The Big Boss (1971)

The Big Boss (1971) was directed by Lo Wei for Golden Harvest film productions under the production head, Raymond Chow and starred Bruce Lee, who had struck a deal with Chow to star in several productions after his spell in America, trying to become a name in Hollywood. The charismatic and agile Lee was a natural in the lead, which was originally going to be played by James Tien, but instead re-positioned with Lee in mind. Chow’s instinct and Bruces’ superb performance in The Big Boss made Lee a superstar overnight and the film itself was one of the most profitable film debuts in Hong Kong cinema at the time. Director Lo Wei was originally an actor, starring in many films in China before coming to Hong Kong and beginning a career as a director. The film also starred Maria Yi, James Tien, Tony Liu and Nora Miao and Han Ying-Chieh as the Big Boss of the title. Unbeknownst to Bruce, he had become famous in Hong Kong due to re-runs of The Green Hornet on TV, and the enthusiastic reception he received took him by surprise, which helped him secure a deal with Golden Harvest. Lee was also busy filming the Longstreet television series in LA and with this commitment, Lee had to jet back and forth from the US to finally secure his two picture deal.

The storyline centres on Cheng Chao (Bruce Lee), who is sent from Hong Kong to Thailand to work with his uncle and new ‘family’ of Chinese immigrants working at a local ice factory. The extended family including Hsiu Chen (James Tien) take Cheng Chao under their wing and introduce him to the to the manager and to start work there. The factory is run by Thais with the manager being Chinese and the owner, The Big Boss in question, who is also Chinese. The racism from both the Thai locals and the bosses is obvious and the storyline does emphasis this enough that the audience gets the idea. It is n to long that we discover the ice factory is a front for a heron smuggling operation which is all the more apparent as two of the ‘family’ suddenly disappear without an explanation when they discover the truth about their work. While Hsiu Chen tries to find out where his friends have gone, he too is disposed and it turns to Cheng Chao to hopefully find out what has happened to his missing friends. Que much martial arts mayhem as Cheng Chao dispatches man after man in his quest to finally stop The Big Boss, but not without tragic consequences for Cheng Chao.

The storyline is well crafted, with an actual plot weaved around the set piece action sequences. There is no arguing that Lee is a charismatic master of the screen, when acting and when he prefroms his martial arts. The violence is quite graphic, though notorious saw scene was exorcised early on in the films release, which I will go into later. The success of the film prompted the following years Way Of The Dragon (1972), another star vehicle for the great man himself.

The Big Boss has quite a long and complicated history of censorship and editing, with many scenes being trimmed or removed completely for various reasons in different markets. The notorious ‘handsaw in the split head’ shot was cut by the censors in Hong Kong shortly before the film was released there in 1971. It was only shown in a private screening at Golden Harvest for the press, cinema owners and prospective buyers on 17 October, but has not been seen since; all that survives are a few stills. Rumour has it an uncut print may be in the hands of a private collector many decades ago, but has not seen the light of day.

The deleted handsaw in the split head scene from The Big Boss

Unlike other Lee films, The Big Boss is unique in having not only two, but three completely different music scores, depending on which country the film was released in. The version I watched for the @Criterion Bruce Lee boxed set has the original Hong Kong score, which I have not heard before on other releases of the film and I actually think it is a better film with this score than the others, though this might also be that it has been a while since I last watched The Big Boss, my memory might be clouded somehwhat.

All in all I enjoyed revisiting The Big Boss as it was the second of Lee’s films that I watched on VHS (after Enter The Dragon (1973)) many moons ago, though not a perfect film, the fact that Bruce Lee was so charismatic and agile in the film, gives some understanding why it was a successful movie in South East Asia and it’s translation to the Western cinemas with a similar success is a testament to Lees acting and acrobatic prowess on screen.

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