Enter the Dragon may be Bruce Lee’s biggest movie, but the most important character he ever played was Chen Zhen, a fictional hero created for Fist of Fury. Released in 1972 and directed by Lo Wei, Fist of Fury was Bruce Lee’s second martial arts movie. It was made shortly after he made his big break in Hong Kong in 1971’s The Big Boss.
In Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen is introduced as a Chinese martial artist who comes home to discover that his kung fu master, Huo Yuanjia, has ɗ𝔦ᥱd. During this time, students from his school are bullied by fighters from a Japanese dojo, who look down on the Chinese. For a while, Chen Zhen and the others are told to endure it, but eventually Chen Zhen finds out that the Japanese were responsible for his master’s ɗᥱαꚍɧ. He ends up using his kung fu skills to strike back at his enemies. Though he wins the fight, Chen Zhen’s story reaches a tragic end when he is shot at by a line of Japanese soldiers. The film ends with Chen Zhen attacking, with the implication being that he’s about to ɗ𝔦ᥱ. Though Fist of Fury is a work of fiction, the ɗᥱαꚍɧ of Huo Yuanjia was a real-life event, which is a fact that had led some to wonder if Bruce Lee’s character was loosely based on Huo Yuanjia’s student, Liu Zhensheng.
After Fist of Fury, Lee went on to make Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon, which were both much more successful than his first two films. Though Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon made huge impacts on the martial arts genre, the characters that he played in them don’t match the importance of Fist of Fury’s Chen Zhen, who left a lasting (and impressive) legacy in kung fu movies. Part of what made him so revered by Chinese audiences is what he represented. Fist of Fury was a movie built on Chinese nationalism, as it focused on a character who was deeply proud of his Chinese heritage and not afraid to express it. For daring to stand up against the movie’s oppressive Japanese villains, Chen Zhen became a beloved, heroic symbol of Chinese patriotism.
Chen Zhen’s significance is reflected by how other movies have used him. Occasionally, Hong Kong studios would revisit some of Bruce Lee’s films, but none served as the basis for more movies than Fist of Fury. New Fist of Fury cast Jackie Chan in his first starring role in a character that was similar to Bruce Lee’s version. Later, direct sequels to the original Fist of Fury were made, with Bruce Lee look-alikes taking the role.
On top of that, the character of Chen Zhen has been played by two of the biggest martial actors from recent years, Jet Li and Donnie Yen. In 1994, Jet Li portrayed Chen in a high-profile remake titled Fist of Legend, which is considered by many to be one of the best kung films of the decade. Even in the 2000s, Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen is still a popular figure. A few TV shows have been produced about his adventures. In 2010, Donnie Yen played a superhero-esque version of him in Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen, which stayed true to the themes of the original movie.