Having done various breezy documentaries on off-beat cinema stories including video nasties (2004’s Ban the Sadist Videos), Dan Curtis (2019’s Master of Dark Shadows), Al Adamson (2019’s Blood and Flesh), Nottingham lad David Gregory and his Severin Films now turn on one of the great cinematic tat subgenres – the Bruce Lee knockoff, Enter the Clones of Bruce.
Bruce Lee‘s death was similar to James Dean, in that his star power, charisma and popularity had been instantly stated in a handful of films. In both cases, their death created a vacuum. But while Dean’s death allowed Paul Newman and later Warren Beatty to prosper, Lee was something different. He wasn’t a movie star. He was the face of a whole film industry that he had given international prominence to. He had launched a whole wave of filmmaking on his back like Clint Eastwood and Steve Reeves had for Italy.
Lee’s studio, Golden Harvest, were especially lost. Though their films with Angela Mao and Jimmy Wang Yu were successful in Asia, they weren’t selling abroad to the extent that Lee had. And while they were mulling over Lee’s unfinished Game of Death, rival studios to Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers were making their movies in Hong Kong and especially neighbouring Taiwan. One Golden Harvest producer in the doc labels them as ‘pirates’.
And this is the story of those pirates: of the independent studios who found young up-and-comers, often martial artists with no screen experience or stuntmen, and fashioned them into the Bruce Lee equivalents of Shakin’ Stevens.
The Bruceploitation films are not to everyone’s taste. Many of them ride on being tasteless. Many use footage taken of Lee’s funeral (with the corpse of Lee wearing the sort of habit your nan is buried in). Many of these films were supposed biopics, often trying to explain Bruce’s death and cashing on the more salacious elements of his death, including his alleged mistress, Betty Ting Pei. I was surprised, however, that this doc didn’t feature the sleazy erotica Bruce Lee and I (1975), made by Shaw Brothers (who infamously turned down Bruce), where Ting Pei plays herself to Danny Lee (not an imitator but a star in his own right) as Bruce.
Other films had characters taking on or avenging Bruce, with Bruce Li in a whole stream of films including Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1976), and the Black Dragon films with Ron van Clief. And others were just plain batty. Bruce Le specialised in sub-Bond pseudo-Eurospy fare like Challenge of the Tiger (1980), Ninja Strikes Back (1978) and the exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin Clones of Bruce Lee (1980, alongside Dragon Lee and Bruce Thai). The Dragon Lives Again starred Bruce Leung as an angelic Bruce fighting Chinese versions of Popeye, the Man with No Name, Dracula, Laurel and Hardy, the Exorcist and random white people including Emanuelle and James Bond. And Bruce Lee Rises from The Grave (1976) wasn’t even a film about Bruce Lee.
The film interviews a vast array of participants. These include the three key Bruce clones – ‘Bruce Li’ alias Ho Chung Tao, probably the most familiar (once a regular sight in the bargain bins of Power City stores and Statoils up and down the land), the Burmese ‘Bruce Le’/Wong Kin-Lung and the South Korean ‘Dragon Lee’/Moon Kyoung-seok. Plus, the lesser Bruce Liang and Bruce Lo/Yasuaki Kurata, other Hong Kong notables who cashed in on the Lee dollar (Ron Van Clief, Angela Mao, Sammo Hung), support actors (Lo Meng, Phillip Ko), directors (the infamous Godfrey Ho), distributors (Terry Levene), historians, the film is a celebration of this dubious chapter of cinema history.
It covers the mythos of Lee, and how important he was globally, especially in African-American areas and, weirdly, in France. It also covers the cheap, nasty and impoverished nature of making these pictures (often, footage reused without actors’ consent – a Godfrey Ho staple). It covers how many people have been conned, especially in Germany where distributors included Bruce Lee’s name on films he wasn’t even alive to have any involvement with. Yet, these films have fanbases: Quentin Tarantino prefers Li to Lee. And many of the Lee-alikes were talented martial artists (Li muses that had he not looked like Lee, he might have had a better career). But then one-time Lee-alike Jackie Chan came along, and Hong Kong cinema changed.
I am surprised that Gregory doesn’t feature the moment in 1978 Bruce Li picture The Gold Connection where a character watches the Nottingham Forest vs AEK Athens match at City Ground, Nottingham – part of Notts Forest’s glory run of the 1978-79 European Cup. The commentator even highlights Garry Birtles and Martin O’Neill, the latter possibly the only Ireland manager to turn up in a kung fu film. However, this is an amazing, funny, sweet, poignant documentary. With a last minute lament on the fact that due to the huge filmmaking industry in mainland China, only thirty films are made a year in the once vibrant filmmaking scene of Hong Kong, it is a celebration of an era, and also, as someone who has seen many of these films, showcased films even I haven’t seen.
Enter the Clones of Bruce was screened on Friday the 27th of October at the 2023 IFI Horrorthon.