The Big Boss (Tang shan da xiong)

Director: Wei Lo
Screenplay: Wei Lo
Stars: Bruce Lee (Cheng Chao-an), Maria Yi (Chow Mei), James Tien (Hsiu Chien), Marilyn Bautista (Miss Wuman), Ying-Chieh Han (Hsiao Mi, The Boss), Tony Liu (Hsiao Chiun, Mi’s son), Kun Li (Ah Kun), Nora Miao (Drinkstand owner), Shan Chin (Hua Sze), Chia-Chen Tu (Uncle), Chih Chen (Ice Factory Manager)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1971
Country: Hong Kong
The Big Boss Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Big Boss

By the time The Big Boss (Tang shan da xiong) was released in 1971, martial artist Bruce Lee had appeared in some 20 films and also co-starred in the short-lived American television series The Green Hornet (1966–67). But, he was not a star. The Big Boss changed all that, although ironically the film is structured in such a way that he doesn’t actually become the star until the second half of the film. The first half largely belongs to James Tien, who had previously starred in Raw Courage (1969), which was also directed by The Big Boss’s Lo Wei. Even as the film went into production, Wei was unsure who would ultimately emerge as the star of the film, and when he and the producers compared the relative screen charisma of Lee and Tien, they decided that Lee had it in ways that Tien didn’t. So, even though Lee spends the first half the film not fighting while Tien takes on various hoards of bullies and heavyweights, it is ultimately Lee’s character who emerges as the hero, in the process turning into a bona-fide international superstar.

Lee plays Cheng Chao-an, a young man who travels from China to Thailand with his uncle (Chia-Chen Tu) looking for work. His cousin, Hsiu Chien (James Tien), works in an ice factory and gets Cheng a job there, as well, although they soon run into trouble when it is revealed that the ice factory’s real purpose is to smuggle heroin for the “big boss” of the title, an organized crime lord named Hsiao Mi (Ying-Chieh Han), who lives in a massive compound, employs a small army of brightly dressed goons (including his son, played by Tony Liu in his screen debut), and has a pair of girls who follow him around constantly massaging his shoulders. He is a decadent villain, smarmy and angular, but extremely dangerous and a genuine match for Cheng, who of course faces him mano-a-mano in the film’s climactic fight. There are plenty of other fights along the way, which give Tien and then Lee ample opportunity to demonstrate their martial arts prowess and the sound effects department ample opportunity to use every kicking, punching, and cracking sound effect in their library.

The Big Boss emerged as part of a wave of Hong Kong-produced kung-fu films that saturated the Asian markets and made their way into Europe and the United States, often in heavily edited versions with badly dubbed alternate language soundtracks. Most of these films were produced by either Run Run Shaw’s Shaw Brothers Studio, which helped innovate the gongfu pian or “kung-fu” film in the 1960s, or its rival Golden Harvest, which was founded by Raymond Chow, who defected from Shaw Brothers in 1970 along with producer Leonard Ho. Much was riding on The Big Boss, as Golden Harvest had not yet managed to produce a hit, so its international success not only turned Lee into a star, but also secured the future of the studio with which he would make almost all of his subsequent films before his untimely death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1973 at the age of 32.

Watching Lee in The Big Boss, it is a shock that he hadn’t become a star sooner. His uniquely fluid and adaptable style of kung-fu is certainly captivating and exhilarating (he insisted on doing most of the choreography himself, a point of contention in the production), but even when he isn’t fighting he exudes a classically handsome, natural screen charisma that is undeniable. He is able to play comedy when required, but his seriousness of purpose is never in doubt, even when the film feels silly. I don’t think I have ever seen someone simply stand with such cool, poised authority, and the film almost becomes comical in its refusal to let him unleash his fists and feet of fury until the midway point (the narrative justification is that he promised his mother he wouldn’t fight, a promise embodied in a green amulet she gave him to wear around his neck). When he finally does get to throw down, the fights have resonance not just because of the violence, but because Lee’s character is standing up for the downtrodden and the marginalized. The manner in which he asserts not just himself, but his status as a Chinese man fighting for justice and respect, established a thematic core that would cut through all of his subsequent films.

It may have made Lee a star, but The Big Boss is not a particularly good movie, although its meager production values were still a step up from typical kung-fu programmers. Wei Lo’s direction is fairly lazy, and it is obvious that the plot was being largely made up as they went along. The widescreen cinematography works well during the fight scenes, but is otherwise largely undistinguished, and the post-production soundtrack is often technically flawed. There is also clear tension between Lo’s desire for more comical violence (at one point Cheng throws a character through a wall, leaving a Looney Tunes-esque person-shaped hole) and Lee’s desire for more realistic fighting. The blood is copious and bright Crayola red, making the violence both graphic and absurd at the same time. Nevertheless, The Big Boss is a film that will forever maintain its relevance simply because it launched Lee from the minor leagues to international stardom and established the indelible screen persona that would be so tragically short-lived.

The Big Boss Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Bruce Lee: His Greatest HitsThe Big Boss is available as part of The Criterion Collection’s Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits boxset, which also includes Fist of Fury (1972), The Way of the Dragon (1972), Enter the Dragon (1973), and Game of Death (1978).

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 (all films)
  • Mandarin Chinese Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary on The Big Boss by Bruce Lee expert Brandon Bentle
  • Audio commentaries on The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and Game of Deathby Hong Kong film expert Mike Leeder
  • Audio commentary on the special-edition version of Enter the Dragon by producer Paul Heller
  • High-definition presentation of Game of Death II, the 1981 sequel to Game of Death
  • Game of Death Redux, a new presentation of Lee’s original Game of Death footage, produced by Alan Canvan
  • Video interviews on all five films with Lee biographer Matthew Polly
  • Video interview with producer Andre Morgan about Golden Harvest
  • Video program about English-language dubbing with voice performers Michael Kaye and Vaughan Savidge
  • Video interview with author Grady Hendrix about the “Bruceploitation” subgenre and a selection of Bruceploitation trailers
  • Blood and Steel, a 2004 documentary about the making of Enter the Dragon
  • Multiple programs and documentaries about Lee’s life and philosophies, including Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend (1973) and Bruce Lee: In His Own Words (1998)
  • Video interview with Linda Lee Cadwell, Lee’s widow
  • Video interview with actor Jon T. Benn
  • Video interview with actor Riki Hashimoto
  • Video interview with actor Nora Miao
  • Video interview with actor Jun Katsumura
  • Video interview with actor Robert Wall
  • Video interview with actor Yuen Wah
  • Video interview with actor Tung Wai
  • Video interview with actor Simon Yam
  • Video interview with director Clarence Fok
  • Video interview with director Sammo Hung
  • Video interview with director Wong Jing
  • Alternate opening credits and titles
  • Alternate ending for The Big Boss
  • Extended scenes for The Big Boss
  • “Bruce Lee: The Early Years” featurette
  • “Bruce Lee vs. Peter Thomas” featurette
  • The Legacy of the Dragon documentary
  • “Bruce Lee Remembered” featurette
  • The Grandmaster and the Dragon documentary
  • Trailers, TV spots, and radio spots
  • Essay by critic Jeff Chang
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 14, 2020

    It may be hard to believe, but this is the first time all five of Bruce Lee’s starring vehicles have been collected into a single Blu-ray package, and Criterion has pulled out all the stops, giving us new high-definition transfers of all five films and hours upon hours of supplements that should keep even the most ravenous Bruce Lee fan satiated. Let’s start with the presentation of the films themselves: They were all transferred and restored in 4K, with the exception of the theatrical version of Enter the Dragon, which was done in 2K. The Big Boss and Fist of Fury were transferred from the original 35mm camera negatives, although the latter used a 35mm interpositive for the opening credits. The Way of the Dragon and Game of Death were transferred from 35mm internegatives, and Enter the Dragon was scanned from a 35mm interpositive. All of the films look better than they ever have on home video, as the new high-def transfers bring out additional levels of detail and texture that were missing in previous editions, as well as improved color timing that results in more natural looking flesh tones and stronger color saturation. Digital restoration has the films looking virtually flawless, with very few instances of dirt and wear. All in all, the films look great. The soundtracks were transferred from a variety of sources (including from materials held by a number of unnamed collectors), and while many of them (especially the early films) are certainly lacking in technical polish, they are reflective of the original aural experience and should be understood as such.

    And now, onto the supplements, which are … voluminous. How voluminous? Well, there are supplements on each of the discs for the five films and there are two separate Blu-rays just for supplements. I would be lying if I said I had watched and listened to every minute of it all, but I did get through a lot and would like to note some of the highlights. I really appreciated all of the audio commentaries. Each film features a track by Hong Kong film expert Mike Leeder. The Big Boss features an additional track by Bruce Lee expert Brandon Bentle, and the special edition version of Enter the Dragon features an additional track by producer Paul Heller. Each film also includes a video introduction by Matthew Polly, author of the recently published biography Bruce Lee: A Life and himself a practitioner of kung fu who was the first American to be allowed to study at the Shaolin Temple in China. There are hours of archival video interviews with Lee’s family and collaborators, including his widow Linda Lee Calwell and actors John T. Benn, Robert Wall, and Sammo Hung, among others. There are also some new interviews and programs, including a highly entertaining rundown on the Bruceploitation genre by author Grady Hendrix (along with 13 minutes of trailers for some of the more well-known Bruce Lee knock-offs), an engaging look at the history of Golden Harvest with producer Andre Morgan, and a fascinating program on dubbing the films into English with voice performers Michael Kaye and Vaughan Savidge. There are also multiple documentaries about Lee’s life and philosophies, including Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend (1973), which weirdly and morbidly spends nearly half an hour on Lee’s death and funeral (all of the footage used in Game of Death appears here) and Bruce Lee: In His Own Words (1998). Other highlights include a high-definition presentation of Game of Death II, the 1981 sequel to Game of Death (not a good film by any means, but it is nice to have it hear for historical context) and Game of Death Redux, a new presentation of Lee’s original Game of Death footage produced by Alan Canvan. There are also alternate opening credits and titles for several films, as well as an alternate ending and extended scenes for The Big Boss. Throw in a making-of documentary about Enter the Dragon, a featurette on Bruce Lee’s early years, and tons of trailers, TV spots, and radio spots, and you have a package that can arguably be labeled as definitive.

    Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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