Seminal Cinema Outfit

Classic, Foreign and Rare Film

Film notes on Big Boss

The Big Boss (Chinese: 唐山大兄, also known as Fists Of Fury) is a 1971 Hong Kong martial arts action film written and directed by Lo Wei, with assistance from Bruce Lee. It stars Lee, Maria Yi, James Tien and Tony Liu. Bruce Lee’s first major film, it was written for James Tien. However, Lee’s strong performance overshadowed Tien, already a star in Hong Kong, and made Bruce Lee famous across Asia.

Cast

  • Bruce Lee: Lee is Cheng Chao-an (Chinese: 鄭潮安; Cantonese Yale: Zeng Ciu-On), who travels from China to Pak Chong, Thailand to stay with his uncle.
  • Maria Yi: Chiao Mei is a typical “damsel in distress“. She is Cheng’s only female cousin.
  • James Tien: Cousin Hsu Chien is a martial artist and gets into fights with the local gangs.
  • Yin-chieh Han: Hsiao Mi (“The Big Boss”) owns an ice factory which is really a front for his drug dealing.
  • Lee Kwan: Cousin Ah Kun
  • Tony Liu: Hsiao Chiun (Hsiao Mi’s son)
  • Chao Chen: Ah Sheng (Foreman)
  • Chia Ching Tu: Uncle Lu
  • Gam Saan: Cousin Ah Shan
  • Billy Chan Wui-ngai: Cousin Ah Pei
  • Lam Ching-ying: Cousin Ah Yen (also Assistant Action Director of the film)
  • Peter Yang: Cousin Ah Chen
  • Nora Miao: a local cold drinks vendor
  • Peter Chan: Hsiao Mi’s henchman
  • Ma La Lene: Miss Sun Wuman
  • Rhoma Irama: Ah Yieng (Extra)

Plot

Cheng is a Chinese man from mainland China who moves to Thailand to live with his cousins and works in an ice factory. When a block of ice is accidentally broken, a bag of white powder falls out. Two of Cheng’s cousins are asked to see the manager. The factory is really a front for a drug smuggling ring led by Hsiao Mi, also known as the Big Boss. When they refuse to cooperate, they are killed and their bodies disposed of.

Hsu Chien and another cousin is sent to Hsiao Mi’s house where he has them killed for asking questions. The men at the factory then riot. To ease tensions, Hsiao Mi now makes Cheng a foreman, providing him with alcohol and prostitutes. Sun, one of the prostitutes, had sex with Cheng the night he was drunk at Hsiao Mi’s party, and she tells Cheng the truth. Immediately after Cheng leaves, Hsiao Mi’s son, Hsiao Chiun, sneaks in and kills Sun by throwing a knife at her heart. Sun’s body is disposed of in the ice factory, just as Cheng’s cousins were. The next night, Cheng breaks into the factory and finds the bodies. However, he is discovered by the gangsters.

Cheng fights his way out, killing Hsiao Chiun and many gangsters in the process. He returns home to find that almost all of his family have been murdered, while Chiao Mei has gone missing. Cheng exacts revenge by killing Hsiao Mi in a final fight. Once he knows that Chiao Mei is safe, he surrenders to the Thai police when they arrive at Hsiao Mi’s house.

Alternative title confusion

When The Big Boss was being prepared for American distribution, it was to be retitled The Chinese Connection, a play on the popular The French Connection, since both dealt with drug trafficking. The title of Lee’s second film, Fist of Fury, was to be identical, except for being Fistsof Fury. However, the titles were accidentally reversed. The Big Boss was released as Fists of Fury and Fist of Fury became The Chinese Connection. Film purists refer to the films by their original titles. Recent American TV showings and the official US DVD release from Twentieth Century-Fox have restored the original titles of all Bruce Lee films.

Alternative music scores

Unlike other Lee films, The Big Boss is unique in having not only two, but three completely different music scores. Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon, and Game of Death all only feature one score with minor alterations.

The first music score for it was composed by Wang Fu-ling, who worked on films such as The Chinese Boxer and One-Armed Swordsman. This was made for the Mandarin language version and the first English version. It similar to other martial arts movie scores, especially the Shaw Brothers films. Wang was the only one to receive credit, but it is also believed composer Chen Yung-yu assisted with the score. At least one cue from Japanese composer Akira Ifukube‘s scores for the Daimajin trilogy of films was also utilized as stock music.

The second and most popular of the music scores was by German composer Peter Thomas. This did not become widely known until 2005, when most of the music he composed for the film appeared on iTunes in a Big Boss collection. Thomas’s involvement stems from a complete reworking of the English version of the film. The early version featured the British voice actors who worked on all Shaw Brothers films and used Wang Fu-ling’s score. It was decided to make a new English version that would stand out from the other martial arts films. New actors were brought in to voice the film in English, and Peter Thomas (composer) re-scored the film, abandoning Wang Fu-ling’s music. The German dubbed version features his score, especially in the German title of the film in the iTunes compilation.

The third score is the 1983 Cantonese release score, which primarily features music from Golden Harvest composer Joseph Koo. However, a good portion of Joseph Koo’s music in the Cantonese version was originally created in 1974 for the Japanese theatrical release of The Big Boss, which was half Koo’s music and half Peter Thomas’. Golden Harvest simply took Koo’s music from the Japanese version and added it to the Cantonese version. Aside from this, this version is most infamous for its use of the Pink Floyd music cues “Time” and “Obscured by Clouds”, as well as King Crimson‘s “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part Two”.

Other actors as Bruce Lee playing Cheng Chao-an

Various Bruce Lee biopics have been filmed over the years, with the two most famous being Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Both of these films feature their respective actors, Bruce Li and Jason Scott Lee, at one point acting as Lee on the set of The Big Boss. Both films feature a variation of the rumor that Lee was challenged on the set by a Thai boxer. In Myth, Lee was challenged on set and was caught in the middle of an ambush later on off the set. In Dragon, Lee is challenged during an actual take during filming of The Big Boss, wearing the trademark rolled up long sleeve white T-shirt, white sash, and black pants. Both of these are highly exaggerated accounts (not to mention that Dragon makes the mistake of saying that filming for The Big Boss began in July 1970 rather than in July 1971), as the story told is that Lee merely discusses martial arts with a Thai fighter on the set. Besides these two examples, a third Bruce Lee biopic, The Legend of Bruce Lee, this time with Danny Chan Kwok Kwan as Lee and filmed in mini-series form, was shown in Hong Kong in 2008 as part of China’s hosting of the summer Olympics. Once again, this biopic shown Lee encountering a Thai boxer on the set of The Big Boss, this time with the challenger being played by martial arts film veteran Mark Dacascos. Photos and behind-the-scenes video of this scene have appeared on various websites, including Dacascos’s official site.

Release

  • Upon its release The Big Boss became the highest-grossing film in the history of Hong Kong and remained unsurpassed until Bruce Lee’s second film, Fist of Fury.
  • When the film was released in the United States, the death of Hsiao Mi, “The Boss”, was cut down to him simply being stabbed in the chest with a knife in order to receive an “R” rating. The original version of his death, which not only shows an explicit close-up of the knife in his chest but Cheng Chao-an’s fingers piercing his rib cage and blood flowing from under his shirt, would have given the film an “X” rating. Ironically, the first time this scene was shown in the US was when it played on cable channel AMC in July 2004.
  • Columbia pictures released the film as a re-issue in 1978 and again re-issued it with Fist Of Fury as a studio sanctioned double feature in February 1981.
  • Miramax acquired rights from Golden Harvest to distribute The Big Boss on Television & Streaming it on Hulu & Netflix including Bruce Lee The Legend (1977) & Game Of Death (1978).

 

Further reading

An excerpt from the review at Kung Fu Kingdom:

“The end duel between Cheng and Mi, the only significant one-on-one match in the film, has perhaps some of the best build-up of any climactic fight ever filmed as the two men stare each other down like two gunslingers in the Wild West for over a minute as the music progressively intensifies. All that’s missing is a tumble weed bouncing across the screen…Bruce and his opponent Yien Chieh-han do not disappoint in the slightest – their showdown is filled with such money shots as Cheng lifting Mi’s entirely body over his head and tossing him across the yard like a beach ball and both men leaping ten feet in the air for Cheng’s foot to slam right into Mi’s face, cleverly foreshadowing a similar moment in the climactic duel of “Enter the Dragon”.

 

An excerpt from the review at KungFuFilms:

“Truly, the only credible reasons to watch this film is for the fights and simply to see Bruce Lee. So any further discussion about the flawed story filled with generalities and plot holes would be a waste of time. Most of the trademark elements of Lee’s later films are present here. He tastes his blood from a fresh wound, gets a superficial cut to the stomach, he frowns, smirks, and emits an incredible intensity leading up to his fights. The only things missing are the nunchaku and a worthy opponent.”

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