Monday, June 14, 2021

Recent discovery: The Big Boss

Quite a few composers have had their scores rejected by dissatisfied directors who wanted the music to move in a different direction, and therefore hired somebody else; it’s a recognized risk of the profession. I covered a few in my two volumes; The GetawayChinatown and The Seven-Ups come to mind. The initial rejected scores occasionally have been released commercially, but the films are available solely with the second, replacement score.


A few films do exist with entirely different scores, almost always as a result of release in different countries. 1966’s After the Fox is well known for its effervescent Burt Bacharach score, which became a popular album. But the film’s Italian release features an entirely different score by Piero Piccioni; two tracks were released on an Italian 45 single at the time, but the full score has yet to be issued. Italian DVDs of the film contain Piccioni’s score, for those who are sufficiently curious.


Until now, however, I’d never come across a film that exists with three different scores.


The movie in question is Bruce Lee’s first feature starring project: 1971’s Tang shan da xiong, initially released in the States as Fists of Fury, and — in English-speaking markets — best known these days as The Big Boss. The film’s initial Mandarin language Hong Kong release features a score by Wang Fu-ling (with, some believe, an assist by fellow composer Chen Yung-yu). Tang shan da xiong quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time in Hong Kong, but that honor was brief; Lee’s next film, released only five months later, was even more popular. 


Overseas release of Tang shan da xiong was inevitable, but initially problematic. Despite the success Lee had enjoyed in the American TV series The Green Hornet, along with supporting roles in features such as Marlowe, he remained an unknown quantity as a  potential” film star.” As a result, when Tang shan da xiong was purchased by the German distributor Cinerama, marketing execs — already nervous about how to best promote this Bruce Lee guy — also thought Fu-ling’s score sounded much to “weird” for Western ears. They therefore hired their own Peter Thomas, best known at that point for his scores for the Jerry Cotton films and television’s sci-fi series, Raumpatrouille.


“When the distributor heard the original soundtrack,” Thomas recalled, years later, “he felt helpless and perplexed. One could hear extremely unusual Oriental sounds for Western ears.”1


Thomas made a point of avoiding the film’s initial score. (“I watched the film without the original soundtrack. This only could have disturbed me.”2) He then supplied an entirely new, jazz-based score for the European prints and dubbed English language version, built from original cues and a handful of existing compositions he had released on earlier albums. That version circulated widely throughout the world in 1973, including here in the States. (To further muddy the waters, Thomas wasn’t acknowledged; the sole music credit still belonged to Fu-ling. Confusing, much?)

Rather bizarrely, a 1982 Cantonese re-release was made with yet another score: a blend of stock library music, some original material by composer Joseph Koo, and unlicensed tracks lifted from Pink Floyd and King Crimson albums.


(I learned all this as a result of being curiously sidetracked while researching Thomas and his scores for the Jerry Cotton crime thrillers. Although I undoubtedly heard his score when seeing Fists of Fury during its initial 1973 American release, that was long before I paid serious attention to such things. Much more recently, when I purchased prestige copies of Lee’s films, of course I made a point of getting the Cantonese version, with English subtitles; I therefore associated the film with Fu-ling’s music, and knew nothing about Thomas’ involvement. Until now.)


Moving on…


Casual Bruce Lee fans familiar with only Enter the Dragon would be surprised by how ruthless, mean-spirited and gory The Big Boss is. (Initially too gory, as it turned out; numerous martial arts-themed Internet sites gleefully describe and discuss scenes that were excised prior to release.) All manner of innocents are butchered by the title character’s gang of thugs; Lee’s character loses almost his entire adopted family — including a little boy (!) — en route to finally dealing with The Big Bad.


Cheng Chao-on (Lee) moves to Pak Chong, Thailand, to work in an ice factory while living with a large gaggle of cousins headed by Ah Kun (Lee Quinn). The clan’s lone woman, Chow Mei (Maria Yi), develops an immediate crush on the newcomer, who has promised his mother — back in China — that he’ll refrain from street fighting. That becomes progressively more difficult, with Cheng reluctantly standing back while his martial arts-skilled cousin Hsiu Chien (James Tien) deals with street thugs who harass and intimidate family members and other village locals. Those same thugs also “enforce” operations at the ice factory, where Cheng joins Ah Kun and all his other male cousins, as they make and process massive blocks of ice.

Unknown to our innocents, the ice factory is a cover for a drug smuggling operation run by “the big boss,” Hsiao Mi (Han Ying-chieh), and his arrogant son, Hsiao Chiun (Lau Wing). Hsiao Mi also has an unsavory taste for young women, who serve as slaves and get physically brutalized for minor infractions. After encountering the gentle Chow Mei, Hsiao Chiun promises to add her to his father’s stable.


Things start to go awry when one of the ice blocks breaks, exposing a plastic bag of drugs concealed within, which is seen by two of Cheng’s cousins. The equally corrupt factory manager (Chih Chen) attempts to buy their silence; when they nervously refuse, they’re immediately killed. The manager’s flimsy explanation, when questioned by Ah Kun about his cousins’ mysterious absence, is that the young men have simply sought better work elsewhere. This excuse wears progressively thin as more factory workers continue to disappear, until it becomes blindingly obvious that things are totally rotten in Hsiao Mi’s empire … at which point, Cheng can stand back no longer. Cue all manner of Lee’s signature mayhem.


Thomas’ score explodes immediately, with a heavily percussive title theme — Thomas calls such cues “crazy jazz” — dominated by a 1-3-1-3 motif delivered by an exhilarating wall of brass. This plays over the opening credits, and continues as Cheng arrives in Pak Chong via boat. This cue repeats several times as the story progresses, most crucially at the moment Cheng finally decides to fight back, the propulsive melody amplifying Lee’s hardening and resolute expression. For the most part, the film’s many violent skirmishes are bereft of music, in favor of the exaggerated sound effects of kicks, punches and body blows.


The secondary action theme — dubbed “Mukuri” on the soundtrack album — debuts after Cheng meets Hsiu Chien. The cue opens with heartbeat percussion, which backs an unsettling blend of electronic keyboard, throbbing bass and electric guitar riffs. It’s introduced when four thugs harass a young female drink stand vendor, which angers Hsiu Chien; he easily handles them. Later that evening, Hsiu Chien helps a distraught villager who has been cheated out of his money in the rigged local casino; this angers the club bouncers, who chase Cheng and Hsiu Chien while Thomas inserts a sassy, somewhat more melodic blend of keyboards, electric guitar and driving drums (“Hard Drugs”).


Electric guitar, rising horns and keyboard riffs fuel the slow, purposeful swinger (“The Amulet”) that follows Hsiu Chien and another cousin, Ah Pei (Billy Chan Wui-ngai), when they stride into Hsiao Mi’s mansion a few days later, demanding to know what happened to their other family members. The folly of their belligerent insistence is amplified by a raucous, rock ’n’ roll swinger (“Moontown”), which grows more intense as they’re surrounded by numerous weapon-wielding goons. When Hsiu Chien and Ah Pei subsequently don’t return home, Cheng searches the town for them, against Thomas’ double-time blast of brass, electronics and furious percussion (“Malaparte Sinus”).

Hoping to curry favor and deflect blame, Hsiao Mi authorizes the factory manager to make Cheng the new foreman. This briefly has the desired effect; Cheng, Ah Pei and numerous followers proudly strut home in time to a cheerfully rollicking swinger (“Cheng Li and His Friends”) until, once in the door, a tearful Chow Mei reminds them that they still haven’t learned what has become of Hsiu Chien and the others. Making matters even worse, Cheng then allows himself to be seduced by a fancy dinner with the manager and several prostitutes. (In a cleverly trenchant directorial touch, this sequence cuts between the much simpler meal that Chow Mei prepares for what’s left of her family.) Full of rich food, and quite drunk, Cheng takes one of the girls to bed; she slowly sheds her clothes against a salacious, Vegas-style sax waltz (“The Seduction of Cheng Li”).


Thomas is equally adept at quieter atmospheric cues. Muted trumpet takes the melody in a slow, sweet romantic theme (“China Love”) first heard early on, when Chow Mei wakens her brothers on a typical workday morning. This cue repeats later, when she weeps over the failure of her brothers to return home; and then again when Chow Mei — the only family member to retain her trust in Cheng, after his debauched night — takes a walk with him along a creek near their home. Sinister electronics back Hsiao Chiun’s initial attempt to seduce Chow Mei; an even creepier blend of electronics accompanies Cheng’s horrified discovery of what actually happened to Hsiu Chien and the other cousins.


Ultimately, with nothing left to lose, Cheng yields to berserker fury and becomes a vengeful killing machine; Thomas amplifies this with another ominous heartbeat cue (“Alarm”), leading to Cheng’s suicidal assault on Hsiao Mi’s mansion compound. Several action cues repeat — notably “The Amulet” and “Mukuri” — as Cheng dispatches a final half-dozen thugs, and then finally faces the equally skilled Big Boss. A final reprise of the title theme signals the victor, but the story’s conclusion is surprisingly downbeat: Cheng is handcuffed and taken away by Thai police.


Fu-ling’s score was issued by Japan’s Tam/Toho Records in tandem with the film, and was digitized — with bonus tracks — in 1991 by Hong Kong’s Max Entertainment Inc. Thomas’ score remained unavailable for decades, until finally digitized in 2010 by Germany’s All Score Media label. That label re-engineered the album’s 20 tracks — retitling a few — for 2020’s Bruce Lee: The Big Boss Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Revised), as by the Peter Thomas Sound Orchester.

For the detail-oriented, the five tracks Thomas “borrowed” from his earlier albums are “Malaparte Sinus” and “Moontown” (both from Orion 2000, a library LP), “Communication in Hyperspace” and “EKG” (both from Warp Back to Earth), and “Bruce Lee Forever” (the library album Moonflowers & Mini-Skirts, where it’s titled “Beige Turtleneck”). The remaining tracks were written for the film.




1. Peter Thomas, quoted in director Brandon Bentley’s short film Bruce Lee vs. Peter Thomas — research and script by Gerd Naumann — included as an extra in the 2020 Criterion set, Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits.


2. Ibid.

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