In just a three year span, Bruce Lee starred in a handful of films that catapulted the martial arts genre into a global phenomenon. His sudden death, 40 years ago this Saturday, left an enormous vacuum, with audiences around the world desperately craving more of the first Chinese superstar it had ever known. Answering the demand came a legion of Bruce Lee knockoff movies, starring Asian kung-fu actors who changed their names to sound like Bruce Lee: Bruce Lai, Bruce Le, Bruce Lei, the list goes on. A new genre, Bruceploitation was born.
Some of the more interesting films retell the story of Bruce Lee’s life and death with intriguing twists. The True Game of Death flirts with a conspiracy theory that Lee’s death was caused by shady movie industry types whom Lee had rejected, coercing his American wife to seduce and poison him. But this time Lee comes back from the grave for revenge, in a climactic fight sequence that rehashes the finale of the original Game of Death.
Other films have only a tenuous link to Bruce Lee. In Bruce’s Deadly Fingers, Bruce Lee’s fictional disciple Bruce Wong tries to protect the book that contains his master’s secret kung fu finger technique. Bruce Wong is played by Lee clone Bruce Le, who starred in over 30 Bruce Lee knockoffs, and is considered to have the kung fu skills most worthy of comparison to the original Bruce.
Then there’s The Image of Bruce Lee, where the only connection is when someone tells the lead character that he looks like Bruce Lee. The actor, Bruce Li with an “i,” was the most prolific Bruce Lee clone, partly because he had the best acting skills. This allowed him to star in multiple Bruce Lee biographies, such as The Dragon Lives, which deals earnestly with the racism Lee faced in Hollywood. The serious content is helped by Li’s performance, which captures Lee’s intensity and passion to break new ground in the film industry. On the other hand, it also caters to exploitiation requirements, in a scene where Lee is afflicted with a Chinese curse while in the middle of having hot sex with his mistress.
But one fact The Dragon Lives doesn’t say about Bruce Lee was that his career didn’t start with kung fu. Long before making Hong Kong movies internationally famous in the 1970s, he was one of its most popular child actors in the 1950s, when neorealist melodramas dealing with domestic social issues ruled the day. At nine years old he had his first starring role in The Kid, opposite his father Lee Hoi-Chuen, a prominent Hong Kong actor at the time. The younger Lee’s charisma and physical performance skills are already apparent. He plays an orphan in this film, an iconic role so rich for exploring Hong Kong social and family values, that he would play it again in The Guiding Light and An Orphan’s Tragedy. In both of these films his character grows up to be a doctor, played by the same adult actor; it seems that ever since he was a kid Bruce Lee would have other actors playing him.
In real life, the teenage Bruce Lee was a troublemaker who had to be sent off to the U.S. for school, preventing him from making movies, at least for the time being. But America is where he discovered his mastery of the martial arts, and without that, we would have never discovered Bruce Lee, (as well as Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Bruce Leung, Bruce Lei, Bruce Lie…)
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist. Follow him on Twitter.