Thirty-five years after his death, Bruce Lee is still revered as the greatest kung fu master ever seen on the silver screen. Yet Lee had made a name for himself as an actor long before he became a martial artist. He was one of Hong Kong cinema’s most popular child actors of the 1950s. Cantonese melodrama of that era ranged from gritty populist screeds to sentimental weepies, and whenever the plot called for a personable young fellow, Lee was likely to be cast. One surprising element in a number of these early films is what can only be described as a left-wing sensibility, one in which the villains were invariably rich capitalists or landlords, and the heroes poor but honest working class types.
Bruce Lee in AN ORPHAN’S TRAGEDY (1955).
Recently I’ve been going through a collection of six of Lee’s childhood films (available here from Yesasia). Although they lack English subtitles, the stories are pretty easy to follow. Last week I re-posted an older entry about THE KID (1950), which is one of the titles in this set. THE KID features Bruce Lee in a rare starring role. In the other films, he appears as a supporting character, or as a youthful version of the male lead in an introductory segment. Two of the films, IN THE FACE OF DEMOLITION and A HOME OF A MILLION GOLD (both from 1953) hold up surprisingly well, but all are worth watching as a window into mid-20th Century Hong Kong and the concerns of its citizens.
A SON IS BORN (1953) Directed by Chun Kim. Starring Cheung Ying, Ng Cho-fan, Pak Yin, Bruce Lee, Yung Siu-yee, and Wong Man-lei.
A maid is impregnated by her employer and forced by poverty to leave the baby with her doctor. When the doctor marries, his wife takes a dislike to little Tin-sun. His nanny tries to protect him but ends up losing her job. She adopts the boy, but after she dies, her no-good husband sells him to a wealthy family looking to adopt a son. Coincidentally, the family is the one that originally employed the boy’s mother, who comes back looking for her son only to find that the doctor has no idea what has become of him. Tin-sun runs away from his rich foster parents and is taken in by the owners of a charity clinic for the blind. He grows up to become a successful eye surgeon. His mother eventually finds him and his father (Cheung Ying) is revealed as a cad. Bruce Lee can be seen in the role of young Tin-sun in the video clip below (actually two separate scenes edited together).
A HOME OF A MILLION GOLD (1953) Directed by Chu Kea. Starring Lo Duen, Wong Man-lei, Yung Siu-yee, Tsi Lo-lin, Ng Cho-fan, Yung Yuk-yi, and Bruce Lee.
Ching Yiu-tong, a wealthy man, gambles away all his money, but he’s not too concerned. His second daughter is married to a bank owner, so Ching, with his long-suffering wife and frivolous younger daughter, moves in with the young couple. He demands first class service, which his son-in-law is only too happy to provide, believing that his wealthy in-laws can bail out his failing bank. When the deceptions are revealed, the banker agrees to deliver the youngest daughter into the hands of his biggest creditor, a vicious gangster. Ching’s wife has meanwhile become disgusted by the corrupting influence of wealth and goes to live with her oldest daughter, who is married to an honest laborer. The attempted rape goes awry when the youngest daughter jumps from a window, forcing the banker to also kill himself. Bruce Lee plays the son of the oldest daughter. His character is high-spirited and charming but respectful and considerate of others – a testament to the down-to-earth lifestyle of his parents.
IN THE FACE OF DEMOLITION (1953) Directed by Lee Tit. Starring Cheung Ying, Ng Cho-fan, Tsi Lo-lin, Wong Man-lei, Wong Cho-shan, Yip Ping, Lo Duen, and Bruce Lee.
This is an early example of the type of story also seen in THE HOUSE OF 72 TENANTS (1963 & 1973) and KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004) – a teeming tenement building serves as the setting for multiple plot threads involving impoverished people who live under the same roof. Bruce Lee is the oldest son of the poorest family in the house, one that lives under the constant threat of eviction. Other tenants include a taxi driver with a pregnant wife, a nightclub dancer, a teacher, and, on the top floor, the wealthy couple who own the building. All the tenants (but not the owners, who are cruel and oppressive) help each other out in times of trouble. Lee’s role is very small – he’s shown to be a devoted and loving son in a couple of brief scenes – but the overall quality of acting is impressive. This one deserves a wider audience.
AN ORPHAN’S TRAGEDY (1955) Directed by Chu Kea. Starring Ng Cho-fan, Cheung Wood-yau, Yung Siu-yi, Mui Yee, Lau Hark-suen, Bruce Lee, and Josephine Siao.
According the Hong Kong Film Archive entry for this film, the plot is based on Dicken’s “Great Expectations.” When an unknown woman dies in the street one night, a blacksmith takes in her infant son. He grows up to be a bright young lad, played by Bruce Lee. When the boy is out gathering firewood for the forge one day, he’s taken hostage by an escaped convict. The convict, a former doctor who was framed and sent to prison by a powerful and unscrupulous rich man, realizes when he hears the boy’s story that this is his long lost son. He keeps the secret to himself and, after escaping, funds the boy’s education. His son grows up to be a doctor too, and runs afoul of the rich man. Justice is served at the end. A very young Josephine Siao plays Bruce Lee’s childhood friend.
THUNDERSTORM (1957) Directed by Ng Wui. Starring Cheung Ying, Pak Yin, Lo Duen, Bruce Lee, Mui Yee, Ng Wui, and Wong Man-lei.
This is a film adaptation of a celebrated stage play. It’s the work of China’s most prominent 20th Century dramatist, Cao Yu. Like Ibsen or O’Neill in the West, Cao found his stories in the hidden dynamics of families, the bonds and blind spots and betrayals that trap the protagonists and force them to resort to psychological violence to break free. “Thunderstorm” was written when the playwright was just 23, and it is his best known work. A wealthy man is hiding a secret – in his youth, he had two sons with the family maid. He adopted one son and abandoned the other. The maid remarries and has a daughter; the man remarries and has another son. Years later, the maid’s daughter is working in the wealthy man’s house and is unwittingly is drawn into an affair with her half-brother, who also seems to be way too interested in his stepmother…if it sounds familiar, it’s because the plot was reworked by Zhang Yimou for CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006). The original version took place in the 1930s, the heartless father was a mill owner, and one of the brothers led a rebellion against the father (he was a union organizer at the mill). Seventeen year old Bruce Lee acquits himself well in the rather small role of the youngest son. Here he is a genuine innocent, unlike the closet psychopath of Zhang’s opus. He is even bullied by the proletarian brother in one scene. His good-hearted enthusiasm provides a stark contrast to the festering discontents of the other characters.
(The section on THUNDERSTORM is a revised version of an earlier entry, originally posted on May 13, 2007.)
Here’s a clip from A SON IS BORN that I found on Youtube:
Bruce Lee • Josephine Siao