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ON LOCATION : Re-Enter the Dragon : A film biography of kung fu king Bruce Lee, who died almost 20 years ago, weaves martial arts action with an interracial love story

October 25, 1992|DONALD CHASE | Donald Chase is a free-lance writer based in New York.

The moves that Poteet said "quick study" Jason Scott Lee mastered are being combined and choreographed for the camera by John Cheung. Cheung, who was a stuntman on "Enter the Dragon," recalled "the politeness of Bruce, even to the man who swept the floor of the studio" and how "Bruce was always fighting to get more money for the Hong Kong stuntmen." He joined Poteet in praising Jason Scott Lee's martial arts skills. But he did let slip that if Bruce was occasionally so fast that he had to be shot in slow motion for his movements to register on film, Jason sometimes needs to be speeded up a bit.

As for the interracial love story aspect of "Dragon," Cohen suggested he has had more latitude than might be expected of a film based on Linda Lee's book that is being made with her cooperation. "We show the difficulties and conflicts," he said. "We have Linda's mother"--played by Michael Learned--"saying, 'Can you see yourself having yellow babies?' " Linda's mother, Vivian Emery, is still living, and, according to Cohen, has signed a release assenting to her depiction in the movie.

The movie also depicts arguments between Bruce and Linda, though Cohen said Linda talked him out of ending one of them "with that cheap screenwriter's trick of having a woman slap a man. It wasn't because it was unflattering to her but because she said, 'That's not the kind of relationship we had.' She faxed me that if Bruce Lee is going to come back, as some people believe, she'd hate to have to answer to him for that, and added: 'Sorry for the sick humor. But when you look at the lighter side of it. . . .' "

"What surprised me most about Linda when I met her was her humor--she has a very quick wit," said the woman who plays her on screen, Lauren Holly.

Holly, who stars in the new CBS series "Picket Fences," added that Linda told her of the "teasing element in her relationship with Bruce. Jason and I are working on putting it into the film."

Linda Lee also projected "independence and strength" in her several encounters with Holly. "But," Holly said, "I didn't know how much of both she would have needed to be a Western woman married to an Asian until I got to Hong Kong. The attitude toward Western women doesn't seem too open now, so I can only imagine what it must have been 20 years ago when Linda came here with two Eurasian children to join Bruce after he started making films here."

Linda has remarried and is living in San Francisco, and Holly did not discuss the death of Bruce Lee with her. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Hong Kong's Queen Elizabeth Hospital, after taking ill at the apartment of Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei. There were many theories, ranging from the prurient to the mystic, about the death, which was, according to the official record, from a cerebral edema--a swelling of the brain--in reaction to an ingredient in a headache tablet.

Holly attributes the widow's reticence as much to practicality as to tact. Bruce Lee's death--and Linda's reaction to it--are not portrayed in the film. Does this exclusion have anything to do with pleasing or accommodating Linda?

Cohen says no: "We're doing the life of Bruce Lee, or rather a life of Bruce Lee. In fact, I specifically titled it 'Dragon: A Life of Bruce Lee' because there is no absolute truth--no the life--you can do of anyone. Even a documentary is to some degree an interpretation."

Perhaps the most daring interpretive stroke of Cohen's life of Lee, which leaves Bruce at a personal peak on the set of "Enter the Dragon," is an attempt to account for the death everyone knows took place soon afterward. At several crucial points in the movie, a "phantom" appears to Bruce (and the movie audience). A visual composite of superstitions, animal imagery and warrior motifs that Cohen calls "an authentic part of Chinese culture," the phantom represents both Lee's fate and "his personal flaws coming at him." These flaws include--and Cohen said the movie shows them--"a quick temper" and a "cocky and egomaniacal side."

Bruce Lee, with all his positive and negative qualities, is obviously a plum role for an Asian actor. As Bruce's 28-year-old son Brandon Lee is of the appropriate age, a martial artist and a professional actor (recently in "Rapid Fire"), he would seem a likely, if slightly gimmicky, choice for it.

"Quite apart from whether he would want to play his own father," said producer De Laurentiis, "he's a major ethnic step away from Chinese. In fact, he looks like a very handsome Italian boy. I would have refused to do the movie if I had to (make him appear more Asian), the way they did with actors playing Asians before Bruce Lee." (Bruce Lee's mother was half-German.)

"I wish we had a long, involved story about how we found Jason Scott Lee," De Laurentiis went on, "but we don't. He was recommended to us early on by a casting director, and we did a screen test of him in which he was pretty amazing."

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