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Re-Enter the Dragon

By Stewart Home.

 

… Apart from soccer players, the two biggest sports stars for kids like me in the UK in the early seventies were the boxing heavyweights Muhammad Ali and Henry Cooper—even if they were eclipsed in my schoolboy milieu by the likes of footballer Bobby Moore. I also used to see a teacher at school who was a black belt in karate practice his katas; unfortunately our Christian fundamentalist headmaster who had been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp— and as a result had an aversion to anything from the east—wouldn’t let Mr Beach teach us how to break bricks with our bare hands! As a kid I watched the Batman TV series so it is probable I was exposed to Bruce Lee’s guest appearances as Kato before I learnt he was the ‘king of kung fu’. There were many things to prep my interest in Lee but probably just feeling angry and disempowered was the most important factor. Constantly having teachers tell me and all the other kids at school that we were stupid and would never do anything with our lives—other than work in a factory—was more than enough to make me want to breakout from such drab surroundings. Music was one way to escape this sham reality, but by the time I was twelve years-old glam rock was on its last legs, so martial arts flicks filled a void by providing a better form of contemporary escapism—at least until punk rock came along.

I first took a conscious interest in Bruce Lee when the London based Kung Fu Monthly began publication in 1974. This was a fan magazine that turned into a giant fold-out poster. After seeing early issues I was desperate to catch the Little Dragon’s flicks. More than anything else in Kung Fu Monthly I found a picture of Bruce in his coffin morbidly fascinating since it was in such contrast to the other images of him as a seemingly super-fit movie star. Since I wasn’t old enough to see X-rated films, I had to lie about my age to gain admittance to Enter the Dragon (1973) and innumerable other martial arts movies. When I first saw Lee’s flicks, I was less sceptical about the fighting skills on display than I am now; of course there is nothing wrong with movie kung fu, it just isn’t real world fighting. Nonetheless, from the get-go one of the things I liked about these films was how ridiculous they were; they definitely made me laugh. By the time I was eighteen, I was still going to see a wide variety of movies around London, but somehow the Brucesploitation flicks that got released onto UK cinema screens at that time passed me by.

I was probably too busy catching up on old films by the likes of John Waters and Alain Robbe-Grillet at repertory cinemas, and watching horror movies on first run screens. In the mid-eighties I bought myself a multi-region video player—so that I could watch American NTSC art films as well European PAL VHS—and this is when I began to catch up with the Brucesploitation genre. Most Sundays I would go to Brick Lane market—then still quite ungentrified—in east London. There was a video stall there connected to a shop on Whitecross Street, and I started to pick up films like Bruce Lee: The Man, the Myth (1976) and True Game of Death (1979) at 50p a pop. These were ex-rental tapes and some of them may have pre-dated UK certification of videos. I still  liked kung fu films but I was more focussed on other genres and didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the Brucesplotation releases I was viewing on tape back then. Certainly my passion for old school kung fu was for a time overtaken by a liking for Hong Kong’s new wave film-makers like John Woo.

My interest in Brucesploitation was rekindled about twelve years ago when various movies featuring the likes of Bruce Li, Dragon Lee and Bruce Le, began turning up in the UK discount chain Poundland. While the picture quality of the Brucesploitation on many of these DVDs was poor, contemporary online versions are often even worse! However, that hasn’t stopped many of the Brucesploitation films posted on YouTube racking up hundreds of thousands of hits—so the genre seems to retain some popularity today; although without access to the relevant data it is impossible to know how many of these views represent people watching the films from beginning to end, rather than just dipping into them.

There are various perils associated with these changing formats. Digging back into my memories of watching Brucesploitation on VHS in the eighties, I recalled my disbelief the first time I saw a softcore sex scene in which the Bruce Lee character jammed his fingers into the butt of a Linda Lee knock-off. I was sure this occurred in The True Game of Death (1979) but when I checked the movie out again on YouTube—about twenty-five years after I’d last seen it—it seemed I was mistaken. I then thought the scene must have been in a Bruce Li flick because my first experiences of Brucesploitation had been with vehicles for this anti-star, and I knew I’d encountered the wacked out softcore I wanted to revisit early on in my exposure to the genre. However after watching through some Bruce Li movies I still couldn’t find what I was pursuing. Finally I scored two different DVD reissues of The True Game of Death and discovered I’d been right all along, since the episode in question is on every English language edit I‘ve viewed of the film apart from the version I found on YouTube.

As the formats on which Brucesploitation was viewed changed, my critical understanding of it mutated too. The more I watched Brucesploitation, the more I saw it as deconstructing the myth of Bruce Lee—even if most of those involved in making these movies were looking to the bottom line and didn’t care whether they were celebrating or denigrating the Little Dragon. The isolation and repetition of gestures and tropes from Lee movies within Brucesploitation serve to undercut fan discourse about the uniqueness of this star and sharpen our grasp of the semiotics of his celebrity. This is how I understand Brucesploitation; not everyone sees it this way. Audience reaction to any film or genre is more likely to be split than unified, what some view as ideological contestation or deconstruction—accidental or otherwise—others see as celebration or travesty.

For me The True Game of Death, is as an outstanding example of the best of the Brucesploitation genre. But from reading the handful of reviews I was able to find online I could have easily concluded it wasn’t worth watching had I not already seen it. A squib on the City on Fire website claims it: “…is not one of the worst Bruceploitation movies ever made, it IS the worst.” These divergent receptions emerge from opposing understandings and perspectives. I view this flick as a parody of the official Game of Death (1978); while those who denigrate it insist it is a cheap rip-off of the Robert Clouse movie.

The more deeply I looked into Bruceploitation, the clearer it became that those who have written about the genre to date have done so inadequately. Although it is easy enough to find at least sparse coverage of much of what I deal with here online, I approach this material from a different perspective to the instantly available (dis)information. I’m also super-aware of the need to theorise exploitation flicks in ways that break with ideology of ‘quality cinema’; something many of those writing about Brucesploitation don’t do. By ‘quality cinema’ I mean the pseudo-realist standards of Hollywood film, with generic plot points and an emphasis on the craft of acting and the cult of the auteur.

I’ve no time for those who want to bog cinema down with outmoded ideas from nineteenth century literature and literary theory, ‘coherent’ plots, and stagey theatrical traditions all of which are completely moribund. Cinema should relate to dreams and allow us to escape the ideology of realism! Bruce’s Lee’s rhetoric about realism— which bore little relation to what he actually did on film—emerged at least in part from his immersion in Cantonese cinema as a child actor. Please note that being aware of the influence of melodramatic Chinese opera traditions on kung fu films is not the same as unreservedly endorsing this connection…

Image result for Bruce Lee: A Dragon Story 1974

1 Bruce Lee: A Dragon Story 1974
aka Super Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
aka The Bruce Lee Story
Directed by Shut Dik

It has been claimed this is the first Brucesploitation film ever made (not true because flicks like The Pig Boss and Fist of Unicorn pre-date it) and it is the first time Bruce Li played Bruce Lee. Many Little Dragon fans hate this movie but its sleaziness will keep trash hounds amused. It focuses on Bruce’s love affair with fellow actor Betty Ting Pei. Like all bio-pics, the whole film plays fast and loose with the actual facts of Bruce Lee’s life, serving to transform an ordinary
human being into something mythological. Ting Pei’s suicide attempt in the movie and loss of a love child with Lee appear to be entirely fictional. The first time Bruce and Betty have sex the lighting around the bed is red and there is a jazzy version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine playing on the soundtrack. Aside from the lascivious element of the affair with Ting Pei, it is the portrayal of various backstabbing Hong Kong movie moguls that really makes this film worth watching. There seems to be a settling of scores going on. Now that’s what I call Brucesploitation! Director Shut Dik was not exactly prolific –The Guy! The Guy! aka Kung Fu Revenger (1974) and Bruce, Kung Fu Girls (1975) are apparently the only other films he helmed; although he has at least seven assistant director credits between 1968 to 1973, and did scriptwriting, props and even make-up as well.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stewart Home is the most out there writer on the planet – the only person on earth who is visible to the naked eye from outer space! He really does burn that brightly. The London Review of Books has praised Home by saying: “I really don’t think anyone who is at all interested in literature has any business not knowing the work of Stewart Home.” However, this notorious egg bagel eater prefers to liken himself to “a proletarian comedian with Tourette’s spewing obscenities”. He much prefers standing on his head and reciting sexually explicit passages from his work at public events to courting the literary establishment.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 13th, 2018.