Mystery and intrigue is not exclusive to the martial arts movie genre collector but it certainly seems to have latched on to it pretty well. All any internet savvy person need do is google “Game of Death lost footage” and you will spend days fishing through the forums, blogs and articles on how many more pagoda floors “really” exists in the truncated Lee classic. Every fame seeking, trouble stirring, basement dwelling Internet geek has claimed to have seen it, heard it or is really good friends with the guy that has. And this massive time consuming discussion does not stop with Game of Death. In fact, one could argue that a close runner-up to this Holy Grail of forum fodder is another Bruce Lee film.
The Big Boss Part II is not really a Bruce Lee film. In fact, it’s not one at all. But it is a prime example of what gives the genre of Bruceploitation films some of their biggest appeal: Celluloid Bruce Lee Conjectures. These are the stories and films Bruce Lee may have taken his lethal personality into had he lived longer. Would Enter The Dragon have continued with Return to Han Island? Would Bruce have paired up with Bolo for a cop buddy film? In many cases, these maligned productions contain actors, locations and potentially even Bruce Lee footage which would attract their audience to the theaters or videos stores in droves. And this conspicuous pursuit has only added to the films’ charms today.
The Big Boss Part II (not to be confused with the Dragon Lee oddity, Big Boss 2) today in 2018 continues among genre fans to be a bit of a mystery, with legends about elusive 35mm prints hidden in South Africa film vaults, bonus Bruce Lee footage, etc. adding to the movie’s status. Its story lines as well as performers still lingering enigmas to even the longest adoring fans. You can look online under film databases and find that many, if any at all, don’t even include the film’s director as one of the main players (more on that ahead). The only reference of study today is a truncated dubbed clip on youtube of the first 16 minutes (lasting only 10 minutes) and an original trailer showcasing tempting tid bits of the action. Bruceploitation fans generally note this film as the celluloid birth of one of the genre’s tentpoles Bruce Le, but can only guess if the future leading actor ever breaks from his cement prison to join the star Lo Lieh in the film’s action.
As a lucky kid (Becoming a “Bruceploiation “collector long before it was coined a term) and now as an adult, I have had the opportunity to see this film a number of times. I can attest to its actual existence (and yes, it still exists in its 35mm celluloid form fortunately) as well as comment on if this elusive film lives up to the legacy that has followed it through its decades long absence.
Well in a nutshell, the Bruce Lee-action hungry kid enjoyed this (admittedly somewhat sluggish) film when I first saw it. But over the years as I became a student of film, gravitating towards the mysterious Antonioni or the emotionally subdued Ozu, I allowed the film’s many cinematic shortcomings to darken my view of it. The snobby cinephile turned his back on the kung fu film fan of youth. But then something happened over the last few years. As I began a personal crusade to recover as many of these quickly fading 35mm martial arts film prints out of Taiwan and Hong Kong as possible, I revisited the movie in its historical context to both Bruce Lee and the “after Bruce Lee” decade and re-developed an appreciation and like for the film. No, it did not suddenly become the lost classic we may have all hoped for but through the looking glass of Kung Fu/Bruce Lee/Bruceplitation history, this film serves as a archival transition through the melee’ of movies after the passing of the King of Kung Fu.
I first became aware of the sequel to Bruce Lee’s first film The Big Boss in an issue of the pioneer Martial Arts Movies Magazine. As a book-carrying pre-teen martial arts cinema fan, and as possibly the world’s first ardent devotee of Bruce Lee exploitation, the rapture took place when I discovered Daniel C. Lee’s article on the phenomena (I recently read a publication from a number of years ago dealing with Bruce Li which plagiarized this article in part – so I want to give a shout out here to Daniel for being the first!). After learning of the film, I began a journey to hit up every Chinese video store in the greater San Francisco area until I finally one day walked into a small shop on Mission Street and uncovered the clamshell bootlegged Video box that I had been searching for. The Big Boss Part II, written on a plain white spine, a generic image of Bruce Lee copied to the cover, this “paper bagged” cinema gem could not have looked better .
I rented the film for their standard 48 hours period and, now a reluctant admission, used a second rental VCR to copy the film for lifetime viewings. This was the era of VCRs the size of hybrid Hyundais so this archaic duping operation of mine took up the length of my bedroom, but I could now add this to my small but growing bootleg of bootlegs collection of precious Kung Fu films. This particular Bruce Lee sequel, of a much more official capacity than any other Bruceploitation follow up (Fist of Fury 2, Growling Tiger, Tower of Death, etc., all contending production companies flying under the radar) , was rivaled only by Lo Wei’s New Fist of Fury.
I lost that valuable VHS years later and once I realized it was like losing the Hope Diamond, I set out to find it again. I followed every story that even smelled like it might be true (we all know the attention seekers online can spin a pretty tempting web). But while traveling over seas and perusing the archives for several documentaries I am working on, I managed to get right to the horses mouth and pull back the curtains of Kung Fu Oz and find my way back to “The Little Boss” after tracking down a rare print.
I go into depth on the film’s cinematic contributions in my forthcoming book, but I will tackle some of the film elements here. Directed by the original Big Boss‘ actor and assistant director, Chan Chue, he would return once again as the factory boss, a role that became a mainstay for the actor/director’s career. Sharp eyed Bruce Lee fans would note him playing himself as both the character and as the assistant director (confused yet?) from the original film in the Bruce Li classic, Bruce Lee The Man The Myth (Bruce Lee- True Story) when Li (as Lee) shoots The Big Boss in Thailand. But Chan returns in Part II to essentially inherit the role of Han Ying-Chieh (The Boss) from the first film. Being director has it’s advantages! But even to an eleven year old Kung Fu fan, I realized this connecting tissue to a Bruce Lee film made the film that much more valuable.
The film opens immediately on a wide shot of Cheng (Lee) and the Boss (Han Ying-Chieh) circling each other from the finale’ of The Big Boss, unceremoniously picking right up from the first film. We are wide over Lee’s back, a cinematic technique used in the credit sequence avoiding Lee’s face to either make room for Bruce Le or to avoid a lawsuit. The next pair of images are two very tight shots (think spaghetti western) of the supposed Boss and Cheng, but interestingly enough, the Cheng character is not Bruce Le but another actor altogether. These two “stunt doubles” for Lee and Chieh intercut briefly through the credits with the original Boss footage before the police arrive and sweep “Lee” off to Jail.
The following shot is in prison, a close up of what is apparently our “bad guy’s” face that has been drawn on a prison wall. As the camera zooms out, the third incarnation of Cheng Chou An within a three minute span runs up and does a jump side kick at the wall. After a rapid burst of punches only stopping short of destroying his knuckles on the brick wall, we get a reverse shot and finally get our first look at the soon to be dubbed Bruce Le. His fist clenched high in frame, eyes glaring at his art work of a cell mate, he utters the first lines in the film:
“You! Just see how long you can get away from me”
This moment is an interesting one historically as we have the transition of supporting actor Huang Kin-Lung into one third of the famous Bruceploitation trinity, Bruce Le. Here, actually playing a “Bruce Lee character”, he is billed by his real name, and only later that same year in Bruce’s Deadly Fingers, starring along side several of his Big Boss Part II actors, will he inherit that more memorable moniker for the rest of his career.
Le’s role is the torch bearer in this case, bridging the gap between Bruce Lee and those that will come next, in this case Lo Lieh. One might think with a set up of a popular Bruce Lee character that he would be used to full bone crushing advantage, but for one reason or another, Le’s pent up fury is not unleashed in this story and instead he is left unceremoniously behind bars in the film’s first act. The titular “Boss” of these films traditionally is thought of as the main villain, but the actual reference is to the Bruce Lee character, the “big brother”, or the “big boss” here left to rot in a Thailand cell.
Later in the story, when Lo Lieh shows up to visit his brother (Le) in jail, the Chinese version of the film has Bruce Le commenting out loud that he has been in the prison for “years”, setting this film clearly much later than the original. There are story lines here as well more convoluted than any soap opera that twist this time frame even further, but will leave that for another day. The first real action scene doesn’t even take place until about 20 minutes into the film, and plays like some Game of Death homage as Lo Lieh makes his way up the stairs of a gambling casino fighting different opponents on various floors. There are some near moments of greatness as several long takes, following the choreography up the stairs, hint towards besting Old Boy and Ong Bak 2 by several decades.
Shot by Law Wan-Shing, who lensed the superior looking Executioners From Shaolin the next year, the aggressive wide angle hand held camera works pretty well with the wide chop-and-block choreography, giving most of the fights a brutal authenticity. This sequence (one of the better in the film) ends in one of the worst segue ways into a love scene you will ever see, but one thing becomes clear and that is that “torch” has definitely been dropped earlier in the relay race. Lo Lieh has some impressive action films in his career (Executioners of Shaolin, King Boxer, etc.) and is clearly not a frail actor, but the flair and precision and explosiveness that Bruce Lee brought to the ice factories of Thailand has thawed somewhat. And in there sometimes lies the emotional conflict in watching these films. Digging through Bruceploitation for the residue of Bruce Lee we more often than not end up noting the measure of his absence instead.
The film veers off into odd territory as multiple convenient circumstances leads Lieh through a series of ordeals while he helps look for a mysterious cache of gold. It would be too easy to write a blog punching holes in the writing here, but safe to say the thread of tension and cohesiveness has been cut early on by one of Lieh’s Karate chops. In the space filler second act, we have: Characters walking up out of nowhere, protracted slow motion romantic running, Lo Lieh and girlfriend holding their breath underwater for 5 minutes while fighting alligators and humans, exploding snake booby traps and an unexplained exploding house. Chue tries to follow up the original with some James Bond influenced action (yes, the 007 theme even makes it’s way into the film) but the fragmented editing minimizes most of what probably looked great on paper. Much of this feels like the bravado trying to fill the hole left by the most obvious missing piece of the story: Bruce Lee.
The young Bruce Lee starved film fan in me was ecstatic to see some of the original locations return for this sequel. Somehow, regardless of all else, that helped legitimize the film’s existence. Any loose kinship to “the man, the myth” in Bruceploitation makes the film a more desirable viewing. The finale’ takes place at the same ice factory location in the original film between Lo Lieh and the only surviving member of the first film, Chue. At this point, (Michael) Chan Wai-Man makes what amounts to be a 10 minute cameo (though he is billed third in the opening credits) for a fight with Lo Lieh (his demise spoiled on the original film poster). In some more clever editing, Chan’s appearance supposedly taking place at the ice factory, looks to have been filmed elsewhere, maybe even Hong Kong. But these two, wherever they are, give a good sequence of bash and chop choreography. And the sequence also shows that within Bruceploitation, Boss Part II is one of the few examples where Lee’s choreography and fighting style was not a staple of the film’s construction.
The filmmaking here can be lazy (the camera catches the crew in a mirror in one shot), the story is clunky (Lo Lieh finds what appears to be a man with a knife in his back who hands Lieh a letter to deliver and Lieh just asks “Oh, what are you going to do?” before going off to deliver the letter) and the fights can be messy at times (Yuen Cheung-Yan of the famous Yuen clan clearly phoned some of this in) but in truth, this is all part of the experience. The fact that the soundtrack swipes “Purple Haze” from Jimi Hendrix, burying it into the score is only part of the fun of these films and why we sometimes seek them out.
This may not be the martial arts masterpiece it could have been following on the heels of Lee’s debut martial arts feature, but the somewhat messy and odd arrangement of characters, fight sequences and story lines still fulfills that other yearning of many of us. The cinematic legacy of Bruce Lee, like the nebulous arrangement of his art Jeet Kune Do, was left to many admirers, martial artists and shrewd producers to try and maintain. In the decade or so following, through the many cinema visionaries and snake oil salesmen, we got some of the more memorable and lasting martial arts films, for better or for worse, that offered us the interpretations and re-imaginings of a screen legend. And the rare and nomadic production of The Big Boss Part II certainly lives up to that legacy of conjecture we have all come to love.