Taiwanese actor Ho Chung-tao had eagerly consumed martial arts stories and ‘60s spy adventures as a teenager, and studied fighting styles and gymnastics with an initial plan of becoming a physical education teacher. However, a detour into Taiwain’s burgeoning film industry provided opportunity to become a dependable stuntman and bit player within. And he would receive his greatest elevation when, thanks to his agile choreography and his physical resemblence to Bruce Lee, he was rechristened Bruce Li, and drew a new fanbase amid the wave of fighting actors swept up in the “Brucesploitation” movement. And for our March 12th Grindhouse Tuesday, Li gets his own showcase with two action-filled adventures.
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.
Li trades a blue collar for a badge in 1978’s Storming Attacks, playing undercover cop Wei Man who, with his partner Chang Li (Mark Cheung Lui), or “Mustache Wang” in the English dub, is in deep pursuit of currency counterfeiters Han Tin-lung (Han Ying-chieh) and his son Steven (John Cheung Ng-long). The criminals have burly Tokyo associate Kimura (Bolo Yeung) for muscle, and wily collaborator Donna (Dana Tsen Shu-yi) for diversion, though Donna has surprises of her own. And almost anywhere any combination of these people go, a fight is going to break out, be it on the street, in the gym, or in run-down buildings; the hits won’t stop until the cop brings down the top. And since Wei shows up at the film’s opening in a Game of Death-reminiscent yellow jumpsuit, and Donna mentions his resemblance to a certain still-missed action hero, here lies the justification for U.S. distributor 21st Century’s re-titling to The Image of Bruce Lee.
Director Richard Yeung Kuen started out as an assistant director in the ‘60s on conventional dramas and comedies; he directed his first film, Lady in Pink, in 1967. He first gained significant notice for the adult comedies Lucky Seven and Lucky Seven Strike Again. Yeung’s greatest notoriety was during the ‘80s when, working for Golden Harvest, he directed the transgressive horror films Hell Has no Boundary and Seeding of a Ghost. Co-writer and assistant director Wan Siu-Kuen would write two more projects with Yeung, and later perform a.d. work on Twin Dragons with Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung, where Yeung, along with other Hong Kong directors, would make a cameo.
Prolific performer Han Ying-chieh had the distinction of acting opposite Bruce Lee in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, as well as roles in seminal films as Come Drink with Me and The One-Armed Swordsman. John Cheung has been a stunt co-ordinator for Kickboxer and Double Impact, and acted in Bloodsport, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and the Vanishing Son TV movies with Russell Wong. Sultry co-star Dana Tsen previously appeared in Black Magic, Golgo 13 with Sonny Chiba, and portrayed Witch Eye, one of the stable of villains under Princess Dragon Mom in Infra-Man.
Bruce Li would retire from making films in 1990 and go back to teaching physical education, always having some mixed emotions about finding stardom as a Bruce Lee surrogate, saying in an interview, “I could act like him but I could never be him.” To us at the Bev, Li’s action and fighting bonafides in these movies demonstrate he’s worthy of being championed for being himself.