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CARPE LIBRUM: Books provide mystery and mystique around Brandon and Bruce Lee’s lives and deaths

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Brandon and Bruce Lee died making movies, doing the work they were proud of. Partly because of that, and a couple of interesting books about their stories, their legend will continue.

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

brucelee“Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee and the Dragon’s Curse”
Charles Hoffman
Bullseye, 1995, pgs.119







crow“The Crow: The Story Behind the Film”
Bridget Baiss
Titan Books, 2004, pgs. 288

At the end of March, 1993, our city was rocked by the death of Brandon Lee, who died on set while filming “The Crow.” The accidental death of the young actor—son of action star Bruce Lee—hung like a pall over the community. Events around Lee’s unnecessary and untimely death linger and haunt Wilmingtonians who lived here during the tragedy. After the investigation into his death was closed—and the civil suit  naming responsible parties was settled out of court—the film was completed using body doubles and early CGI tools. But the mystery and mystique surrounding his death continued. Partly because his father, Bruce Lee, also died while filming—though, it was not quite as dramatic, in that it wasn’t caught on camera as was Brandon’s. Bruce was making “Game of Death” when he died from complications around an injury that had caused his brain to swell.

Inevitably, the idea that the Lee family is cursed would develop. “Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee and the Dragon’s Curse” is a young adult book that came out the year after the release of “The Crow.” From the title we know it has a sensational angle, but like a lot of young adult books, it utilizes a sensational title to get kids interested in reading. It is actually a pretty good biography of both Bruce and Brandon Lee. In very simple and straightforward language, Hoffman explains the world that was Hong Kong in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. He takes the reader through young Bruce Lee’s life and early achievements (20 film roles as a juvenile actor), and his interest in both martial arts and street fighting. The structure intertwines Brandon and Bruce’s stories to focus on the eerie nature of both of their early deaths.

For a book that focuses more specifically on the making of “The Crow,” Bridget Baiss’ “The Crow: The Story Behind the Film,” is more oriented toward adults, and focuses much more on Brandon than his famous father. Baiss’ book is written with incredible foreboding and foreshadowing.

Everything is leading up to the event on that fateful night: Brandon Lee’s death. Indeed, that is the trigger in everyone’s mind. It is what has made the film famous, and when “The Crow” and Lee are mentioned, it is the first thing anyone thinks about.

“The Crow” is a remarkably good movie on its own merits. The thought and process that went into developing it and making it is fascinating. Baiss starts with James O’Barr’s creative path to making the comic book that inspired the film. From there the odd and circular path from comic to film gets explored, until we come up on the excitement of filming!

Baiss does a marvelous job bringing the experiences on a movie set to life. She got interviews with many of the actors; though she was prevented from speaking with the director and the producer. But the actors’ wonderful anecdotes about the filming process and antics on set are aplenty. To her credit, she doesn’t just look for the stories about Brandon Lee, but spends a substantial amount of time talking with the actors playing the gang of thugs.

Wilmingtonians will find parts of the book incredibly fun: descriptions of the movie studio in the early ‘90s, interviews with film people from town, and of course the descriptions of life in the Port City at that time. Mentions go out to iconic places, like The Caffe Phoenix, Stimmerman’s and the abandoned cement plant that was used for filming so much the film crews here called it “Stage 13.” The cement plant was used extensively in “The Crow” as the night club and loft above which the villain owned.

However, Baiss does get some things terribly wrong. She says we are located next to Fort Meyers, instead of Camp Lejeune or Fort Bragg. She places Roudabush’s florist shop with the apartment above (now Husk) on Fourth Street instead of Front Street.She cites the “Storm of the Century” hitting Wilmington in 1993, and though the National Weather Service does confirm it, by my memory, hurricanes Diana and Fran were far worse.

Yet, the thing is, everybody loves reading about movie-making. It is far more fun and glamorous than the finished product anyway. The mystique of the Lee family—their fascinating lives and even more captivating deaths—holds us in a thrall. Next spring is the 25th anniversary of Brandon Lee’s death. He and his father died making movies, doing the work they were proud of. Partly because of that, their legend will continue.

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