When Bruce Lee died shortly before the premiere of his most famous film ENTER THE DRAGON in 1973 many unscrupulous film producers did not see this as a reason to stop using his name to draw a crowd. Inspired by Satori Screen’s upcoming showing of Bruce Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON Peter Munford takes a look at some examples of BRUCEPLOITATION.
Bruce Lee and I – Hong Kong 1976 dir. John Lo Ma
When Bruce Lee died his body was found in the apartment of actress Betty Ting Pei, a woman who was most decidedly not his wife, leading to a great deal of gossip about what the two of them were up to. In this film Ting Pei plays herself in what is presented as the true story of their relationship and Lee’s final days. Danny Lee, who later became a big star in films like John Woo’s The Killer, takes the role of Lee. Despite the best efforts of the costume and hair departments his resemblance is minimal at best.
The film opens with Lee’s death and then plays out predominantly in flashback as Ting Pei explains to a barman the nature of her relationship with him and how the Hong Kong public has got her all wrong. It is apparent within seconds that the entire film is designed as an attempt to simultaneously salvage her reputation and boost her career. As the story of Ting Pei and Lee’s relationship (as presented by Ting Pei at least) takes the form of a romantic drama the filmmakers seemingly realised that this was not the type of film Bruce Lee fans usually paid to see and as such exploitation elements are crowbarred in fairly regularly. A little nudity and titillation is provided by some softcore sex scenes between the two main characters and Ting Pei visits Lee on film sets purely as narrative justification for the inclusion of fairly extended (and admittedly well choreographed) fight sequences. There is also an utterly bizarre moment where in a moment of despair Ting Pei receives a pep talk from a voice emanating from a candle, something that is neither explained nor referred to again. I also enjoyed the fact that Lee, as portrayed in this film, was a proponent of the old “You haven’t got the part [pause for the other person to get overly emotional] hahahaha I was joking of course you have got the part” form of joke. The film ends with Betty Ting Pei speaking to a group of men who are obvious surrogates for the Hong Kong public sat in the cinema in 1976, saying “If you respect and worship Bruce Lee how can you caricature him?” This is quite possibly the most self serving and hypocritical final line in cinema, only challenged by “I wonder who the real cannibals are” from Cannibal Holocaust!
Bruce Lee’s Secret – Hong Kong 1979 dir: Chen Wah & Chang Chee
Set in San Francisco, but obviously not shot there other than a couple of brief stock establishing shots, Bruce Lee’s Secret has the advantage of starring Bruce Li (birth name: Ho Chung-tao) who does have a strong resemblance to Bruce Lee. However despite the film’s title he plays a character named Bob (at least in the English dubbed version viewed.) Bob is a waiter in a Chinese restaurant and early in the film he gets into a fight with three obnoxious customers and loses his job. It turns out that they are students of a martial arts school and soon they and other members of the school are causing all sorts of trouble for Bob and his friends in his new job at a dockyard. To deal with this threat Bob sets up a school of his own and teaches his co-workers, including a very small child who turns out to be a natural with nunchucks, his own martial arts techniques.
Bruce Lee’s Secret is a straight up action film with many extended fight sequences and whilst Bruce Li is definitely no Bruce Lee (despite what his agent and the film’s producers might have hoped you would think) the fights are well put together and the film is entertaining on a visceral level. That’s not to say the film is without its flaws. As is often the case with Hong Kong movies of this era the English dubbed script is amateurish in the extreme and the performances of the voiceover cast are more enthusiastic than believable. The sequence where Li/Lee/Bob/WhoeverTheHellTheCharacterIsSupposedToBe takes on an African-American character played by what is obviously a Hong Kong actor in black face and an afro wig is also somewhat off-putting to twenty-first century eyes to say the least. There is also the matter of what the secret referred to in the title is. Perhaps it is referring to the martial arts techniques Bob teaches in the film but that is just a guess, as the narrative offers no clues at all.
Enter The Fat Dragon – Hong Kong 1978 Dir: Sammo Hung
When I was doing a little bit of reading around Bruceploitation and trying to decide which films to watch I saw this film came up as a satire on the Bruceploitation craze and as it was directed and stars Sammo Hung, who I have always liked, I knew it was one I had to see. Enter The Fat Dragon is in fact a slapstick comedy with a few fight scenes thrown in.
Hung plays Ah Lung, a pig herder from mainland China who comes to Hong Kong to work for his uncle. Bruce Lee is Ah Lung’s idol and he seeks to replicate the heroic deeds of Lee’s films in his own life. As this film is a slapstick comedy the narrative requires that initially this does not go to plan and soon Ah Lung is the subject of a vendetta from a group of thugs. The film is by no means unenjoyable but calling it a satire of the Bruceploitation genre seems a little generous. In one short sequence Ah Lung gets a job as a stuntman in a Bruceploitation movie and proceeds to beat up the lead actor over a perceived slight but this is hardly a searing takedown of unscrupulous film producers cashing in on a dead man’s image and reputation. In addition to this the idea of Lee being an idol to the lead character is forgotten about for vast chunks of the film and when it does come up nothing much of interest is done with it. Instead, it is seemingly just there just so they can shove those scenes into the trailer. The film’s title is also happy to invoke memories of Bruce Lee to attract an audience. Cake is definitely being had and eaten here. Still, if you are going to watch anyone eating cake, either literally or figuratively, Sammo Hung is as enjoyable a choice as you are likely to find. Still, did you have to include an Asian man in blackface too Sammo? Really?
The Clones Of Bruce Lee – South Korea/Hong Kong 1981 Dir: Joseph Kong
This extremely low budget early ‘80s effort both asks and answers a question we have all pondered at one time or another: “What would happen if when Bruce Lee died the FBI cloned him in order to create a team of super secret agents?” The answer offered seems to be that the three clones (played by Bruce Le, Bruce Lai and Dragon Lee) would not only not really look like Bruce Lee but also not even particularly resemble each other. They are not even the same height! The film doesn’t help its own cause here as, in true exploitation movie style, it includes numerous photographs of the real Bruce Lee. On the other hand, it’s first generation technology The Professor (for that is how their creator is referred to) is working with so we must be forgiving if it does not all work perfectly.
The Clones Of Bruce Lee is to put it mildly, an extremely silly film. It has a three-act structure, but in an avant-garde touch each act has the absolute minimum relation to the ones preceding it. In act one Bruce One is sent to take down a movie producer who has been moonlighting as a gold smuggler. He takes a job as a stuntman on one of his films but the producer immediately realizes he must be a spy “because he is so good” and plots to have him killed during the shooting of a scene. Fortunately Bruce One is no fool and takes down the producer and his army of goons with relative ease.
In act two Bruces Two And Three team up with a man named Chuck (presumably Bruce One is on annual leave) to take down the evil drug baron Dr. Ngai who has ambitions of world domination. Unfortunately Dr. Ngai has developed a serum which turns his henchmen’s skin to bronze making them extremely hard to defeat. Fortunately one of the bronze men when kicked happens to land on a green plant. He swallows some and his eyes roll back in his head and he drops dead. Our heroes proceed to run around shoving the same plant into the mouths of all the bronze men and as they are seemingly unable to not chew it they are all soon dealt with and Dr. Ngai is defeated.
In the final act is revealed that The Professor feels he has not received due credit for his groundbreaking work (to be fair, the man has a point) and, having gone mad, proceeds to use mind control to have the three Bruces fight one another. Fortunately one of his assistants is able to break the professor’s control over the clones and they team up to try to take him down. The Professor sets his previously unmentioned army of henchmen on them and the Bruces face their toughest battle yet. Bruce 3 does not make it but Bruces 1 and 2 are triumphant and the Professor is brought to justice.
The Clone Of Bruce Lee is one of the most utterly bizarre films I have ever seen. The occasional moments where characters are required to talk to one another are less than convincing, to put it charitably. Fortunately, all three of the Bruces are capable fighters and the film is pretty much one action scene after another, all of which are well choreographed. There is also a distinct lack of Asian men pretending to be black which after the previous two films is a blessed relief.
Obviously, I have just scratched the surface of the Bruceploitation genre with the viewing detailed here. The four films I have discussed here are all definitely worth seeing if you can locate them although obviously none of them are a match for the real thing (which you can see on the big screen at QUAD on February 7th, 2014.)
Of the four, I think that The Clones Of Bruce Lee is my favourite. This is purely down to its complete unpredictability. I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen from one moment to the next. There’s something to be said for that in an age when you can often guess how a film will end before the first ten minutes are up. Still, there are many more Bruceploitation films that I intend to seek out. Top of the list is The Dragon Lives Again in which Bruce Lee apparently encounters a raft of characters from popular culture including Dracula, James Bond, Zatoichi, Popeye and Clint Eastwood. I think that one might just take away The Clones Of Bruce Lee’s crown. If you have a copy, get in touch!