“What I can’t understand,” said the film, “is that you actually chose me. My reputation is rubbish and, between you and me, I’m not worth much at all.”
“You’re the only Bruce Lee film I haven’t seen. In a way, I’ve always missed you (*).”
“Nobody ever misses me, believe me. I barely exist. I’m indefensible. Let me be. Or rather, watch me and you’ll understand.
This is how I entered, walking backward, into The Game of Death (1973). I was immediately in my depth. A nervous young man named Billy Lo, a star of martial arts, fights alone and with bare hands against the brutes of the Syndicate, a powerful international organisation based in Hong Kong and racketing show business and gambling. Strangely, we see less often the good Lo than the bad guys of the Syndicate who, as often in these films, are the only ones endlessly divulging their cruel plans to the camera. The good guy is content to merely hit them courageously once in a while. His fiancée and a journalist - both white - are the only ones he speaks to, in the French dubbed version, with few essential and plain words. Fights happen at night, in back alleys, against petty and masked hitmen riding mopeds. There are very few close ups and, to be honest, a certain unease.
“Can’t you spot something?” said the film in a sad and sour tone.
“What I can’t understand,” I thought outloud, “is how a star so concerned with his own image as Bruce Lee chose to act so introvertly, almost in a Bressonian style.”
“You said it,” sneed the film.
The rest of the film confirmed my suspicions. In the middle of Game of Death, Billy Lo gets shot in the cheek and is left for dead by the Syndicate. A grandiose burial takes place and the face of the star believed to be dead can be seen in the white coffin. In fact, after a trip to the physio, Billy Lo re-appears, groomed and unrecognisable, and patiently eliminates one by one the Syndicate members. Compared to the others, the last fights are especially spectacular and the final face off between Billy-Bruce and the 2m20 black giant Karem Abdul-Jabeer, a basketball player wearing white shorts and sunglasses, very much looks like a classic.
“You’re still not getting it?” said impatiently the film which I sensed was ready to reveal its secret. “You do remember which year Bruce Lee died.”
“July 1973, in Betty Ting Pei’s bed, in circumstances never fully explained. Why do you ask?”
“Well,” said the film who couldn’t contain itself any longer, “he was already dead when the producers decided to ask the mercenary Robert Clouse to direct Game of Death nonetheless! What you just saw is a fake or - if you prefer a Baudrillardian word - a simulacrum. Any kid from Barbès or Kowloon knows this but you don’t. You disappoint me.”
“But if it wasn’t Bruce Lee that I saw with my own eyes, who else was gesticulating instead of him?”
“Lee Shao Lung, or Ho Chung Tao, or Bruce Li, who cares? A clone among many others.”
“Still,” I insisted, upset, “I had the feeling that it sometimes was the real Bruce Lee. I wouldn’t bet on it now but I thought I recognised his intense gaze and his wild caterwaul.”
“So you’re not totally hopeless,” answered the film, “and you deserve to know all the truth. Raymond Chow (the producer) used twelve minutes of rushes shot before the film, even before Enter the Dragon, Lee’s penultimate film. Twelve minutes of fighting to be honest.”
“Those at the end?”
“Those with the yellow tracksuit?”
“You’re seeing absolutely nothing since I kept the best part hidden from you.” (Here the film let go a sardonic laughter). “You remember the shot of Billy Lo’s fake burial with the crowd in tears in the streets of Hong Kong and the face of the dead in the white coffin? It’s from Bruce Lee’s true burial!”
“You’re saying that they took an image of the truly dead star to play the fictitious role of the falsely dead star? It’s incredible. It’s cynical. It’s great.”
“You now understand what a myth is about?”
“Sorry, I didn’t know.
“Go, let me be.”First published in Libération, 24 November 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas éditeur, 1991.
(*) To be frank, while one cannot avoid Bruce Lee, one can find more charm in Wang Yu or Alexander Fu Sheng.