Fists of Fury as a Jiang Hu scenario
I watched Bruce Lee's first movie, Fists of Fury, with Sushu recently.
(Fists of Fury is not the same as Fist of Fury, an entirely different movie also starring Bruce Lee. Fists, plural, is also called The BIg Boss, and is also known by its Chinese title 唐山大兄 (Tang Shan Da Xiong) meaning "Canton Big Brother". Of course neither movie has much to do with fists anyway, since Bruce Lee mostly kicks people to death. Confused yet?)
Anyway, whatever you call it, Fists of Fury is a really well done movie. The dub is TERRIBLE (and such inappropriate background music!) but the kung fu action is great; except for a few fake high jumps, all the fighting is entirely believable and convincing. More importantly, the plotting is excellent. It's very tight, tense, consise, and well-structured.
I've been thinking about what this movie can teach us for Jiang Hu - that's right, I've started thinking about Jiang Hu again! - not so much in terms of the kung fu fighting, but rather in terms of how to set up a situation that gives people a lot of interesting things to fight about. The scenario creation rules, if you will.
Spoilers follow, but the movie's 40 years old so whaddya want?
Bruce Lee is moving to a new town to work at an ice factory along with some of his family. Dialogue reveals that he got into a lot of trouble by starting fights in his old town, which might be why his family had to move. He's made a Very Serious Promise to his grandparents not to get into any fights.
Gee, how long do you think that promise is going to last?
There's an early scene where honorless thugs beat up and take advantage of good honest people. Because of his promise, Bruce Lee has to watch and do nothing about it. There's a closeup on his face so you can see how bad he feels about that.
Lessons already: Promises are very serious. We can put characters into dynamic situations right out of the starting gate by creating them already enmeshed in a web of promises to important relationships. You get interesting internal conflict when such a promise goes against a character's sense of justice. As the audience, we know that of course he's going to fight eventually! So the question on our minds is: what's going to be the thing that makes him so mad that he breaks that promise? Even though we know what's going to happen, the situation creates tension because we don't yet know why or how.
Continuing with the plot:
The existing power structure (in the form of the ice factory management) is thoroughly corrupt. In fact, they're using the ice factory as a front for a drug-smuggling operation. The factory managers play the same role as a corrupt provincial magistrate or an occupying foreign power might play in other time periods: the initial situation is one where bad guys hold all the cards. We see how bad they are, and we want to see them taken down a peg so that justice can prevail. But since the political power is in their hands, justice can't be restored just by talking to people or by appealing to legitimate authority. A hero has to arise to restore justice with his fists. And we get to root for the underdog, which is always fun.
The bad guys have a hierarchy, with the Big Boss at the top, some henchmen under him, and an endless supply of nameless thugs at their command. The Big Boss is the greatest both in political power and in kung-fu power. There's a scene early on that establishes this by showing him practice-sparring with some of his men. (We see him hide some long, nasty daggers in his boots, which of course we know we'll see him use later.) Is it realistic that the factory leader also happens to be a kung-fu master? Probably not. But it sets the stage for an epic showdown at the end, so we go along with it.
The good guys have their own hierarchy of sorts, with a benevolent big brother figure named Hsiu (or Xu) Chien watching over and protecting the poor, honest, hardworking factory men. These men make up a group called, in Chinese, a 帮 (bang) - like a labor union but not as organized; such groups are a staple part of the Jiang Hu world. Bruce lee is a newcomer to the situation. These relationships are established in a few short lines of dialogue before the plot moves on.
The workers discover quite by accident that their factory is a front for a drug-smuggling operation when Bruce knocks a big chunk of ice off of a railing, and it breaks on the ground, revealing a bag of white powder hidden inside. This is the spark that sets off all the potential conflict in the situation. It's the "Bang" - this time in the Sorceror sense, not the labor-union sense.
From this point, the whole movie is nothing but an ever-escalating series of reprisals. The men who saw the drugs are brought into the manager's office, where he offers them bribes and offers to bring them on board the operation in order to secure their silence. They refuse, and so they get "disappeared". The rest of the factory workers try to find out what happened to them, and they get stonewalled. They protest, and management clamps down on them. These reprisals can't end until one side is thoroughly defeated in one-on-one combat.
I can see just how this would work in gaming - a scenario would be created before play that set up the relationships between the groups involved, with plenty of potential conflict; then at the start of play, the GM throws out the Bang with the drugs; and from there on, the GM needs only to play the bad guys as they respond to the protagonists' actions. You'd need a system that encourages escalations; then the rest of the story flows out naturally as a sort of chain reaction.
Some of the fights in this movie start with a series of show-offy displays of kung-fu awesomeness and flashy tricks. They're not intended to do damage, but to intimidate. They're warning shots. (It's like bucks locking horns in mating season -- they don't want to actually fight, they just want to prove that they could win so that the other deer will back off.) I wonder how this could be made to work in a game context? Narrating them would be tons of fun, but does it somehow give you an advantage over just attacking immediately? (Maybe if the opponents' actual kung fu power levels were in fact concealed from each other? like poker hands? And so you do a move that shows some of your cards, in order to convince the other player to fold... but you might be bluffing... )
A big contrast is shown between the character of Hsiu, who is a real wuxia, and Bruce Lee, who is more of an ambiguous anti-hero. Hsiu is completely dedicated to his bang from the beginning, and always willing to fight to protect them. Bruce is reluctant to betray his "no fighting" promise, but he's also just not particularly heroic.
At various points, the bad guys try to bribe various good guys with money, power, liquor, and sexy prostitutes: things that a true hero is unmoved by. We get to see what people are made of by who refuses the bribes and who takes them. Hsiu is unmoved; he sees dishonorable behavior being rewarded with money and power, and he is merely disgusted. Bruce Lee, on the other hand, totally gets drunk and sleeps with the prostitutes and makes friends with the bad guys and is pretty much ready to sell out.
There's pretty fixed ideas about honorable behavior, what a man must do to maintain his honor and how he must avenge it if insulted; I imagine the code of honor could be hard-coded into the game. Like, "A true hero is unmoved by money, power, and sex" could be a rule. Not the kind of straightjacket rule that prevents a player from doing something, but rather a guideline that helps players know when they're living up to the ideal and when they're failing it, so that they can explore motivations and situations on both sides of the line.
In the end, Hsiu, the original Big Brother, pays for his unflinching honor with his life. He did the right thing at all points, but his kung fu is simply not strong enough to overcome all of the bad guys, and he is killed. (This movie is slightly on the cynical side.) Bruce Lee is not as morally upright but has much stronger kung fu. (Why? It's never really explained why his character is so strong, other than "he's played by Bruce Lee").
So the real climactic conflict of the movie is about when Bruce's flawed character will find the moral courage to step up and fill the Big Brother's shoes. The people cry out for a champion to save them; their champion has fallen; Bruce Lee is the only one who can do it; yet he is reluctant.
In the end, he goes and fights the Big Boss only after his entire family has been killed in a reprisal by the Big Boss's thugs. It's very sad. He steps up too late; and when he does, he steps up for the wrong reasons - when he finally does kill the Big Boss in the final battle, it is an act of mere vengeance, and not of protection. (And the very end of the movie shows him being taken away by the police, arrested for all the bad guys he killed; he wasn't a hero, so he didn't get a hero's ending.)
So there's an interesting theme in this movie that the most morally upright people are not always the strongest in kung fu. But you better have somebody who's both strong enough and good enough to fight the big bad guy! A community ultimately needs someone who is willing and able to use violence to defend their values: as Winston Churchill or possibly George Orwell put it, "We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."
In a game, as I see it, Hsiu and Bruce Lee would both have been player characters. The meaning of the game emerges from the choices that each of those players makes about who and what their character is willing to fight for.