The 46th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death is tomorrow. While fans fondly remember his late-career kung fu movies that made him famous in the U.S., he has several credits from earlier — much earlier — that deserve a closer look.
It’s a well-known part of the Bruce Lee mythos. While practicing and teaching martial arts in the United States during the 1960s, Lee was also a struggling actor. He notably played the sidekick Kato in the cult TV show The Green Hornet, a role he reprised three times as a guest star on Adam West’s campy Batman series. Beyond playing supporting roles and choreographing fight scenes, Lee had difficulty landing work as a leading role. In 1971, a frustrated Lee ended up moving back to Hong Kong, starring in the classic kung fu movies that would make him an international star.
Around that time, Lee’s role in The Green Hornet had made him very popular in Hong Kong. But even before his return, Lee was a veteran child actor in Hong Kong, a part of his career that’s unfortunately obscure for many of his Western fans. Lee was three months old when he first appeared on a movie screen, and by the time he was 18, he had over 20 credits to his name. These weren’t measly, forgotten B pictures, either. When the Hong Kong Film Awards unveiled its Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures list in 2005, two of Lee’s early movies made the cut: In the Face of Demolition 危楼春晓 (1953) and The Orphan 人海孤鸿 (1960), the latter being the last Chinese movie Lee made before packing his bags for the U.S.
Lee’s kung fu movies are readily available everywhere, but it can be tricky getting a hold of his childhood work. Cinema Epochs has released several of Lee’s pre-kung fu features on DVD, yet for the English-speaking fan, the majority can only be watched online, with nonexistent subtitles or terrible picture quality. A rare exception is The Kid 细路祥 (1950), one of the movies released by Cinema Epochs. It’s not a masterpiece, and there aren’t any of the fancy stunts you’d see in something like Enter the Dragon, yet The Kid was an interesting, important step in Lee’s acting career. (You can watch it on YouTube for $1.99.)
Based on a comic by artist Yuan Bouwan 袁步雲, The Kid sees Lee playing the titular role of Cheung, a 10-year-old orphan. Cheung lives in Hong Kong with his siblings and Uncle Ho. Ho is a teacher who can’t even afford to eat breakfast, and the family is so poor that Ho teaches the children himself instead of sending them off to school. This is fine and dandy for Cheung, who prefers running around the streets and getting into trouble instead. It’s a dangerous neighborhood, and when Cheung is saved by a thief named Flash Knife Lee, the little boy can’t help but be impressed by the brave Lee and his fellow thugs.
After this encounter, Lee and his gang rob a rich man on the street, lifting a gold necklace from the man’s daughter. To escape the police, Lee hides in Cheung’s apartment, leaving the necklace behind. When his uncle comes home, Cheung and Ho decide to return the necklace. Bruce Lee’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen 李海泉, a famous Cantonese opera singer and actor in his own right, plays factory owner Hung Pak-ho, the victim of Flash Knife Lee’s gang. Hung is hardly thankful for the necklace’s return, but his daughter So Mui insists on a reward for the good samaritans. Ho receives a job as Hung’s personal secretary, while Cheung is offered the chance to go to school.
Now making twice his old salary, Uncle Ho is thrilled with his new job, but he’s really more of a servant than a secretary. Cheung, meanwhile, can’t stand the boring and tedious life of a schoolboy. After getting suspended for fighting, Hung offers to help Cheung again, giving him a job at the factory. It seems like a great opportunity to make money, yet Cheung discovers that the place is ruled by a cruel manager named Tsui. When Cheung is injured on the job, Tsui fires another worker for standing up for him. Since he can’t work or study, Cheung becomes closely involved with Flash Knife Lee, clashing with his uncle’s values of honesty and hard work.
With a runtime under 80 minutes, The Kid’s biggest flaw is its lack of depth. When Cheung becomes Flash Knife Lee’s lackey, for example, the movie rushes over Cheung’s criminal transformation with a short, boring montage set to goofy music. Some fight scenes, such as Cheung’s knife-wielding confrontation with Tsui during a factory strike, also come across as awkward and clunky. While the movie suffers from being unpolished, and the plot is nothing out of the ordinary, the characters are certainly charming and sympathetic.
The two Lees, in particular, do great work with their parts. Hung might be a miser, but his terrible memory and odd obsession over his health makes him more endearing than the standard Scrooge. The younger Lee was known for his charisma, and even as a boy, he has it on good display as Cheung. (You can be sure he brushes his nose at one point, too.) The little orphan is funny and tough, and while he doesn’t always do right, his heart’s in the right place. An especially touching scene comes at the end, when Ho realizes how his flashily dressed nephew has been making money. His uncle angrily disowns him, so Cheung pulls out a knife for being disrespected. Ho dares him to use it, but the boy doesn’t have the guts: He breaks out in tears and runs away.
It’s strong enough to stand on its own merits, but I think The Kid is best appreciated by Bruce Lee fans. In this vein, it’s an essential artifact, offering a fuller picture of his talents. With the 46th anniversary of Lee’s death tomorrow, it’s worth remembering the entirety of his legendary career, including these childhood roles that are way too often neglected.
Film Friday is SupChina’s film recommendation column. Have a recommendation? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org