ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE (2023) [FrightFest 2023 Review]

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Directed by:

Starring: , ,

USA

RUNNING TIME: 100 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera

Screened at FrightFest 2023

Enter The Clones of Bruce Lee

To fill the huge gap left by the sudden death of Bruce Lee at age 32 in 1973, and to cash in on his name, a whole subgenre of films was quickly formed.  This documentary looks at a strange but for a while immensely popular phenomenon called Bruceploitation.

One of the signs of a good movie documentary is that, after you’ve watched it, you want to hunt down and check out some of the films described in it. After all, I can’t somehow see any of our favourite boutique labels releasing the likes of Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave, Super Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Jackie and Bruce To The Rescue any time and therefore their versions being worth waiting for. Top of the list for me is The Dragon Lives Again, where a guy pretending to be Bruce Lee goes to heaven and engages in martial arts combat with Clint Eastwood, Laurel and Hardy, James Bond, Dracula, Popeye and Emmanuelle. No, I haven’t just made that up. My experience of Bruceploitation has been very limited. I became a huge fan of Lee in my early teens; his movies were heavily censored in the UK to remove nunchukus [chain sticks] and, as the then BBFC head called them, “imitable techniques” [a strange term really if you think about it]. Ferman even said that he cut the Lee movies so extensively because he knew they’d be very popular. But I was hypnotised by the man who has gone on to be a genuine icon of mine, and it wasn’t long before I had naughty bootlegs of the uncut versions of his films. However, once I became aware of the existence of a lot of movies, some of which could even be found in one or more of the three local video shops, that seemed to be pretending to be Lee films but which actually weren’t, I wasn’t compelled to check any of them out, though I did see Fist Of Fury 2 because a friend owned a copy. Oh, and of course Game Of Death, which is usually included and released with Lee’s four completed films but which, despite coming from Golden Harvest, is still Bruceploitation, and among the most crass and exploitative Bruceploitation pictures of them all, a small [far smaller than promotion led people to believe] amount of unseen Lee fighting footage from an unfinished project being the climax to several actors unconvincingly masquerading as the Little Dragon [did they really think audiences would be fooled?] aided by shots from his other films, masks and a flipping cardboard cutout on a mirror, along with footage from Lee’s funeral.

However, it remained a subject of interest to me, and several times fairly recently I’ve felt like diving in, especially when this very documentary was being mentioned as in production on some Blu-ray audio commentaries by the likes of Frank Djeng, Michael Worth and Mike Leeder [the latter two of whom appear in it too while all three were heavily involved]. And so at last we have it – and it’s absolutely fantastic. No, I haven’t been asked or leaned on by Severin Films to gush, but gush I may very well do, because I had an amazing time with it. For some reason I expected it to mostly centre on the major actors who had their names changed so they could mimic somebody else, and there is a lot of this, but, along with loads of clips, so much else is covered that I can’t imagine any viewer being disappointed at something which isn’t discussed, even if I can also imagine that a lot of viewers just won’t want Enter The Clones Of Bruce to end [see, I’m already gushing again]. Even its title is perfectly chosen, The Clones Of Bruce Lee being the name of one of the more outlandish Bruceploitation movies which came near the end of the craze and, seeing it’s about a scientist who creates three clones who are played by different actors, two of which were Bruceploitation stars [the very notion of a Bruceploitation star seems bonkers who’d made loads of films, it can be seen as a sort of reflexive commentary on the whole subgenre. And a whole lot of people have showed up for this, from experts to directors to actors to the major “Clones” themselves, who, despite being in a documentary that’s quick paced as is usual these days, are given time to talk about themselves and reflect on their bizarre previous careers which involved them basically having to lose their identity.

Music which is about as close you can get to being like Lalo Schifrin’s iconic main theme from Enter The Dragon without being sued and a few shots of Hong Kong lead into the likes of Godfrey Ho and David Chiang talking about what the Hong Kong film industry was like in the years running up to the when Bruceploitation kicked off, a period where, For many years, Shaw Brothers were dominant. It’s interesting and slightly sad to be reminded that nobody considered Lee to be American despite having been born there and his mother being Eurasian. Mars [yes, the Jackie Chan stunt team legend] tells of when The Big Boss was being filmed and Lee extremely quickly put in his place a guy who kept challenging him, followed by Lee having some skin falling off and blood shooting out. Lee’s response was to do something he often did as shorthand training; give himself two electric shocks by putting two copper pipes together! Then finally, after Lee’s death is reached but thankfully no going into of “theories”, we get our opening titles which are of course done in the style of many Hong Kong martial arts movies of the period, and we’re really primed, because the scene has been set so well, though we get a few more minutes of lead-up to follow, with Andre Morgan, a Golden Harvest executive at the time, explaining how this strange phenomenon, a phenomenon which was largely aimed at non-East Asian countries, got started. Distribution companies would buy up lots of Hong Kong movies, but they tended to meet with limited international success, so this led to executives traveling all over the place to find people who looked like Bruce and was also proficient in the martial arts. Luckily for them, many of them succeeded, and profits were soon big. It’s perhaps difficult, from today’s viewpoint, how so many people were drawn into films that obviously weren’t the Real McCoy but tried their best to look very much like it.

The first of the “Clones” who we meet is Bruce Li. He’s the most famous and probably popular one, so it’s right that he’s been given the most time to speak. We learn that no less than four films were fictionalised versions of Lee’s life story. Yes, four! Obviously Lee’s family weren’t consulted for films that had, for example, Lee being born in China and encountering the Mafia while making Way Of The Dragon. It’s interesting to have Fist Of Fury 2‘s director recalling that he often wondered whether he ought to be shooting some stuff even though the idea was to keep as close to the original film without outright copying it, and Eric Tsang [who really hasn’t changed much at all] thinking that Li would had a better career if he’d not had to become Lee. Li says that he didn’t even like it, but orders was orders, and, like the other “Clones”, he was able to have a lucrative career for some time. Next up is Dragon Lee, whose debut as The Real Bruce Lee exemplifies old school exploitation. Lee played the lead role in a 90-minute film that had nothing to do with Bruce, only for an American distributor to cut it down an hour and insert some bits from Bruce’s recently found childhood films plus a bit of documentary stuff and – hey presto – a new Bruce Lee movie that could rightfully be advertised as featuring unseen footage. However, some other distributors would blatantly lie about their films on the posters in terms of what they promised, and we also see a clip from a TV chat show where Bruce Le claims that he drinks snake blood! Soon after this, we switch to actors such as Jim Kelly and, best of all, the still luminous Angela Mao, who didn’t imitate Lee but whose success had a lot to do with Lee’s. Footage of New York’s notorious 42nd Street with lots of its cinemas and interviews with French and German distributors shows how popular these films once were  -though interestingly in France the use of Lee’s name was prohibited in connection with films which didn’t have him in it.

We also get a good look at what it was like making such films, with tiny crews who all did each other’s jobs if required, script pages being written on set, and frequent injuries being suffered by performers who’d often do their own stunts with little or no protection, and who’d have no respite because there wasn’t enough money to delay anything. Bruce Liang says that he once didn’t sleep for a whole week he was so busy. There’s certainly a feeling of nostalgia for those good old days, even though they were so tiring and dangerous. After all, as the documentary implies, the results were often worth it despite the often poor plots, ridiculous gimmicks and lousy dubbing [though it’s worth remembering that back in the ’70s many were happy to watch dubbed movies]; seeing athletic, skilled performers duking it out while the camera just sits there and observes rather than cutting every second of or remains highly rewarding. The overall balance achieved here is quite remarkable. Incisive sociological observations [especially from Valerie Soe] never take over from the appropriate tone of fun. It would have been very easy to either celebrate Bruceploitation and insist that it’s been unfairly maligned, or to attack it mercilessly, but here we get a nice middle ground. We’re rarely far from being reminded that this is a genre where, for, example, an actor was asked to come out of a real grave as if he was Bruce Lee, or where Jane Seymour’s name was on posters because a few seconds of her at a party was cut in. Morgan seems to have no regrets about Game Of Death. Yet there’s clearly a lot of admiration for not just the bare faced cheek of what was done for almost a decade but what was actually achieved, and there’s even the suggestion that, maybe, for a while at least, these films were maybe necessary in a world that was grieving for someone who still remains the biggest martial arts movie star of them all, and with only five films.

Throughout the piece, Mark Raskin’s funky ’70’s-style music provides perfect musical backing. The cast of luminaries is impressive; I haven’t yet mentioned, among others, Sammo Hung [who’s given his rightful place as one of the top Lee impersonators], Ron Van Clief, Philip Ko, Yasuaki Kurata, Terry Levene and Roy Horan who will be familiar to fans of the genre. Oh, and let’s not forget Bronson Lee, an attempt to cash on the popularity of not one but two action stars. David Gregory, who’s made two other excellent documentaries Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau and Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson keeps things moving along, though I’d have liked if he’d slowed down a few more times; for example I’d have liked to have learned a bit more about that small, crazy group of films that combine Bruceploitation with Blackploitation. One is sometimes left wanting more. Nonetheless he still includes some more time for certain things if he feels it helps. Seeing Li, now a martial arts instructor, perform some moves near the end has a certain poignancy about it. All of the interviewed “Clones” seem to feel able to reveal their true thoughts on their past and legacy, which results in some considerable food for thought. But let’s not start to get deep, because there’s all these barmy movies out there to see; the huge amount of well chosen clips really do whet the appetite. What a superb documentary.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★½

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About Dr Lenera 1985 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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