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Friday, January 5, 2024

Imitating the Dragon: The Historical Significance of Bruceploitation Cinema Part 1 of 2

"Violence is inevitable in human society.... Violence is the latent force of human nature. We can't get rid of it. However, as a filmmaker, we should not use violence as the driving force of the movie, but as a tool for entertainment. Depending on a film's plot development, the causes and the consequences cannot be settled without violence. For example, Chen Zhen in FIST OF FURY cannot use the law to resolve his grudges. In the end, he can only use violence to meet violence".--Bruce Lee interview, Cinemart, October 1972 
In the fifty years since his death, Bruce Lee (Li Jun Fan; Li Siu Lung) remains the most influential and important martial arts figure of all time. For a man who only made four completed motion pictures in his adult years, his staying power is remarkable. His short 32 years on Earth made him legendary and an almost mystical figure that is talked about just as much today as he was back in the 1970s when the name 'Bruce Lee' was literally everywhere all around the world.
This two-part article—the most complete article series of its kind in English—takes a look at the progression of this oft-maligned sub-genre known as Bruceploitation: movies that--in one form or another--existed to make money off Bruce Lee's name and flamboyant personality. Most were cash-grabs; few were respectful to the material; some were parodies made in good fun; and a great many were wild excursions into tasteless entertainment. This exploitation of the Little Dragon wasn't limited to these cheaply made movies, but also used in the advertising of them; and every market around the world participated in it. (Insert: US poster for 1979s SNAKE SHADOW, LAMA FIST starring Chi Kuan Chun, Tang Yen San and Chiang Tao as FINAL FIST OF FURY)
But first, we go back to the time before Lee died. This sub-genre went through a gradual evolution before its primary Hong Kong-based phase between the years 1976-1978. In the beginning, there were actors and films that were being promoted as a new Bruce Lee, or those that imitated Lee before the actual Bruce Clone movement began;  there were even examples of treacherous film producers attempting to secretly profit from Lee at the height of his popularity while he was still alive. (Italian poster for 1973s ACTION TAEKWONDO as THE INVINCIBLE HEIR TO BRUCE LEE)
These early, pre-clone movies adopted the trend of having similarities in the film's Chinese titles. This followed in the tracks of what the Italian westerns had done in the wake of the Leone-Eastwood movies by having 'Dollars' somewhere in the name. Selected box-office numbers are included where applicable so as to put the film's into context with their local appeal. Once we're knee-deep into the cloning stage, there's coverage of two of the major Lee impersonators; followed by a short list of other important actors, related individuals and examples of some of the trashiest movies this lowbrow sub-genre has to offer. (Insert: 1982s THE DYNAMITE TRIO had nothing to do with Bruce Lee, but that didn't stop the Italians from marketing it as BRUCE LEE, THE IMMORTAL CHAMPION)
In Hong Kong, Bruce Lee achieved god-like status and was summarily worshiped as one upon his return to the then British colony in the summer of 1971. His Hollywood career wasn't taking off the way he wanted; so things took an upturn when Lo Wei's wife at the time, Liu Liang Hua, lured him into a lucrative deal (for Hong Kong)  to make films for the struggling Golden Harvest, a new independent company founded by Raymond Chow, Leonard Ho, and director Huang Feng. (Insert: Bruce Lee in Hong Kong at a press conference discussing his upcoming films for Golden Harvest)
History would be made when he began filming two movies for director Lo Wei, THE BIG BOSS (1971) and FIST OF FURY (1972). Neither movie was anything that hadn't already been seen before, but Lee's domestic popularity from THE GREEN HORNET and his onscreen charisma struck a chord with local audiences. THE BIG BOSS smashed box office records in HK with a 23-day haul of HK$3,197,416. (Insert: One of the few times you'd see Bruce and Lo Wei genuinely happy in each others company)
For a HK movie in those days, a poor to average showing ranged between 3-6 days in theaters; 7-14 days was generally a million grosser or more; but 20+ days was unheard of. Naturally, the Bruce imitations that followed used key elements from his movies. His TV appearances weren't off limits, either.
Bruce Lee had already made a name for himself in the United States playing Kato in THE GREEN HORNET and other appearances on American television shows. At the same time, he was making fast friends with Hollywood's finest. Citizens of Hong Kong treated him like a hometown hero upon his return, celebrating his breach of the American market and loving him for turning his attention to making movies for local audiences.
Lee would break box office records again with his second movie directed by Lo Wei, FIST OF FURY in 1972. It surpassed THE BIG BOSS's big numbers, making HK$4,431,424 in 29 days of theatrical release. Lee, the King of Kung Fu, would now be even more meticulous and decisive than he already was. His high standards meant he would have to continuously top himself. Lee was a complicated man. He was also arrogant and had a short fuse. With Lee, it was a constant climb to the top; even if he'd already reached it. If his next film made less than FIST, it would be a step backward in his eyes.
However, Bruce Lee had an extraordinary level of confidence. He knew his capabilities and that he held sway over the audience to a degree never before achieved by another actor. To the paying audience, he was a god. Magazine articles in HK at the time regularly reiterated that Lee was not a god, but a man like any other. It was an unusual magnitude of hero worship comparable to Mexico's adoration for wrestling sensation and actor El Santo, The Saint in English. (Insert: Bruce Lee and Raymond Chow in 1973)
As for Bruce, he'd made a prediction to the media that his next movie would make HK$5 million at the local box office. Remarkably, and just as Lee had predicted, his directorial debut, WAY OF THE DRAGON, hit the unprecedented HK$5 million mark--surpassing it with a total of HK$5,307,350. Critics weren't exactly enthusiastic about his first time directing, pointing out how Bruce's WAY lacked finesse even if the action was his usual top tier showcase. (Insert: Bruce filming WAY OF THE DRAGON)
Even before his success in Hong Kong, Bruce was obsessed with being a leading man in Hollywood; as much as his unhealthy preoccupation with his body and how he looked on camera. In one example not long before his death in 1972, he had the sweat glands removed from his armpits because he felt it soiled his appearance on-camera. Doing so carries with it life-changing risks to an assortment of bodily and nervous system functions. (Insert: image of Betty Ting Pei; Bruce sweating profusely; and his family at the funeral)
His long-desired lead status in a US co-production came in the form of 1973s ENTER THE DRAGON. Lee reportedly came up with the title--his self-recognition for penetrating the international market as a Chinese leading man in a non-Chinese production. His dream would come true, but he wouldn't live long enough to see it.

In America and Hong Kong, Lee had many friends; one of the closest was childhood pal Unicorn Chan. An acrobat and stuntman, his friendship with Lee was covertly used to make money off the superstar's name in a movie titled FIST OF UNICORN (1973). In the fall of 1972, Shing Hai Films (Star Sea Motion Pictures) took out a full page ad promoting Lee's participation. It's unclear who or how many were involved in the deception, but Bruce offered to design the fights for his friend's big break in front of the camera so long as it was understood he would not be appearing with him. While Bruce worked on the set, one or more individuals shot footage of Lee choreographing the action with the intention of using it in the movie in some way. When Lee found out, he reportedly threatened a lawsuit if his presence wasn't removed. He was featured prominently in the HK trailer, shown working on the set. It was Unicorn Chan's debut in front of the camera, but the publicity was largely focused around Lee.
This likewise didn't stop overseas distributors from trying to make bank off Lee's name when the film played in America in 1973 as BRUCE LEE AND I (not to be confused with the Betty Ting Pei produced biopic from 1976)
A small company called Pacific Grove initially made up posters for the movie boasting, "The most exciting Kung Fu picture ever directed by Bruce Lee". At the bottom stating, "Directed by and choreographed by Bruce Lee". The company even used a still photo of Bruce working with Unicorn Chan on the set as its main image (see insert image). An alternate version was also issued using an image from the movie and removed wording declaring Bruce Lee as the director; although the movie itself displays Bruce Lee as the film's director and fight designer. Additionally, the dubbed version retains the deceptive Bruce Lee footage as well as images of him that are awkwardly spread throughout the film.

This early instance of Bruceploitation foreshadows the prime ingredients the sub-genre would use a few years later. The films were frequently about the movie industry and the duplicitous figures in front and behind the camera. In the case of FIST OF UNICORN, the exploiting of Lee was occurring right in front of him. Had he lived, this eternally-scorned sub-genre would never have existed. (Insert: Bruce Lee working with Unicorn Chan on the set of FIST OF UNICORN)

The earliest example of exploiting the Dragon posthumously occurred a few months after he died, and came from Raymond Chow and directed by a former AD at Shaw Brothers named Wu Shih. 1973s BRUCE LEE: THE MAN AND THE LEGEND (released in America in a re-edited version in 1984) was akin to a Mondo movie opening and ending with Lee's funerals in HK and in Seattle, Washington. In between, a narrator describes lots of footage of Asian and American film stars talking about Lee while odd musical cues play on the soundtrack. The emphasis on the man's life and death, married to the clips of his funeral, would form the crux of so many of the imitator movies that would slowly begin seeping into theaters between 1974-1975 and picking up steam by 1976, the Year of the Dragon. (Insert: Bruce at home in HK in 1972 with a young Brandon and Shannon Lee)

Not to be outdone by devious Hong Kong filmmakers, American producers decided to stitch four episodes of the old GREEN HORNET (1966-1968) television series together and release it to theaters in 1974 as a new Bruce Lee movie. Titled THE GREEN HORNET, it made enough money to prompt producer Laurence Joachim to poach more footage from the series. This second go-round, though, was marketed like a Bruce clone picture with the title FURY OF THE DRAGON (1976). 
Putting aside the avarice involved in bleeding profit from a dead man's name, these two unethical productions have eye-catching comic book poster artwork, the second of which is by Philip Williams. He painted around two dozen Kung Fu movie posters in both Europe and America--some of the titles include STREET GANGS OF HONG KONG (1973), aka THE DELINQUENT, THE CHINATOWN KID (1977), and Italian posters for THE WAY OF THE DRAGON (1972), THE CHINESE BOXER (1970), and THE CHIVALROUS KNIGHT (1973), aka CHINESE GODFATHER.

Before there were actors performing literal impersonations of Bruce Lee, Taiwanese Kung Fu pictures had actors implementing Lee's on-screen mannerisms into their performances. In some cases, producers were seemingly lifting ideas Lee was utilizing in his then unfinished GAME OF DEATH; a movie he began shooting in 1972, but wouldn't see the light of a film projector till 1978 when it was completed and released. (Italian poster for 1980s THE CRIPPLED MASTERS as THE MASTERSTROKE OF BRUCE LEE)

In 1972, Taiwan needed their own Bruce Lee, so Taiwanese martial arts instructor Tong Lung (aka Luo Chen, the elder brother of Alexander Luo Rei) was being promoted as The Little Dragon's match. The media had been doing the same with Chen Kuan Tai at Shaw Brothers when BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) grossed over HK$2 million. Chen was also a martial arts teacher and tournament champion. Tong Lung, though, had a physique that was not only comparable to Lee's, but was even more muscular. Tong's first movie was the HK-Taiwan co-production, THE FEROCIOUS BROTHERS (1972). The film's Chinese title translates to 'The Dragon and Tiger Cross the River'. The Chinese title of Bruce Lee's WAY OF THE DRAGON is 'The Fierce Dragon Crosses the River'. With Taiwan marketing its own action movie star as comparable to Bruce Lee, they would also give him the stage name of Tong Lung; which happened to be the name of Lee's character in WAY OF THE DRAGON.
What else is notable about the Chinese name for THE FEROCIOUS BROTHERS is that it's also a reference to Jimmy Wang Yu's blockbusting trendsetter THE CHINESE BOXER (1970), known in Chinese as 'The Dragon and Tiger Meet'. For this occasion, combining two hit films names (CHINESE BOXER's HK$2+ million and WAY's HK$5+ million) would hopefully equal to big box office. Similarities in these film's Chinese titles are one of the steps in the evolution of this peculiar Bruce Clone phenomenon.

Tong's other early 70s movies bore similarities to the Chinese titles of Lee's films as well. In some cases, the same applied to the English-translated titles, too. THE GROWLING TIGER's (1974) Chinese title is 'Tiger Killer From Tangshan'. This is a play on Lee's THE BIG BOSS (1971), which is known as 'Big Brother From Tangshan'  in Chinese. In another example of title manipulation, Tong Lung's ON THE VERGE OF DEATH (1973) was released in some markets as BRUCE LEE VS. CHINESE FRANKENSTEIN.
Just as Wang Yu's directing debut inspired numerous 'Hard Fist & Kick' movies using 'Dragon' and 'Tiger'  in the title, the wildly successful Bruce Lee pictures did the same by influencing other filmmakers to mimic them in the hopes it would produce a sizable hit. Independent companies were especially hungry for a BIG BOSS-sized smash that would hopefully make the producers lots of money; and enable a fledgling company to survive in an industry cranking out 110-130 movies a year.
In Europe, THE GROWLING TIGER either had the name 'Bruce Lee'  in the title, or the poster artwork depicted Tong brandishing nunchucks to give audiences the impression they're getting some Lee-like action. In Germany it was called REVENGE FOR BRUCE LEE while in America it was known as THE BLACK DRAGON VS. THE YELLOW TIGER (see above insert). The film's Chinese poster featured as its primary selling point, Tong Lung battling a black martial arts fighter; likely influenced by the ballyhoo of Bruce Lee battling Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the footage filmed for GAME OF DEATH in 1972. (Insert: Italian poster for THE GROWLING TIGER as THE TIGER FROM MANCHURIA)

When Bruce began shooting GAME OF DEATH in late '72, he wanted to top himself yet again. He was consumed by thoughts of giving audiences something new in every film he made. For GAME, he envisioned a plethora of martial artists battling inside a multi-level pagoda that was possibly inspired by the one constructed specially for Chang Cheh's HAVE SWORD WILL TRAVEL (1970). One of those fighters was 7'2" basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His casting was integral to the promotion of Lee's film; while also being crucial to the metamorphosis of Bruce Imitator cinema.
Once Warner Bros. offered Lee the lead in what would become ENTER THE DRAGON (a co-production with Golden Harvest and Lee's own company, Concorde Pictures), he put GAME OF DEATH on hold till he realized his dream to be a leading actor in a non-Chinese movie. And then, a month before ENTER THE DRAGON hit American theaters, Bruce Lee died.
On July 20th, 1973, a week before ENTER THE DRAGON was shown in HK theaters, Bruce Lee passed away in the apartment of actress Betty Ting Pei, a woman who was also his mistress. Media reports at the time were alight with accusations and conspiracy theories that branded responsibility for Lee's death on everything and everybody but Lee himself. Ting Pei was blamed, Raymond Chow was blamed; conspiracies abounded that Lee was poisoned by the Triads, he was a victim of the Death Touch, and so on. Lee had only been a superstar for a few short years and the public perceived him as something of a Superman; to say his sudden death shocked the masses is an understatement. Some who couldn't come to grips with the fact the man had died even believed Lee had faked his own death. It's a fascinating topic that, in some ways, remains shrouded in mystery 50 years later.

On the record, his death is listed as cerebral edema, swelling of the brain. To this day, there are only theories on how it happened. In light of recently surfaced letters between Lee and Bob Baker (who played the Russian fighter in FIST OF FURY), it's possible Lee's drug addiction contributed to his death. You can't push your body past its limitations while ingesting harmful drugs like cocaine and LSD and not expect your body to give out at some point. Lee loved himself some marijuana too; but coupled with harder drugs and a fast-living lifestyle, his penchant for pushing his body far more than resting it was a recipe for disaster. His short time on Earth only fueled wild imaginations and it wasn't long before salacious movies about his life would be made... and thus the next, and highly controversial, level in the evolutionary chain of the Bruce Clone phase would begin.

By 1976, the sub-genre would be in full swing; spearheaded by BRUCE LEE AND I, a biopic produced in 1975 by Betty Ting Pei, filmed at Shaw Studio, and distributed by them. In the early months of 1973, it was reported that Run Run Shaw had agreed to pay Bruce Lee HK$2.5 million (US$400,000) to star in an historical actioner to have been directed by Chu Yuan. Filming was estimated to have begun in April of 1973. Since that production never got off the ground due to the death of the star, this serious-minded biopic was the next best thing. Till legalities were settled, Bruce Lee's name was listed only as "The Superstar". Danny Lee (Li Hsueh Hsin)  was playing the charismatic Kung Fu master. There was another film coming out with a similar Ting Pei-centric storyline called GOLDEN SUN. That picture featured actress Chen Pei Ling playing Betty Ting Pei. 
Danny Lee stated in an interview at the time he wasn't pleased with his work on BRUCE LEE AND I because he wasn't given a copy of the script beforehand; all of his direction was given to him by director Lo Mar everyday he reported to the set. However, he did an incredibly good job in the role.

This one was unique in that it was told from the perspective of the last person to see Lee alive, that being his lover, Betty Ting Pei--the lead role in the movie. Curiously, this example of Bruceploitation is possibly the most respectable and accurate depiction of this time in the man's life. That's not saying a great deal, but important events are treated more tactfully than they were in other films dealing with the subject matter. BRUCE LEE AND I made HK$644,908 in its 7 days of theatrical play. In America it was released as BRUCE LEE: HIS LAST DAYS, HIS LAST NIGHTS and had additional nudity not found in the HK cut. Despite being slickly directed by award-winning director John Lo Mar--who was known for helming dramas prior to this--the picture did nothing to salvage Ting Pei's reputation. (Insert image: racy Danish poster as BRUCE LEE AND I)

Considering what was going on during this time period and the public's and media's seething hatred towards Ting Pei, this production is one of the most important in the Bruce imitator series. Several other Bruce-biopic films would feature actresses playing Ting Pei with varying degrees of fact vs. fiction. Prior to Danny Lee, there had already been a few films starring a man who got his first leading role playing Bruce Lee. (Insert: Italian poster for BRUCE LEE AND I)


When the Bruce clone sub-genre reached its final stage, those movies shared commonality with Lee's outer-body obsession by focusing on recapturing his looks, his attire, his mannerisms, his life... but tossing out his style of action choreography. Having been spoiled on Hollywood methods, Lee wasn't interested in traditional Chinese-style action design. His style was somewhere in the middle. It was superior to American action sequences but lacked the more complicated move sets seen in innumerable Hong Kong Kung Fu pictures.

After his death, Chinese movie-makers ignored Lee's preference for limited kicks and punches and went for the longer fighting sequences. Lee was a perfectionist, picking and choosing his scripts wisely, and avoided shooting more than one film at the time. When he died, Chinese filmmakers would mass-produce imitator movies; including the ones that either put "Bruce Lee"  in a pseudo-biographical adventure, or created an entirely new one that exploited his name and appearance. In some cases, these movies would use archival footage of Bruce while he was alive and even footage from his funeral that would end up as a plot point. (Spanish poster for 1975s NEW GAME OF DEATH)
Taiwanese born Ho Tsung Tao (or Ho Chung Tao)  was the first, and arguably the most famous of the Bruce imitators since his movies were both regularly promoted and screened in HK and Taiwan. He was the most successful, and certainly the most well known, of the three major actors to do these kinds of movies; the other two being Bruce Le and Dragon Lee. Phonetically we pronounce the name Bruce Li as Bruce "Lie", but it is actually pronounced as "Lee". In old HK magazines, Bruce Lee was almost always written as "Bruce Li", which is the same pronunciation as Lee.
As with most of the Chinese KF stars, Ho Chung Tao got into lots of fights when he was a boy; only it was him being bullied. Growing up a fat kid, Ho got into physical education and studied various martial arts like Karate, Judo and Western-style boxing. When he got out of school he became a bit player in martial arts films. In those days, Ho was extremely poor. To his parents disapproval, he wanted to be an actor and continued pursuing his desire to become a star despite the struggle. According to Ho in an interview, during one three-month period he never had more than a dime in his pocket. When he got into movies in 1972, he was making HK$6 a day. His parents continued to try and convince him to learn a trade for more reliable income but the stubborn young man stuck it out. (US poster for Ho's first movie, 1972s CONSPIRACY, released in America in 1976 as ENTER THE PANTHER)
His first time playing in a lead role came in 1972 with CONSPIRACY. The film wasn't completed and released till sometime in 1975. In America it was christened ENTER THE PANTHER to try and associate itself with Bruce Lee mania. Ho was paid HK$2,000 for his part (approximately US$350). The hard times would get a little easier by 1974.

He got his first lead as Bruce Lee in SUPER DRAGON (1974)--a movie known in America as THE DRAGON DIES HARD and also BRUCE LEE, A DRAGON STORY. SUPER DRAGON was an amateurish start to this sub-genre and uniformly poor in all departments. Its box office take was certainly below average at HK$418,372 for six days in theaters. It must've made more money in Taiwan, Singapore or some other Southeast Asian market because more similar films were coming.

Allied Artists released it at the height of the American Kung Fu boom as THE DRAGON DIES HARD in 1974. Unfortunately, it was films like this that killed the legitimacy of Hong Kong and Taiwanese-made martial arts films in English-speaking markets. Major studio interest had all but evaporated by 1975, giving the road to a slew of smaller outfits that made tidy profits off these pictures of both high and low quality.
If SUPER DRAGON was never sold anywhere outside of Southeast Asia there possibly would never have been as many of these films that came after it, if any at all. The films got more salacious and the advertising even more outrageous. The global interest in Kung Fu movies let Chinese film producers know that their style of action picture would remain a hot seller on the export market; and internationally, people wanted more Bruce Lee, even if the man himself was dead. (US poster for CHINESE CHIEH CHUAN KUNG FU aka YOUNG BRUCE LEE released in America as BRUCE LEE SUPER DRAGON and not the same as the previous movie known in HK as SUPER DRAGON)
Ho Chung Tao was reportedly unaware that his name was being changed to Bruce Li for SUPER DRAGON. He stated in 1978 he was very angry upon seeing the film with his name credited as "Bruce Li"  instead of "Ho Chung Tao as Bruce Lee". Producers encouraged him to continue being a pretend Lee so he reluctantly went along.
The most bizarre of the Bruce Li pictures, and residing on the wacky end of the Bruce Clone spectrum, was BRUCE LEE AGAINST SUPERMEN (1975). This is easily the most ridiculous movie on Ho Chung Tao's resume next to his dueling with a Kung Fu Gorilla in BRUCE LEE, THE INVINCIBLE (1978)--a movie that has nothing to do with Lee other than its exploitative title. There's layers of Bruce-isms on display: Ho is billed again as Bruce Li; he also plays Kato and a character named Carter; and there's the obligatory mimicking of Lee's mannerisms while trying to rescue a scientist who has discovered a formula to turn petroleum into food. And then Bruce battles Superman... only it's not George Reeves but Lung Fei in black tights and a white cape. If that weren't enough, there's nudity and a sex scene.

Presumably, this movie was partly inspired by Shaw's production of SUPERMEN VS THE ORIENT (1974); the first of their official co-productions with foreign companies. Bruce Li wears similar super-attire that Lo Lieh, Shih Szu and their Italian co-stars don in the Shaw picture; only these red tights are emblazoned with the Green Hornet insignia.

By the time Bruce Li made the more serious CHINESE CHIEH CHUAN KUNG FU (TANG SHAN JEET KUNE DO in Chinese) in 1976, he was able to use his real name of Ho Chung Tao. Unfortunately for Ho, some foreign territories advertised the picture as starring the actual Bruce Lee. Adding to the confusion, the movie was also known as BRUCE LEE SUPER DRAGON (see above), BRUCE LEE SUPERSTAR and LEGEND OF BRUCE LEE. Additionally, this was the fourth time the actor would collaborate with martial arts colleagues Lung Fei and Shan Mao (who was murdered in 1977) in the ongoing series of Lee-alike movies. (Insert: Turkish poster for CHINESE CHIEH CHUAN KUNG FU)

HK audiences were largely ambivalent towards these films. Critics and journalists were mostly hostile towards them--calling them tasteless and even referring to Ting Pei, the filmmakers, and the actors that continued making them as "maggots" and "scum". There was definitely endearment by some towards Bruce Li, though. (Insert: French poster for NEW GAME OF DEATH bearing the tagline "the movie Bruce Lee never finished")

THE NEW GAME OF DEATH was the first of the imitations to utilize motifs from Bruce Lee's postponed GAME OF DEATH film he began in 1972. An independent feature, it was picked up for distribution and released by Shaw Brothers Studio around the time they'd finished filming BRUCE LEE AND I in October of 1975. This film made even less money than SUPER DRAGON, only amassing HK$164,249 in six days of release. That didn't stop it from being snatched up and released all over the world. Most markets utilized the GOODBYE, BRUCE LEE: HIS LAST GAME OF DEATH title. (Italian poster for NEW GAME OF DEATH)
In America, Aquarius Releasing re-edited the film, adding an interview with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and then saddled the movie with the title GOODBYE, BRUCE LEE: HIS LAST GAME OF DEATH. The US poster is naturally as confusing as it is deceptive; as unscrupulous movie distributors tended to be back in the 1970s. In the case of this movie, legal action was taken against at least some Pennsylvania theaters showing it due to outrage from irate customers who paid to see Bruce Lee on the screen. Theaters were ordered to remove all misleading advertisements and potentially provide restitution to customers who felt cheated by the posters. Deception and greed are a universal language, and a dialect spoken by all industry showmen around the world.

With two Bruce bombs on the domestic front, Chinese producers went a different route for Bruce Li's next interpretation of the dead superstar. Titled GOLDEN SUN (1975), it would be better known under its more descriptive moniker of BRUCE LEE, WE MISS YOU. It would also be released in Asian territories as 18 FORMS OF JEET KUNE DO and in Great Britain as THE DRAGON DIES HARD (not to be confused with SUPER DRAGON released in America under the same title). This time, Bruce Li plays three roles: Bruce's ghost, Bruce in flashback, and a martial arts student trying to find out who killed him. Directed by Li Kuan Chang (director of 1973s WAY OF THE TIGER starring Tong Lung, who was discussed earlier), the film is highlighted by an impressive fight on top of a moving bus; something you didn't see very often in those days. (Insert: Yugoslavian poster for BRUCE LEE WE MISS YOU)
BRUCE LEE, WE MISS YOU was similar in ways to Ting Pei's BRUCE LEE AND I, but a tabloid version of those events, inferring Bruce was killed by the mob and aided by Ting Pei. It probably didn't help quell the rumors that the Triads had killed Bruce since Betty--who allegedly attempted suicide in 1972 (although she and her family denied this) due to Lee's refusal to leave his wife for her--entered into a relationship with Triad figurehead and actor Charles Heung in 1976. Heung was allegedly married at the time he and Betty began seeing one another, so she once again found herself embroiled in another scandal that only fueled more questions about Lee's death and the citizenry's hatred of her.
On the Chinese Zodiac, 1976 was the Year of the Dragon. It was also a Bruce Boom for Ho Chung Tao. Multiple movies about Lee's life were being shot--from various point of views and with varying degrees of success. One movie in particular directed by Wang Hsing Lei (director of Tan Tao Liang's first movie, 1973s HERO OF THE WATERFRONT) was marketed as "bringing an authentic Bruce Lee story to the screen"; that film being HE'S A LEGEND, HE'S A HERO, the English title of JEET KUNE DO. The promise of authenticity couldn't entice HK patrons since the film made a barely average HK$499,066 in 7 days of release.
In America, though, HE'S A LEGEND, HE'S A HERO was shortened to the more exploitable moniker, THE DRAGON LIVES. Director Wang was the indy scenes equivalent to Shaw's director, the revered Cheng Kang, in that he took upwards of a year to make a movie. This was indy company First Film's sole attempt at imitating Bruce Lee. It should also be mentioned that the Chinese are notoriously superstitious, so any promotion of authenticity for a film about an incredibly famous actor who died under mysterious circumstances extends to what the people believed to be true at the time.

Another Bruce Li flick released in 1976 was BRUCE LEE'S SECRET (Wing Chun Jeet Kune Do in Chinese), a film that was also released in Chinese-speaking territories as THE STORY OF THE DRAGON among many other alternate titles. Known in America as BRUCE LEE'S DEADLY KUNG FU, it co-starred Carter Wong (Huang Chia Tah) and told of Lee's days in San Francisco. The film had two directors, Chen Hua and Chang Si Hui (William Chang Kee, director of CALAMITY OF SNAKES infamy), taking their first time at bat. The former was previously a DP for Ng See Yuen. The latter was a camera assistant for Chang Cheh and later for Ng See Yuen as well. He is also the son of filmmaker Lan Tien Hong, a name that will come up again in PART 2
Allegedly, BRUCE LEE'S SECRET was accepted into the Milan Film Festival. Much like these films were made with foreign markets in mind, the picture played in several Western theater lines in Asian territories. The local box office was no clone of the real Lee's Golden Harvest successes, though--making a paltry HK$252,474 in an unusually long theatrical run of 14 days for such low earnings. (Mexican lobby card for BRUCE LEE'S SECRET)
EXIT THE DRAGON, ENTER THE TIGER (known in HK as BRUCE LEE: THE STAR OF ALL STARS), directed by fan favorite Lee Tso Nam, was closer in tone to BRUCE LEE, WE MISS YOU, alias GOLDEN SUN. Bruce Li was again playing multiple roles--as both Bruce Lee and a friend of the MA superstar. In this one, Bruce tells his friend, "If I die, find out why". The Betty Ting Pei character (called Suzie Yang here) is written differently from the BRUCE LEE, WE MISS YOU movie. Ironically, Lee's now widely known drug use is discussed in this film, but written as if it were only a rumor. 
Lee Tso Nam's movie is superior to Li Kuan Chang's WE MISS YOU picture. The opening title of the US release is imaginatively done as the title 'Exit the Dragon' retreats to the background as 'Enter the Tiger' comes into the foreground. The English dubbing, however, is among the worst of the genre. Still, for an indy release, the movie made money in America and could've been titled 'Exit the Pocket, Enter the Cash Register'. Its success meant non-Oriental producers would be unleashing more fake Lee in theaters. (Insert: French poster for EXIT THE DRAGON, ENTER THE TIGER that gives both Bruce Lee and Bruce Li billing)
Meanwhile, Hong Kong producers were more than covering their costs from the licensing fees so they would continue making them. The Anglo markets were the primary target for these films, and they would become more prevalent once Bruce Le and Dragon Lee entered the impersonator fray.

Filming at the same time as BRUCE LEE: THE STAR OF ALL STARS was FIST OF FURY PART 2 (1977), considered one of the best movies of its kind. Both films starred Bruce Li, both directed by Lee Tso Nam, and both made for Jimmy Shaw's production company, Hong Kong Alpha (Seven Seas Motion Pictures). The latter picture would likely have never been made had it not been for Lo Wei getting drunk on his birthday and blurting out his plans to sequelize his own FIST OF FURY to his guileful friend and presumed confidant, Jimmy Shaw Shao Feng. This wacky story was written about for the first time in English in THE WILD, WILD EAST: DUEL OF THE INDEPENDENT FILM COMPANIES 5 which you can read HERE. The following abbreviated version is largely additional information not included in the above article.
It's an extremely complicated story that would've made a great Kung Fu Comedy if shot as it happened. As funny as the details are, this key example of unprincipled film producers led to much animosity and ruined relationships. The divorce of Lo Wei and his first wife Liu Liang Hua, followed by Raymond Chow siding with Lady Liu to not give her ex-husband the rights to FIST OF FURY, was already the start of a wildfire. But when Jimmy Shaw Feng stole Lo's idea, it likewise caused a quake between him and Lo's new wife, Hsu Li Hwa. Jimmy Shaw was allegedly romantically involved with Lady Hsu's sister, so this was viewed as a betrayal. Shaw (no relation to the movie mogul brothers) tried to reverse the ordeal by explaining in an interview that he persuaded Lo Wei to fast-track his movie but took the idea for his own when Lo didn't move fast enough to his liking. Shaw Feng went on to state Hsu Li Hwa had previously borrowed money from him and this was her way of inadvertently paying back a debt. 
The short version is Lo Wei was unable to shoot his own script as written, so he had to rewrite it and rename it NEW FIST OF FURY. An ambitious stuntman and martial arts choreographer named Jackie Chan was being promoted to lead actor status (for the second of three career jump-starts) in what would be a string of bombs for the increasingly frustrated Lo Wei. NEW FIST was not a promising start to a career that would unexpectedly explode two years later. 
Once Chan became a big star in 1978, devious film producers pulled similar stunts that so many in HK, Taiwan, and overseas had done with the Lee-alike movies. After THE FEARLESS HYENA (1979) brought in HK$5 million, producer Li Lang Guan saw dollar signs and dusted off his Shun Li Film Company's old Chan flick from 1973 titled CUB TIGER FROM KWANG TUNG (1973). He hired actor-turned-director Chin Hsin to shoot new footage with Simon Yuen Siu Tien and Korean thunder-kicker Kwan Young Moon to try and make both a new flick and a fast buck at the box office. This mess of a movie was called MASTER WITH CRACKED FINGERS (1979). In Spanish-speaking markets, MASTER WITH CRACKED FINGERS was promoted as LA FURIA DE JACKY (THE FURY OF JACKY, or JACKIE in some instances). Lobby cards for this film used stills from NEW FIST OF FURY while listing Jackie (as Chen Lung) and Yuen Siu Tien as the stars and Chin Hsin as director. Some of the posters used imagery from the US promotion of Chan's THE BIG BRAWL (1980).
Going back to the two dueling FIST OF FURY sequels, they had just as much action going on behind the scenes as in front of it. The publicity surrounding the battling film producers was so great, another, yet unnamed Taiwanese movie producer intended to shoot his own FIST OF FURY film. It's unknown if this particular movie got made, or if it became FIST OF FURY III that began filming in 1978 and emerged in 1979 bearing the original title of JEET KUNE THE CLAWS AND THE SUPREME KUNG FU (JEET KUNE EAGLE CLAW in Chinese). This film also starred Ho Chung Tao once more playing Chen Zhen, the character he played in FIST OF FURY 2 (1977); and the same character Bruce Lee famously portrayed in the 1972 original. (Insert: JEET KUNE CLAWS original poster; the film was also titled BRUCE LEE PART 3 in some territories)
With 1976 being the Year of the Dragon, Chinese film producers probably saw it as a sign of good luck to make sequels to Lee's breakout successes; so many more flicks of fury were coming.

Possibly the best of these films was BRUCE LEE: TRUE STORY, known here as BRUCE LEE: THE MAN, THE MYTH (1976). It was certainly one of the very few that were hits in Hong Kong. Taiwan may have yielded better box office for some of these films, but most were rejected domestically. Like BRUCE LEE AND I (1976), THE MAN, THE MYTH took the subject seriously as directed by Seasonal founder Ng See Yuen. 
However, no matter how polished the latter title was, audiences simply weren't going to forgive Ting Pei anytime soon. Likely due to the mature approach to the material, THE MAN, THE MYTH was well received by HK audiences. It had a 13-day run and amassed HK$1,282,742. If you were to be curious about this peculiar style of MA film, this motion picture would be a great place to start. In this case, starting at the top and working your way down is preferable. (Italian poster for BRUCE LEE: TRUE STORY as BRUCE LEE: SUPER CHAMPION. The Italian distributors took the publicity as seriously as Ng See Yuen's film did)

By 1978, Ho Chung Tao had tired of playing Bruce Lee. His entire career had been built around imitating a dead man and he was beyond ready to be himself on-screen. Unfortunately, he had fewer opportunities to do so as a new superstar named Jackie Chan exploded onto the scene that same year. Ho Chung Tao did briefly find himself among the top ten most popular actors in 1978. DYNAMO (1978) wasn't a Bruce clone picture, but it had Ho Chung Tao wearing that yellow jumpsuit from GAME OF DEATH. It was a mostly bland, but tenuously entertaining behind the scenes look at an actor being made and manipulated by an advertising agency. HK audiences took to the story, making the movie HK$1,338,539. It spent 9 days in theaters.
What was saddening about Ho's career was that even when he starred in a movie where he was playing anyone but Bruce Lee, the marketing would find a way to keep the connection between Ho and the late film star. One such picture was 1979s BLIND FIST OF BRUCE directed by Kam Bo for his Kam Bo Motion Pictures. The Chinese title, BLIND FISTS GHOST HAND, bore no affiliation with Bruce Lee. This was also one of the many deceptive independent KF flicks that took advantage of elder Yuen Siu Tien's surprise popularity after the two hit indy Jackie Chan pictures for Seasonal Corporation. (Insert: Ho Chung Tao and Chan Lau with director Kam Bo on the set)
If labeling BLIND FIST with 'Bruce'  in the title for export wasn't enough of a blow to Ho Chung Tao, other non-Lee films he did like THE CHINESE STUNTMAN (1981) were marketed in some foreign territories with both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan on the poster! In Germany, the film was called BRUCE LEE THE UNDEFEATED. Overseas, Ho was still being marketed as Bruce Li, so he was going to be saddled with the Lee-alike brand no matter how far away he got from the Bruce mannerisms. (Insert: Bruce Li's THE CHINESE STUNTMAN in Italy as THE LEGENDARY BRUCE LEE using a portrait of Jackie Chan from the BATTLE CREEK BRAWL promotion from 1980)

Another example was the trashy BRUCE LI IN NEW GUINEA (1979). Like BLIND FIST OF BRUCE, BRUCE LEE THE INVINCIBLE and CHINESE STUNTMAN, Ho Chung Tao doesn't even play a character named Bruce, but the Chinese distributors felt the need to use "Bruce Li"  in the English export title to sell it overseas. In some areas, the film was called BRUCE LEE IN SNAKE ISLAND and even THE BIG BOSS IN BORNEO. (Top: Mexican lobby card for BRUCE LEE THE INVINCIBLE; Insert: One of a few different examples of the French advertising for one of Ho Chung Tao's strangest movies)

But where Ho Chung Tao was never comfortable playing an imitation of Bruce Lee, there was another man who seemed to wholeheartedly embrace it in those days.


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