Boutique label Severin Films’ documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched — a supplement to their massive and beautiful box set of folk horror films — was one of the great films of 2021. Directed by Kier-La Janisse, the film took a little-known and under-explored corner of the horror genre and examined it in minute detail, covering not only the most prominent English language titles, but also oddities from around the globe. What could have been in lesser hands a mere clip reel advertisement for a DVD box is turned into an endlessly thoughtful and provocative examination of the genre, how it works, and what it means. It’s basically the ideal version of this kind of film.
Enter the Clones of Bruce, Severin’s new documentary, which doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. A study of the Brucesploitation genre — that 1970s phenomenon where, in the wake of Bruce Lee’s untimely death, a vast array of independent producers and distributors generated a seemingly endless series of imitation Lee films for foreign markets — the film runs less than half the length of Woodlands Dark, but it does include an impressive cast of interviewees, including several of the most popular Lee imitators. Directed by David Gregory, a Severin co-founder, the film captures something of the chaotic energy of the grindhouse era, one that is interestingly balanced by the ambivalence, in some cases regret, that the stars have over their roles in the exploitation of Lee’s persona. Whether the documentary will, like its predecessor, become the centerpiece of a long-rumored box set has yet to be announced —but here’s hoping. For as trashy and, in some ways, downright evil as the genre can be, it was nonetheless one of the most endlessly fascinating and creative cycles in martial arts cinema.
Enter the Clones of Bruce starts with a capsule explanation of the state of the Hong Kong film industry circa 1970, with Shaw Brothers and star director Chang Cheh reigning supreme (somewhat surprisingly, former Chang assistant and future king of trash cinema Godfrey Ho is the film’s most fascinating and erudite commentator: I’d like to see a whole documentary of him talking about Hong Kong cinema and his career within and around it). Chang rejects the cocky Lee at his audition, so he signs with the upstart Golden Harvest studio, films a trio of massive hits, then dies just as his Warner Brothers smash Enter the Dragon is about to be released. Almost immediately, the exploitation begins: Golden Harvest head Raymond Chow sends a camera crew to Lee’s funeral, footage that will be recycled endlessly in the films to come. Bruce Li (Taiwanese martial artist Ho Chung-tao) is the first and possibly most prolific imitator, and the one with the most regrets, though dozens more will follow. The film mostly focuses on him along with Bruce Le (Wong Kin-lung, ethnically Chinese but born in Burma and discovered in Macau), Dragon Lee (Moon Kyung-seok, from Korea), and Bruce Leung (sometimes Bruce Liang, probably the most recognizable face among the Bruces, from his comeback performances in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle and the 2010 hit Gallants), but there are nods to many others. Kudos to Angela Mao, long-retired from the film industry and now a restaurateur in New York, for agreeing to appear in the film, though her connection to the genre is tenuous at best, relying on her small role as Lee’s sister in Enter the Dragon, a fact repeatedly exploited by unscrupulous marketers for releases of her excellent series of starring roles in films like Hapkido. Kurata Yasuaki, who it is hilariously implied did not know he was frequently billed as Bruce Lo, makes a brief appearance, as does Sammo Hung, director and star of one of the very best Brucesploitation films, Enter the Fat Dragon. Most of the film, though, is made up of clips from dozens of films, emphasizing their outlandish weirdness but also their few basic approaches to dealing with the Lee story.
This genre is made up either of phony Lee biopics, unofficial sequels to Lee films (often involving the brother of the Lee character in the original film), conspiracy films involving investigations into Lee’s actual death, or cheap remixes of existing Lee footage, as in a pair of films cobbled together from his work on the American Green Hornet TV series. (One interviewee wisely points out that, while the Hong Kong industry itself quickly moved on to other established and newly established stars (David Chiang, Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Gordon Liu, etc), foreign distributors were only interested in Bruce Lee, or whatever they could get away with deceptively marketing as “Bruce Lee.”) In keeping with the spirit of the genre, all the film footage is presented in its badly dubbed form, on digital scans of prints of various quality, retaining the grindhouse feel that is an essential part of the genre’s scuzzy, illicit appeal. To that end, it’s telling that while the Bruce Lee imitators are all more or less chagrined by their work (the best they can do to justify it is by pointing to the fact that times were hard and they all had families to support), all the white commentators (British, French, German) are unabashedly enthusiastic about the films: the trashier they get, the more excited they are.
That said, there is value to be found in the Brucesploitation genre, as distasteful as it might be, beyond the camp value of the films’ more outlandish premises and effects. First and foremost, in the artistry of the performers themselves, great screen fighters and stuntmen doing ridiculously dangerous things in the name of mass entertainment (two of the talking heads are legendary stuntmen Mars and Philip Ko, who are always delightful to see and somehow still alive after decades of this kind of work), but also in the way the genre lays bare how the film industry regards the people who make its products as fungible assets, to be shifted around and replaced and, if necessary, cloned whenever it’s most expedient (see the recent Hollywood trend of digitizing and de-aging its stars as a slightly more technologically adept variation on the Brucesploitation aesthetic). This is the subtext of every Brucesploitation film I’ve ever seen: that bodies, especially the bodies of Asian men, are replaceable assets, to be manipulated on the whims of and for the entertainment of foreign audiences. But within each film lies a contradiction that ultimately negates the power of that industry, and that is Lee himself, his image as an actor and as a man standing always in robust defiance of the systems that would demean and exploit him, even after his death. No matter how much the skeevy moneymen and cheap grindhouse operators would try to chop up and mangle and debase his work, they only served to establish more resolutely his indispensability.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 23.5.
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