she is finding stunt work “hard on the back,” Inosanto said, “I enjoy teaching other stars to shine and express themselves … I want to continue down the road as a filmmaker.” She also supports the legacy of Jeet Kune Do, the hybrid fighting style developed by Bruce Lee.
Shannon Lee talked about taking over for her mother as head of the Bruce Lee Foundation. “If my father had just made some cool action films in the ’70s and there wasn’t this foundation and this base, his philosophy, the way he lived his life, the message that he had, I don’t think that I would have dedicated my life to making a big deal out of a handful of movies … I personally have felt so moved and inspired by my father and his words … My father’s message was one of walking your own path … being the best that you can be.”
She added, “I honestly believe that his energy is still present … You can watch his movies with the sound off … because you can feel his energy coming through the screen, and that energy comes entirely from his philosophy of self-cultivation … He’s beaming his essence at you through his eyes and his movements … Can I beam my energy at them in a way that is impacting and profound? I’m still working on it.”
Following a Q&A session with the audience, the program moved from the Tateuchi Democracy Forum to JANM’s Aratani Central Hall. Hosted by actor Aaron Takahashi (Jenny Yang was scheduled to co-emcee but was unable to attend), the celebration included a few words from the guests of honor, a birthday cake, musical guests Peter Chung and Traktivist, a silent auction, and a drawing for an Apple watch. Event sponsors included JANM, Nielsen, Asahi Super Dry, Martell Cognac, and KSCI-TV.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo