We at the Bruceploitation Blog have stressed how the original intent and format of these films we study were always meant for the big screen (their end came shortly before the home video market craze and only found an international television market in the early 1980s). Though owning or watching a beautiful hi-def scan in your home theater is an incredible way to experience them, an appreciative and rowdy audience packed in a movie theater can never be replicated. Retro screenings of Hong Kong martial arts classics are rare enough but with the Bruceploitation films it is even more so. So when they do take place, we like to make sure those lucky enough to be in the area get the opportunity to see them. In March, The New Beverly Cinema of Los Angeles will actually have two nights of Bruceploitation films, including a Lee Tso Nam double feature.
On March 12 two Bruce Li films will screen, Soul Brothers of Kung Fu and The Image of Bruce Lee. Soul Brothers, also known as Last Strike, brings Venoms star Lo Meng into the fray with Li and Carl Scott. Directed by first time filmmaker Wa Yat-Wang who would later direct one of Li’s most well received films, Dynamo, the film touches on the latter’s focus with Li as a Bruce Lee-like fighter trying to make a living. Within the manifold fight sequences is also an interesting story dynamic, a sort of Kung Fu Cain and Abel with “The Venom and the Dragon”, that helps to elevate the film. The Image of Bruce Lee (AKA Storming Attacks) is an under appreciated Bruce Li top-to-bottom fight film from the director of the great Duel of the Seven Tigers. Also features Enter The Dragon‘s Bolo and The Big Boss star Han Ying-Chieh. Some memorable action scenes worth studying from longtime Bruceploitation choreographer Wong Mei.
Then on March 26 there will be a double feature of the great Kung Fu director Lee Tso Nam, Exit The Dragon, Enter The Tiger and The Tattoo Connection. One of our favorite helmers, Lee has given us some of the greatest 70s fight films including The Hot, The Cool and The Vicious and Fist of Fury Part 2. In Exit The Dragon, Lee and Li work together for the first time in the “speculative fiction” genre of Bruceploitation where Bruce Lee’s death is investigated and ultimately avenged. A dark film (falling into those early years just after Lee’s passing) with Li doing some split screen duties as both Lee and his student “Tiger”. Listen for actor James Hong lending his voice to the feature’s dubbing.
The Tattoo Connection is Bruceploitation-light but still resonating well within the genre with Enter The Dragon stars Jim Kelly and Bolo sharing the screen once again along side the great screen kicker, H.C.V. star and Lee Tso Nam stable player Tan Tao Liang. Don’t miss out on the Bruce Liang choreographed action.
Always happy to spread the word when 35mm projections of these films are given center stage. There is no better way to appreciate the movies than with a good crown in an energetic movie theater. March looks like a good time to be in Southern California for a Kung Fu film fan.
For over 100 years, celluloid was the the preferred format for showcasing the many stories and creations of storytellers across the globe. In 1884, George Eastman essentially took the innovations of a group of thinkers and artists (including Thomas Edison) and gave it a format in the shape of film. Ever since, this medium has recorded the hard work of artists everywhere into historical documents of sorts and given us the audience our own memories that make up much of our lives.
As the last decade of the digital age has quickly begun to dominate the scene, people like Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino have advocated the importance and quality of stories recorded on film. And while many great films over the prior century, particularly created in the United Staes, have been preserved, cared for and scanned digitally for future generations, a number of lesser known and appreciated films have quietly eroded away. Something like Gone with the Wind has an army of well funded caretakers but look for a feature like Bruce Le’s Greatest Revenge and you will find the guardians are less than stellar.
Bruceploitation, and the mothership it belongs in the Kung Fu (Wuxia) genre, has not found many to champion its survival. Until about the mid 1980s when home video became a viable means of revenue, these action nuggets were the equivalent of a pair of running shoes. They ran hard and fast but were quickly discarded. The producers and filmmakers would have had a fairly short sighted projection of the longevity of these films and so were in many cases poorly cared for. Film prints were repeatedly pulled from the same film negative, beating them into unusable celluloid. Images for publicity were frequently made from frames cut directly from the prints leaving less than complete versions of the movie. As home video and television were beginning to become a viable avenue for the films’ future, edited versions cropped from their wide 2:35 scope or anamorphic composition into an awkward 1.33 academy ratio became the new elements for future generations.
As such, the low budget action sub-genre known as Bruceploitation was one destined for a distant memory of blurry youtube versions and a handful of German super8mm digests.
In preparation for a documentary I was co-producing, this state of affairs of our precious genre was becoming very clear. And with each less than stellar print I would find in some collector’s closet or distributors dusty storage unit, it became clear to me we were loosing some of our history. One doesn’t have to argue that The Deadly Silver Ninja is as an important film as Ozu’s Tokyo Story to voice concern, but there is no doubting that the artists, stunt men and actors involved in these energetic stories are still a part of cinema’s history and needed to be preserved. Bluray has in the recent years become a godsend in at the very least maintaining the quality and aspect ratio of these images for future generations. In some cases, the filmmakers are lending some helpful hands to these projects. I recently have been working with Lee Tso Nam on transferring a few of his fan-favorite films into the most watchable and true to form releases of the films since their initial screenings. Putting aside for a moment the viable argument of screening a film in a 35mm print in front of a live audience, the attention to actual 2k scans of original negatives and prints will only help secure the future for many of these left-behind classics.
Film collecting and scanning is an expensive and time consuming endeavor. It is easy to play armchair critic with less than stellar film transfers when they are released but the uphill battle of film sources, scanning quality and color timing make for costly and involved work. I have spent many months with the colorists and filmmakers of various Hong Kong and Taiwanese action films trying to achieve via very modern means the most accurate presentation of the productions. It is an elaborate, and at times subjective work flow that requires focus and passion.
At one time, owning a film collection of even ten films was not only enormously costly and space consuming, but actually illegal in the 1970s. You can look up the stories of actor Roddy McDowall investigated by the FBI for owning prints of his own movie, Planet of the Apes! Today, you can own a film in a beautiful hidef transfer, easy to watch and store all for $14.99. But the issue I realized was there are literally thousands of these classic martial arts films with their best and most accurate renditions already stored and maintained on celluloid. And unless we find the best 35mm prints available, and restore them digitally to hold both their value and the integrity of the filmmaker, we will one day lose the efforts.
I have heard in response to my expressing this that some of the available standard definition, slightly cropped scans that exist on DVD and upscaled bluray are good enough for some. I won’t ever try to convince them otherwise of what they prefer, but as someone who cherishes the cinema I grew up on and respects the goal of the artists behind and in front of the lens, I want to see this format survive as close to the original intention as possible. This over the last couple years has become a burden of responsibility to me as I have encountered 35mm prints of certain films I have not seen in their most ideal condition since screenings in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the bay area. Maintaining both the condition of the films via 2k/4k scanning and making the productions available for future screenings and showcases on a big screen began to feel more like an obligation I owed to my impressionable youth.
Today though the fans of these films rarely experience them the way they were meant to be seen at the time (Millennial filmmakers are now focused on their inevitable viewings on iphones and ipads), the importance of reviving 35mm and 16mm film prints of these forgotten films will only become more and more critical as the years go by and their colors and images continue to fade. But this is not to be a doom and gloom history of Kung Fu movies as 2019 and 2020 look to be good years for film fans hoping for a glimmer of hope. At least a dozen titles worth being excited for as well as a new label forming to focus solely on restoring Kung Fu films in beautiful 2k scans and special editions are in development as of this writing. Using this medium to explore the history of both the films and the genre itself is a worthwhile stage in the evolution of filmmaking and one that will also look to shine a little light back through the frames of celluloid for new generations to experience these nearly forgotten nuggets of action cinema.
Anyone with information to film prints relating to these films may reach out via our facebook page or twitter to let us know.
In November 2018, actor/filmmaker Michael Worth went to spend several days with actor and Bruce Lee co-star Jon Benn and his family in Kentucky. Worth and Benn had first met almost 20 years before, and this time they were meeting to document some memories for a forthcoming documentary Worth is helping to produce. The interview was at Benn’s insistence; “he told me at the time that he was diagnosed with blood cancer and wasn’t sure how much more time he would have and that I should get out there to talk as soon as possible”, Worth said. Benn had made a name for himself in martial arts cinema having acted in over 50 films including Way of the Dragon, The Clones of Bruce Lee and Challenge of the Tiger.
Worth captured the footage and interview for a forthcoming documentary on Bruceploitation and Hong Kong cinema that has spanned across Hong Kong, Korea, New York and Taiwan over the last two years. When Benn passed away several weeks later, Worth decided to cut together “something to just allow people and his fans a more personal glimpse at this man saying goodbye. Just a small spontaneous short that caught a glimpse of his light even at the end”. Benn’s brother Rick was integral in organizing the shoot and we thank Severin Films for use of their footage.
Jon Benn, the actor and entrepreneur who co-starred in the Bruce Lee directed Way of the Dragon, passed away this morning in Louisville, Kentucky. He was 83 years old.
Benn was born in New York City in 1935 and would move around to nearly ten cities over the next 20-some years before he would enter the military nearing the Vietnam era, stationed in Monterey California. He found himself in Hong Kong with his brother Rick in the late 60s where he would remain for several decades. There he would make his claim to fame when in 1972 he ran into movie producer Raymond Chow at a cocktail party who asked Benn to be in a movie they were shooting in a couple weeks. The film ended up being Bruce Lee’s directorial debut, Way of the Dragon where he would play the boss of the Italian mob. The film also featured a young Chuck Norris.
Benn would appear in almost 60 film projects in his life but only one other would close second to the notoriety of Way; The Clones of Bruce Lee. This film gave Benn the chance to play a mad scientist who creates three Bruce Lee clones. The film would become the tent pole of the genre known as Bruceploitation. In his later years, Benn returned to Kentucky where his father Louis was a notable civil rights icon in the early 20th century. It is there where he passed away with his brother Rick and other family members at his side.
In November, Benn completed his final on camera interview with filmmaker and actor Michael Worth on an upcoming 2019 documentary and book.
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, unceremoniouslypicking 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.
On episode #13 of The Clones Cast, Matthew and Michael tackle one of the most well distributed Bruce Li films in the west, Exit The Dragon, Enter The Tiger (Bruce Lee, Star of All Stars). The successful podcast, an exclusive discussion to the sub genre, also includes a sound byte in English from the star, Bruce Li made in a recent interview done with Michael Worth.
As a kid, my first experience seeing a martial arts film in its original language was in San Francisco China Town at the Great Star Theater in 1980. The film was The Dragon, The Hero. What pulled me into the theater of course was one of its stars, Dragon Lee, who I had already developed a fondness for through films like The Real Bruce Lee and Golden Dragon, Silver Snake. Seeing one of these widescreen, non-English dubbed films up on the big screen was for a Kung Fu Film kid like me akin to the best Star Wars experience had to offer to a science fiction nerd. Sitting there I finally felt like I was a real cinephile of foreign action cinema.
Though the film was far from what I was prepared for, less Bruceploitation and more classic Kung Fu lore, one of the impressive introductions I had was to the story’s secondary villain, Ma Ti. The stoic and intense portrayal of the villain’s body guard by Phillip Ko Fei would always stay with me so I was always able to pull him from a crowd in every film I saw of his after. He would fight Dragon Lee again in Enter Three Dragons and of course lend his skills to one of my all time personal favorite films, The Hot, The Cool and The Vicious. But just read the man’s resume and you’d swear it was a rare classic action film that would pass him by.
At the end of 2015 while shooting the upcoming documentary on the Kung Fu film industry post Bruce Lee, Phillip Ko was one of our interview subjects. I covered this meeting in the prior blog but in hindsight now, meeting him would be one of the rare treats of the trip. Of almost everyone we spoke with, including the Shaw Brothers’ regulars like David Chiang and Lo Meng, Ko on paper seemed the most honed through one of the more evident pedigrees of action cinema. A calm and patient man, he waited for us to set up our cameras on a patio just outside the hotel. I remember watching him lift his phone to take a few selfies of himself and our small crew in the background.
He mentioned before we started that this was the first interview he had ever given on camera and in some ways seemed surprised we even wanted to talk with him. This above anything made me realize why we were making this documentary. That not only were the physical film prints becoming lost to the massive wave of time, but the people themselves who bled and bruised their way through a career for our enjoyment were also feeling lost in the swell as well. Ko will probably have much written on him over the next few weeks that will be more thorough than anything I will do here, but if there is one thing I can convey in the brief time I knew him, it is the genuine being that came across that day in Hong Kong.
Taking this youthful obsession of mine full circle as an adult and recount and interact with many of the main players for my book and our documentary has been as revealing about my own life as it is about the subject we are covering. We all take paths that guide us to a series of moments and goals that we either embrace in private or in front of millions of people. Phillip Ko Fei was luckily one of those people that managed to share some of his moments with all those wanting to watch and helped form a genre that history now owns. The kid in me may be on cloud nine for meeting a key player in my development as and adolescent martial artist, but the adult in me was also just as inspired by the same man to remain goal oriented and never stop smiling in the pursuit.
Hong Kong holds a lot of mystique for the Kung Fu movie fan. How many iconic fight scenes and action sequences were staged on these very streets? The mountainous arena-like walls surrounding the city in themselves were familiar landmarks to us, but once we pin-pointed specific locales for some of these now classic films, you could not help but feel the excitement down into your bones.
But no other place did this more for us than the Shaw Brothers now abandoned film studio. Founded in 1958 by Run Run and Runme Shaw, this film company name is as well known as any film it ever produced. The stars and feature films created and produced at this location have had volumes written about them over the last 50 years. Bruce Lee even made a historic visit to the studio during the shooting of Blood Brothers (1972) where he was photographed with David Chiang and Chen Kuan Tai among others.
THE CLEARWATER CONNECTION
Located in Clearwater Bay only a few miles from where we would be meeting with one of its most well known stars, The Shaw Brothers historic large yellow Shaw Studio sign stands defiantly on the street corner against the continually growing city around the crumbling studios. We had been allowed time-limited access to the property to get some footage for our documentary but this world-known studio had not been officially filmed since its heyday. The front driveway led to a well worn office front where the trees and bushes lining it were over taking the concrete. The indistinguishable “SB” logo was still prominently intact on the face above the buildings doorway, even if now a faded yellow and blue.
Standing there, hurriedly filming the structure for the documentary, I could not but think how many times former Wuxia stars of our youth drove up and down this very driveway. Passing these doorways I was standing in front of, the likes of Lo Lieh and Ti Lung would enter into cinematic battle in the classics we all grew up on. It was clear that it was not going to be too long before what was left standing in this location would be replaced by the next building or park in the planning stages.
Walking away I think we all realized more than ever that our mission to try and rescue some of these many films from obscurity and neglect was made even more clear by the fading wood Shaw logo above the empty security guard booth disapearing behind us in the car window.
Our next destination though would be a living testament to the beaten studio we just left behind us. Lo Meng was an actor who not only had secured himself as a Shaw Brothers staple in films like The Chinatown Kid and the classic Five Deadly Venoms but also made an early career appearance in a project directly related to our documentary, the Bruceploitation film Soul Brothers of Kung Fu (1977) with Bruce Li and Carl Scott.
Meng met with us in a somewhat noisy restaurant in the underbelly of a 5 star hotel in central Hong Kong. Wearing black Daffy Duck pajamas under a hoody sweat top, the unassuming “Toad” took his seat to be grilled by us about his career and life. Still vibrant and recognizable as the battle honed Kung Fu star of his youth, Meng gave us about forty five minutes of unique stories from his life in front of the camera. To the young Kung Fu fan in me, spending this time listening to one of the Venoms, the Kid with the Golden Arm, was going to stay with me and be revived every time I slid another Shaw Brothers film into the DVD player.
A FINGER POINTING TO THE MOON
Our next day we had a few shooting locations to take on before meeting with two more well known action stars in the genre; Philip Ko and Mars. The first location we went to was Tsing Shan Monastery where Lee’s memorable “a finger pointing to the moon” lesson took place. The monastery made sure the historic location was clearly marked and recognizable. A life sized cut out of both Lee and his student, Stephen Tung, now stands in the same space where the real actors once stood. The tea time sequence with Braithwaitte as well as Lee’s discussion with the monk (Roy Chiao) were also shot in this same space resting high above Hong Kong in one of the areas oldest temples. To have seen these moments countless times on screen and now occupy the exact same space is a difficult experience to express but memorable is certainly and easy way to summarize.
ENTER TWO DRAGONS
On the other side of the city towards Kowloon we went to meet with a Bruceploitation staple Phillip Ko Fei. Ko is easily recognizable by face if not by name to the fans of the many sub genres of Asian Kung Fu films. I first remember seeing Ko on screen at a showing of The Dragon, The Hero (1979) in San Francisco Chinatown’s historic Great Star Theater in the late 70s. The theater had small press material they handed out at the door with photos and a synopsis of the film and I still have the one I got there to this day. One of Godfrey Ho’s better films, this action story was on its face another classic Kung Fu battle royal. But I was pulled into the afternoon showing only by noticing the image of Dragon Lee on the small ad in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Dragon had come to my young attention in The Real Bruce Lee (1977) and Dragon Lee and the Five Brothers (1978) just a year earlier so a film he was in I would make the trip to see. This would be the first time I caught a Kung Fu film in its original language and even for a young teenage fan, the specialness of a non dubbed import up on the Chinatown screen stood out. And though Dragon’s role was a supporting one, he did not disappoint in his appearance. Ko would be memorable as the hour-glass-turning henchman doing battle with another childhood Kung Fu idol of mine, John Liu, in the film’s climax.
Discernible for his Shaw Brothers appearances in Seven Blow of the Dragon (1972) or The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, in the many “shapes” genre films such as The Invincible Armour and classic The Hot, The Cool and the Vicious (1976) and of course his multitude Bruceploitation appearances in films like Enter Three Dragons (1978) and Fist of Fury II (1977) Ko has one of the longest acting careers in the business. Ko also made a splash as half of the lead duo in the well received Two On The Road in 1980. But for the purposes of this documentary, we focused most of the attention on the films where he would tangle with Dragon Lee and Bruce Li. Ko as it turned out was making his very first personal interview appearance with us. Never before had he been asked to talk before a camera and luckily for us had quite a lot stored up in his brain. His take on the industry attempting to revive Lee’s magic through the many imitators was invaluable.
What made the moment even more interesting for us is the arrival of his Enter The Dragon co-star, Mars. Both these actors would secure names for themselves over the course of the 1970s and 80s but both as budding stuntmen appeared (even if fleetingly) in the Bruce Lee classic Enter The Dragon. The two as joint interview subjects made this moment both fun and memorable for everyone.
Afterwards, as I had with almost all of the subjects, I got both of them to sign several of my Brucepoitation posters. Mars put his stamp on my US release poster to Bruce Lee The Man, The Myth (where he played the bullied construction worker Charlie) and Ko signed both the Enter Three Dragons and Fist of Fury II posters I had brought. We luckily had some extra time with Mars who offered to drive us back to our hotel while playing tour guide to several locations where he worked with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.
We were near bringing the main Hong Kong slate of shooting to a close but still had one more filmmaker to talk to before flying out to Taiwan to meet with some very big players in Kung Fu cinema history. One man in Hong Kong who is arguably the equivalent of the Roger Corman of Bruceploitation and the far east and is one of the leading pioneers of the ninja craze of the 1980s we would be meeting with the next day. A man whose name on any Bruceploitation poster almost guaranteed you an interesting viewing, or quite possibly reviewing, of some of the more wild and colorful action sequences and stories in Asian kung fu history.
A lifetime of observation and interest has lead this once teenaged Kung Fu Movie fan from the 1980s grindhouse theater screenings to the homeland in the far east of the filmmakers that made them.
I am at this moment, sitting fifteen stories above the same cement streets that many of my youthful icons battled it out for cinematic supremacy. I am back in Hong Kong (also where this trip began and is now ending after a tour of both Taiwan and South Korea) with a group of documentarians and fellow producers who have begun assembling the greatest group of Bruceploitation filmmakers since the casting of the infamous The Clones of Bruce Lee. The goal has been to get them to sit down with us and discuss these many years later how they feel that sub-genre has actually shaped up.
As a young Kung Fu movie obsessed fan, I sat and watched films like Clones over and over again at several Bay Area double-bill theaters now long gone. And at this moment, just a bit over ten days into this trip, I have already sat with, had lunch with and even traded some techniques with these icons of my adolescence. But of course the main focus of this journey, to question them on their careers and lives for both a companion documentary to my book and supplemental material for the restoration and release of a handful of their films planned for 2017, was also turning into a goldmine of information.
Film study has been a big part of my life and to have an opportunity to not only meet these far-east filmmakers but to have a hands on investigation into the original physical prints of these films (yes, it can get nerdy like that) has been a once in a life time experience. Particularly with many of these films where their life expectancy was never intended beyond their initial releases. Most more recent converts to these 70s output of films are only used to degraded youtube videos or now antiquated VHS copies, not realizing that unless we “rescue” these prints and negatives from the assault of father time, that format will be the best they will ever look.
So here I will fill the next few blog posts with the experience of the trip and how a 14 year old fan went from watching Dragon Lee rip through Mr. Gruber and his henchmen in The Real Bruce Lee on a triple bill in Oakland to standing in a room with him in South Korea exchanging friendly punches.
On landing at the Hong Kong Airport there was little time to do more than drop our suitcases at the hotel before zooming off to mid town where a small dojo awaited us, 14 stories up a Hong Kong high-rise. I had seen Yasuaki Kurata for the first time in Fist of Unicorn (1972) as a kid but was a bit too preoccupied trying to discern Bruce Lee’s choreography to notice him. Though this Japanese martial artist in his first two years as an actor had already amassed a 20 plus run of films on his resume. Later I would be more aware of his skillful presence when I watched him tangle with Bruce Leung in Little Godfather of Hong Kong (1974), an early entry into the Bruceploitation franchise.
Here the modest and clean dojo was occupied by Kurata’s two children who welcomed us and just a few minutes later, in stepped the man himself. Wearing a pair of gi bottoms and a black t-shirt, his face was easily recognizable under a new mane of white hair. The questions focused mainly on his being a Japanese actor within the Hong Kong film industry, but as with all the interviewees, the main focus was on Bruceploitation and his involvement in it. We would soon find that many of the actors we were to talk to would in many cases need visual reminders of what the films were we were referencing. This was in part due to the many name changes of the titles but also had much to do with the work out put of each one and how many of these films in the end would blend together within their memory. In this case, the film in point was Edge of Fury witch starred Bruce Li and was directed by Lee Tso Nam, two men who we hoped to track down in Taiwan.
Luckily I had brought a stack of “reminders” with me in the form of old posters and lobby cards I had collected over 30 years that were to act as both a memory jolt and an excuse to get my long sought after autographs. In the end, what we got from him was poignant and personal and was only the start of a great group of a dozen super stars of the east to come.
The next day we had both a legend to talk to and a legend to retrace. David Chiang who is one of the most well know Shaw Brother stars in history was to meet us later in the afternoon, but first we went out to get some footage of the locations where the man who inadvertently created this sub-genre had walked: Bruce Lee. The spots we decided to visit were from his most internationally recognized film, Enter The Dragon. First up we took the famous Hong Kong trolly to the top of the hill where the iconic panning shot of Hong Kong was done for the opening credits. We then sped across town to seek out the temple front used to open the film’s debut fight scene with Bruce Lee and Sammo Hung.
Once to where the hired driver had stopped I could tell the area looked different. It was here we discovered that the temple front had been moved from it’s location in 1973 and stored here in its new home. Now looking more like a fake movie front, the ornate giant pillars were supported by modern reinforcement, standing in the courtyard of another actual temple. But this was clearly the gateway to that world of Enter The Dragon that I “walked through” so many times as a young adult.
We then went to the graveyard where Lee’s martial hero paid his respects to his parents before sailing off to Han’s island. A very steep hike up a series of stairs in the middle of Hong Kong landed us in what was recognizably the place I had seen so many times on screen. The main tombstone now replaced where he had once stood, but the many around him were still the same (we had screen caps to refer to as we tried and recreate the shots for the documentary). Was a bit odd being there I had to admit, picturing the crew, who were most now gone, standing here so many years ago filming what would become a monster hit for the company. But there is something about occupying the actual space you have watched dozens and dozens of times on film over your lifetime that is sldo absolutely surreal.
From there we drove to a small Italian restaurant to meet The One Armed Swordsman himself, David Chiang. Located several floors up, this quiet little diner became our base for the afternoon as we set up the cameras and lights. Then in walked David Chiang. Looking much better than I was actually anticipating, knowing his long and respected 60 year plus career at the Shaw Brothers. Dressed well sporting a tweed like button up coat and glasses, he sat for our cameras and in Cantonese spoke for nearly an hour. Clearly a thoughtful and well spoken man, David discussed the early days of Shaw’s martial arts epics, Bruce Lee’s influence on the industry and the way filmmaking has changed over the last couple decades.
On a final note, he took a few questions on The Legend of The Golden Vampires and what it was like learning from actor Peter Cushing on a British co-production. Afterwards, he kindly snapped some photos with the crew and left the building. I was quickly becoming aware of the history and experience I was encountering and about to encounter on this journey and for a life long student and fan of martial arts cinema, it was pretty mind blowing.
As was the unorthodox way we had to shoot this documentary, we traveled over 7000 miles with barely a secured actor assured. That’s right, we were told we had to just “make calls” when we got there to find people. And with a few notable exceptions, our 12 day trip had little scheduled by the time we landed. Each day the goal was to try and secure as many actors, director and filmmakers on my short list 0f 20-30 hopefuls. But by the end of the second day we had been guaranteed an audience with another Shaw Brothers great and a Bruceploitation director with a long and controversial resume.
And somewhere, a half days drive from the hustle and bustle of Taiwan, there was an icon of 1970s Kung Fu cinema who had agreed to meet us in a small park within a small town where he was born and where after a decade long career had decided to “disappear” back into.
But the “Tiger” was about to return for us and we were all anxious for that journey.
Bruce Lee may have started my journey into martial arts cinema, but it was his cinematic “clones” that would seal my fascination with it forever.
This blog will be an extension of an already epic undertaking of an up coming book which itself is an extension of my life long interest in the cinema known as Bruceploitation, or sometimes “The Clones Films”. The working title for the book is The Bruceploitation Bible: The Film Clones of Bruce Lee, to reflect the monster of an undertaking it has become. Though my initial intention was to undertake a simple and grazing glance at this sub-genre of Kung Fu cinema through my massive collection of posters and advertising material, I realized that my nearly 30 year exposure to the many films was not going to be easily contained into anything less than a detailed tome on the genre. There have been chapters of books, articles in magazines and many web sites reviewing the individual films or even discussing the actors places within the canon of martial arts cinema. I was not interested in treading old literary paths, but rather paving a new one that reflected my own life-long curiosity with these much maligned films.
I had no desire to retread film plots for readers (I’m not a film reviewer) or to make fun of their many filmmaking faux pas (there are plenty of writers enjoying this kind of analysis). What I wanted to do was analyze the entire genre and its history for the first time in one book and what makes each film a “Bruceploitation” film. Why or how did Bruce Lee affect the film, the actors, the story lines and even the filmmaking approach (staging, framing and editing) within the genre? In what way had martial arts greatest film legend influenced actors and storytellers through a decade of cinema? How were these filmmakers and actors expressing their renditions and interpretations of Lee and his legend through these mostly low budget productions? There are the more obvious examples of Bruce lee Exploitation films (The Clones of Bruce Lee, The Dragon Dies Hard) but his presence and influence could be found in even less noticeable examples (The Tattoo Connection, The Little Godfather). How did each film represent Bruce Lee, his life and his art of Jeet Kune Do. As I began to thoroughly reanalyze my childhood infatuation in this way, the book continued to grow into a much more unusual animal than I had intended.
I was lucky enough to catch the wave of Bruceploitation during their stateside incarnations in various movie theaters throughout the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Long even before the first “clamshell” VHS became available for the film The Real Bruce Lee (my first video purchase at a whopping $55) I saw thirty or forty up on the big screen, even several in their original language in the Chinatown theaters (“The Dragon, The Hero”, “Enter the Fat Dragon”, etc.).
But my introduction to Bruceploitation cinema came at the now defunct LUX Theater in Oakland, California after I had noticed in the Oakland Tribune a new film screening there boldly proclaiming “Bruce Is Back”.
Following is an excerpt of the Forward from an uncorrected proof of my book about that experience:
Moving towards the theater, I was excited to see that another Bruce Lee film was finally being released, a film he had done as a young man, the poster stating “at (the age of) 18”. The movie was called “The Young Dragon”. There was an imposing shot of “Bruce” in sunglasses, his muscles flexed in preparation of some unseen opponent. And he was even pairing up with some of his co-stars from “Enter The Dragon”! This looked very cool!
But wait a minute…. The poster makers had goofed. Bruce Lee’s name was absent from the printed credits. That was funny, I thought. Maybe this poster would really be worth something someday. I paid my $2.50 and entered the darkened theatre.
Here on this day in Oakland, I sat with a scattered group of apparently unemployed adults taking advantage of the cheap seats; air conditioning and one dollar popcorn. The times in the papers were never accurate so once again I walked in on the final ten minutes of the previous film. In this case it was another Kung Fu film called “The Leg Fighters”. It looked pretty good but would not be showing again for another four hours after the two other features. I’d be on the lookout for it again.
The screen at the Lux never seemed to go dark. The projectionist was either always running one of the weekly trio of features (starting anew each Wednesday) or the eclectic group of coming-soon trailers in-between, commenced by Keith Mansfield now famous tune. Finally the lights dimmed even more and the ragged screen began to light up with that special glow that only a feature film emanates. It was time to relax and let Bruce take over. I sat back and began to stuff my face with the bag of bland rice cakes I had smuggled into the theatre.
Within 5 minutes I knew something wasn’t right. Okay, so they had misspelled Bruce Lee in the credits as “Bruce Le”, but this was something else completely. The filmmaking itself seemed unskilled and hurried. It wasn’t until about ten minutes into the movie that it became clear to me as “Bruce” finally stepped on screen that this was not going to be another “Enter the Dragon”. Was it me or was that charismatic flair missing in his step? That dynamic presence absent from his demeanor? Straining my eyes, as if I could see behind his over sized aviator type sunglasses hanging on his face, I tried to determine if this was Bruce Lee at all or maybe some kind of…. double. This had been done in the soon to be released “Game Of Death” of course, the use of posthumous doubles to make up for the scenes Lee was no longer around to film, but this was one of his earlier films. Or could something else far more sinister be afoot?
Moments later, there was no mistaking it when “Bruce” began his first on screen fight with a group of loudly clothed, high-heeled opponents in the middle of the street.
I had been duped!
This was no Bruce Lee. His launching into action was the true test of this possible charade and this moment became the film’s most evident transparency. This was some other actor making every move in his best attempt to impersonate Lee. Tensing after every accurate punch then gazing off into the distance with a “howl” as his opponents dropped around him. Several moments passed while I sat in the crusty theater with my heart in my feet. For a week I had planned this day. How I would skip my last class of school, rush to downtown Oakland and take pleasure in the end of the day in style.
But that moment soon passed and I started to laugh. Not at my situation, but at the comical attempt to mimic the un-mimic able. From the comical facial expressions of his downed opponents to Bruce Le’s cocky bravado as almost every move from lifting a drink to his lips to talking to one of his closest friends was done with vengeance worthy skin-bursting intensity.
Later I would realize that laughter was my first true epiphany of the Bruce Lee Exploitation experience. That moment I had actually begun to enjoy the movie in a completely different way. I was no longer subjected to the movie going experience but oddly objective to it. Instead of being drawn into the expectation of what Bruce Lee would do next, I was anticipating the next moment that Bruce Le would do something out of the ordinary. His sincerity painfully translucent, going through the patterned moves and forced expressions, hoping to hide any lack of personal charisma.
Yet as the film came to its cartoon style, violent ending (two fingers expertly extracting the eyes of the film’s villain before the freeze framed finale), I found myself strangely involved. This guy was certainly a specimen of health, his moves better than anything I had seen on television. The fighting style and antics were in some way at least similar to Lee. I had been happy to see several other supporting actors I recognized performing with the real Lee in several of his films, lending an amount of credibility to the production. By the credit role, my testosterone was above normal and I certainly felt the urge to hit the gym and do some stretching and kicking.
This movie was actually…pretty cool.
Over the years, with the real Bruce Lee gone, I now knew I could only share my fantasies of another future Lee adventure or impressive action scene via these films with a troupe of “under studies”. Each new week, some form of film from the far east promised a possible glimpse of Lee or an unfullfilled story line he had begun before his passing. The martial arts genre known later as Bruceploitation would become comfort food for this young budding filmmaker and martial artist.
What I will try and do on this blog site is continue to ramble and explore the areas my publisher have been pleading with me to reign in within the book. The book itself has had to be trimmed to keep it in a cost effective form, rather than an unaffordable War and Peace of Bruce. I’ll use it to display the collection of memorabilia I have (nothing worse than just locking away one’s collection to the dark of the room) and to further examine the many aspects I have opened the door to in the book. There is so much more to the movies than Li, Le and Dragon and I hope to share my views and experience with the many Bruces here. So those who know the genre, this will be a place to explore those films you have grown to love. And those unfamiliar with it, this will hopefully lead you into an appreciation of some “bad cinema” in a way that I have come to via working on this near decade long book and as a lifelong audience member.
As the poster of Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave states: “You can’t keep a good man down”.