The death of revolutionary actor and martial artist Bruce Lee in the summer of 1973 shocked the world, and many viewers who were drawn into enjoying his and other such action films from the Asian continent were left to wonder who would, or could, fill the immediate void left behind. It was shortly after that a years-long subgenre of “Brucesploitation” films emerged, with producers elevating performers with varying degrees of resemblance to Lee in the hope of keeping fans coming to the theatres. And the earliest and best-received of the pretenders to the throne was Taiwanese actor Ho Chung-tao, sold to America as Bruce Li; he most physically resembled Lee, and was a gifted fight choreographer already. And for our June 28th Grindhouse Tuesday, we present two of his strongest performances.
1977’s SOUL BROTHERS OF KUNG FU, a/k/a THE LAST STRIKE, presents Li as Wei-lung, a mainland immigrant sharing a flat with pal Shao-san (Lo Meng) and their lady friend Chai-yun (Au-Yeung Pui-San), all taking on demeaning jobs in Hong Kong, bearing the burden in exchange for living in a vibrant city. While working at a port, they befriend Tom (Carl Scott), who’s treated even worse by the bosses since he is a black American, and all of them run afoul of connected kingpin Mr. Chien (Ku Feng). As Wei-lung transitions into competitive fighting and Tom gets training to defend himself, romantic jealousy and gambling debts drive Shao-san into the thrall of Mr. Chien and his Triad brutes, and soon they’ll all have to fight for more than just their dignity.
Prolific Shaw Brothers director and cinematographer Hua Shan chose to take on the pseudonym of Hua Yi-Hung to direct this film, since he was attempting a different style than he had previously established on hits like INFRA-MAN. Hua would use the alternate credit on another Li project, DYNAMO, as well as JADE CLAW and KUNG FU ZOMBIE with Billy Chong. This also features early fight choreography by the Yuen brothers, Wo-ping and Cheung-yan, long before their acclaimed work in THE MATRIX and THE GRANDMASTER. Co-star Carl Scott made only four martial arts films before focusing on teaching his technique to others, but his work was so distinctive that when RZA did press for his directorial debut THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS, he cited Scott above Ron Van Clief and Jim Kelly as the best African-American performer of the era.
Bruce Li played some permutation of Bruce Lee in various roman-a-clef films for a few years after Lee’s death, but it was in our second feature, 1976’s EXIT THE DRAGON ENTER THE TIGER, a/k/a BRUCE LEE – THE STAR OF ALL STARS, where producers made an effort to market him as himself, albeit as also Lee’s successor. In a somewhat shameless prologue, Li plays both himself (renamed David in the English dub) and “real” Bruce, who summons him to the set of ENTER THE DRAGON, to warn him that he fears for his life, and should he be murdered, that Li must carry on his mantle and avenge him. Quickly after, Lee is dead, and Li keeps his word, discovering the actor has been murdered as part of larger drug cartel activity, and kicking and punching his way towards finding the top man responsible for his death.
After presenting actual news footage of Lee’s death, the movie proceeds on its own brand of meta-reality, with frequent villain actor Lung Fei playing himself as a villain, and Kong Sam-yi playing Suzie Yung, a thinly-fictionalized version of actress Betty Ting Pei, in whose home Lee had been found dead, and who, after years of rumors, later admitted in 2006 she had been involved in an extramarital affair with him. If this sounds already tense, consider that before making TIGER, director Lee Tso-Nam had worked with both Pei and Kong in the 1975 drama A CHILLED SPRING. In turn, while never directly addressing the unflattering speculations made about her in this film, it is poetic coincidence that a decade later, Pei had a prominent role in a drama titled MY NAME AIN’T SUZIE. Thus, while American audiences were merely enjoying the fights and intrigue, Chinese audiences were very well witnessing a prototypical shade war.
Whatever misgivings one might have about the manner in which Bruce Li was elevated, his talent is much vindicated in these two selections from his 15 year career. So come join us for this Grindhouse Tuesday, and maybe you too will put yourself in the tank for the Tiger!