Thursday, April 11, 2024

Enter the Clones of Bruce [Lee, Obviously]

Bruce Lee was so powerful, he created a new subgenre after his death. It was also proof of how many tickets he could sell, even posthumously. Bruceploitation was definitely exploitation, often at its sleaziest, but fans just couldn’t help hoping the next one might include some legitimate lost Bruce Lee footage. David Gregory looks back on the Bruceploitation films and the sometimes reluctant imposters who made them in Enter the Clones of Bruce Lee, which starts a nationwide screening tour this Friday.

Fans knew Lee had shot some scenes for
Game of Death before he died, because they had seen the publicity photos that made his yellow track suit iconic. Initially, the Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest assumed their incomplete film was unreleasable, which left the field open to enterprising (and ethically flexible) exploitation producers to deceptively fill the void.

Soon, they released a slew of supposed Bruce Lee stories, which often rather ghoulishly incorporated footage of his funeral. Many of these films had a conspiratorial tone, promising to expose the real “truth” of his death. Another frequent trick was the inclusion flashbacks, using scenes Lee shot as a child actor in Hong Kong. For their own footage, they often hired vague lookalikes, whom they gave screen names that might deceive patrons if they were not paying close attention.

Ironically, many of the Bruce Lee clones were skilled martial artists, who might have otherwise had a distinctive screen identity of their own. Bruce Li was one of the first and he is still widely considered one of the most talented Bruces. Dragon Lee was Korean, but that hardly mattered. Burmese Bruce Le could have been the toughest, since knocked several actors silly during his first fight scene. He is also the only Bruce clone to appear opposite
Enter the Dragon bad guy Shih Kien in his “Bruce Lee Story.” Not so shockingly, Yasuaki Kurata did not know he was a Bruce Lee clone until he saw the foreign distributor for one of his Japanese movies had dubbed him Bruce Lo on their English-language poster.

After watching
Enter the Clones it is easy to understand why the Lee family is so protective of his image. Some of the things these sketchy outfits did were beyond tacky. However, the film also suggests some of the films designed to appeal to Bruce Lee fandom were not so exploitative. Gregory’s talking heads convincingly argue the popularity of both Jim Kelly and Angela Mao films were largely built on their appearances in Enter the Dragon. Gregory even scored an interview with Mao herself, which was a real coup.

Enter the Clones, Gregory and company maintain the right tone. Everyone clearly has an ironic affection for the Bruceploitation films, while acknowledging their faults and excesses. They give ample credit to Li, Lee, Le, and Lo, arguing they probably deserved better treatment from the industry. There is even bitter sweet nostalgia for Hong Kong cinema in general, since, as the experts point out, local film production has largely relocated to authoritarian, CCP-dominated Mainland China.

Gregory is an experienced genre documentary filmmaker, having previously helmed
Master of Dark Shadows, Blood & Flesh: The Real Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, and dozens of other DVD extras. He has a shrewd eye for weird visuals and over-the-top fight scenes. It is easy to get (and even come to share) the fascination with Bruceploitation after enjoying his history of the subgenre. It is a whole lot of fun, admittedly in a slightly guilty-pleasure kind of way. Highly recommended for fans of martial arts and exploitation cinema, Enter the Clones of Bruce will screen across the US and Canada through May 5, including this weekend (4/12-4/14) in Los Angeles.