Sunday, 16 September 2012

Bruceploitation comin' at ya!

Won't the real Bruce Lee please stand up, please stand up?

This is my 150. blog post and The Last Movieblog recently broke 80,000 pageviews. So I think it's time to do a reader request. While I'm by far not an expert on the subject, I love the old Bruceploitation kung fu movies. You know, the ones made after the death of the real Bruce Lee to cash in on his fame. The exploitation producers worked this out by hiring lookalike kung fu stars. 

James Ho Chung-Tao became Bruce Li, Huang Kin-Lung became Bruce Le and the Korean Guh Ryong became Dragon Lee. In addition there were actors such as Bruce Lea, Bruce Lei, and Bruce Leung. Fun fact about Bruce Le: he was imprisoned in China for fraud. Whether it was about imitating a kung fu movie legend without a license, the story doesn't tell.

Some of these films rank among the cheesiest and unintentionally funniest things I've ever seen. Yet usually they follow a pretty straight formula. As it happens, the films I've seen don't really rob Bruce's grave, in that neither the titles nor the actions on screen refer to Lee and his legacy. Rather, they are just cheesy cheap kung fu movies which happen to have a guy that sort of looks like Bruce Lee as their lead.

Golden Dragon Silver Snake a.k.a. Dragoneer the Indomitable (Ilso Ingwon, Hong Kong/South Korea 1979)
Directors: Godfrey Ho, Kim Si-Hyun

It's good to start with a film that pretty much presents your basic bad kung fu movie. It's story is the age-old, time-tested fable of a stranger coming to a town plagued by violent robbers, and setting things straight and bringing order – with his fists! Pure western mythos, this time in the East. Also, to save expenses the film also has several scenes attached that don't make much sense. They are simply leftover outtakes from another movie. Co-director Godfrey Ho in particular mastered this cheapest of movie arts.

This stars Dragon Lee as an eager young man who is bad at his work at a restaurant and berated for it. But then he begins to learn kung fu from a lowly rickshaw driver. When his home village is raided by bandits, and his brother killed, he wants to fight back on the invaders. His efforts don't go unnoticed in other villagers who start to raise a rebellion themselves.

As is often the case in cheesy martial arts movies, it's very hard to determine, which place in time is this supposed to take place. Mostly everything looks almost medieval, yet there are radios, watches and such in this movie, perhaps unintentionally. But the most fun to be had with this is towards the end when a dropping giant wicker basket traps Dragon underneath that. He punches first trough left and right and then kicks himself free by blowing off the front. One would've imagined there was an easier way to get away from under a basket.

In the movie, people disappear and appear randomly at different places, sometimes to do battle on top of a mountain. The dubbing is absolutely hilarious, as you can see from the above clip. There's also lots of goofy Hong Kong humour, where people are hit with frying pans, eggs and such are used as weapons. The film speeds up at times to have a Benny Hill-like emphasis on the comedy as well.

But all in all, it's sort of enjoyable, even though very generic. The fights are coreographed quite well and Dragon Lee seems to be in that corner of Bruce clones that actually knows some stunts and moves. Not even a fraction like his predecessor and the master of martial arts cinema Lee, but something nevertheless.


Return of the Tiger (Da juan tao, Taiwan 1979)
Director: Jimmy Shaw

If not village-raiding bandits, Bruce Lee clones are battling organized crime and drug trafficers, as in this Bruce Li vehicle.  Or rather, Li's Chang Wong gets caught in the middle of a gang war between the Triads and Bud Spencer-lookalike drug kingpin George Cross (Paul L. Smith).

Cross owns both the martial arts gym Chang Wong visits, as well as a nightclub that dares play the biggest disco hits of the era without paying any copyright fees. Chang is asked to assassinate the man, but Chang Wong won't agree due to the price being too low (!). A double cross or two later sees Chang fighting side by side with Cross, before the antagonistic pair finishes each other off.

It's not much of a spoiler to tell he dies – but how! (Hilariously)

Yes, the bad guy IS the same guy who played the hilariously suspectful janitor in Pieces, Paul L. Smith. But those that like more mainstream stuff may also recognize him as the torturer in Midnight Express, Bluto from Robert Altman's Popeye, or The Archduke from Maverick. Actually I was quite surprised the guy turned out to have such a long list of merits. He's a huge, burly guy, but his fighting is nothing short of ludicrous.

Smith throws chinese people around like they're bean bags, and his punches miss the target's face by a mile. Li's fighting isn't much better and his wire stunts are so unbelievable that they raise a good chuckle or two during the movie. At least one fight against thugs on motorcycles is actually good. The film also has a kick ass woman martial artist, Angela Mao, who is utilized way too little during the movie, even though she opens it by showing the boys how to fight.

All in all, the film feels a bit like a wasted opportunity, although it has okayish fighting, disco music, some outrageous clothing, outlandish stunts and general stupidity. Or maybe it is just that these need to be watched with friends and beer.

★★ 1/2

Challenge of the Tiger (Philippines / Hong Kong / Italy 1980)
Director: Bruce Le

Another kind of film Bruceploitation films loved to emulate was the James Bond espionage adventures. They were the most popular movies in the world at the time, and Bruce Lee himself had finished his career with a corking pseudo-Bond kung fu flick, Enter the Dragon. The problem, of course was, that the producers could afford just one exotic location where to shoot, no guns or gadgets or suits, and often not even a that charismatic lead actor. But what is cheap and works good in exploitation, is boobs-presenting young girls and Chinese henchmen to take kicks to their faces, so this Dick Randall-produced film is swarming with both of them.

A science-professor creates a substance that can kill human sperm totally and thus sterilize people, but he and his assistant are immediately murdered after. Since it seems that terrorists have their hands on the formula, intelligence officers send in two of their best men: Kung fu expert Huang Lung (Bruce Le) and his sidekick, the millionaire playboy Richard Cann (Richard Harrison), who lives in a mansion occupied solely by topless women.

The bumbling agents do not achieve much in the way of finding the missing formula. Cann goes on fooling around with women, whereas Huang tries to cock-block him whenever possible, and now and then fights some attacking thugs. In fact, since there's a scene on a beach where Le's erect penis bulges in his swimming suit while watching Cann's antics, perhaps he's much more into his "side-kick" Richard than he lets on.

He likes 'em hairy.

Besides the racy sex scenes the most memorable part of the film is the scene where Le fights thugs at a bull-fighting arena, after which the bad guys release the toro on him. As the bull throws Le around it hilariously switches between a doll (close to Le) and a live animal (far away from Le).

Based on my experience, I'd deam Le to be the worst Bruce clone. He's a horrible fighter, actor, uncharismatic and a bad director to boot. This is as sleazy as this sort of films come and borders on softcore pornography. So it's not a total waste of time, and has it's funny scenes too.

★★ 1/2

Iron Dragon Strikes Back a.k.a. The Gold Connection (Hui feng hao huang jin da feng bao, Hong Kong 1979)
Director: Kuei Chih-Hung

One of Bruce Li's last movies (before retirement), this kung fu thriller already show the "star" getting tired of imitating his hero. The stunts and the fights are inexplicably bad. But since the oddball script is also totally insane, and the director a hapless talent-free copy machine, the end result is something unforgettable.

Bruce and his friends are friendly fishermen. One day they happen to fish out a mysterious casket from the Hong Kong harbour. Inside are gold bricks, worth millions. Bruce's poor friends are overwhelmed with joy, but the stoic Bruce himself rightfully concerned that this find will come for them. Indeed, the gold has belonged to the Triads, and once they find out who has been spending their hard-earned drug money, they send the most lethal assassin they have to off Bruce's friends one by one and ending with the kung fu practitioner himself.

Bruce's fights in this are very poorly choreographed, and huge sound effects try to hide the fact that he's doing his kicks veeerrry slow, and still doesn't go anywhere near his opponent's face. Li could surely do them better, but never funnier. His friends are a gang of total morons who have no concept of taking things coolly. Since the director didn't have the money to get girls to show their boobs in this film, much time is lingered on a Playboy centrefold one character eagerly ogles. This is the cheapest sexploitation can get.

The violence of the Triads is sadistic and brutal, yet the viewer can't work up much sympathy as one  dumb-ass supporting character after another gets slaughtered. Much of the film is built around the mystery of who could the assassin be. Kuei spits in the face of audience expectations of making a big number of an incredibly mundane background character being the killer in reality.

That reveal brings itself the biggest belly-laugh scenes exploitation cinema has ever seen, since the end fight between Bruce and the assassin ends in a memorably overwhelming final blow, and directly afterwards comes a hilariously bittersweet gut-punch, and ends the film. It seems that the whole ordeal was supposed to be a tragedy in the vein of Fists of Fury which show that ass-kicking ways will only get one so far when dealing with totally ruthless organizations. But this message comes far behind the tears-run-across-face laughing watching this film causes in an audience. I love this thing to bits!

★ or ★★★★★

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