Bruceploitation (a portmanteau of Bruce Lee and exploitation) refers to the practice on the part of filmmakers in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan of hiring Bruce Lee look-alike actors ("Lee-alikes") to star in many imitation martial arts films in order to cash in on Lee's success after his death. Bruceploitation is an exploitation film subgenre mostly seen in the 1970s after Lee's death in 1973.
When Bruce Lee died on July 20, 1973, he was Hong Kong's most famous martial arts actor. When Enter the Dragon became a box office success worldwide, many Hong Kong studios feared that a movie without their most famous star in it would not be financially successful. So some studios decided to play on Lee's sudden international fame by making movies that vaguely sounded like Bruce Lee starring vehicles, with actors who looked like Lee—changing their screen names to sound similar to “Bruce Lee", such as Bruce Li and Bruce Le.
After Bruce Lee's death, many actors assumed Lee-like stage names. Bruce Li (黎(Lí)小龍 from his real name Ho Chung Tao (何宗道)), Bruce Chen, Bruce Lai (real name Chang Yi-Tao), Bruce Le (呂(Lǔ)小龍 from his real name Wong Kin Lung), (黃建龍)), Bruce Lie, Bruce Liang (also known as Bruce Leung), Saro Lee, Bruce Ly (real name Binhslee), Bruce Thai, Brute Lee, Myron Bruce Lee, Lee Bruce, and Bruce Lei/Dragon Lee (real name Moon Kyoung-seok) were hired by studios to play Lee-styled roles. Bruce Li appeared in Bruce Lee Against Supermen where he stars as Kato, assistant of the Green Hornet, a role originally played by the real Bruce Lee.
Additionally, when some Japanese karate and Korean taekwondo films were dubbed into English for U.S. release, the protagonists were given new Lee-like stage names. Such was the case with Jun Chong (credited as Bruce K. L. Lea in the altered and English-dubbed Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave) and Tadashi Yamashita (credited as Bronson Lee in the altered English-dubbed Bronson Lee, Champion).
Jackie Chan, who started his movie career as an extra and stunt artist in some of Bruce Lee's movies, was also given roles where he was promoted as the next Bruce Lee as Chan Yuen Lung (with Yuen Lung's stage name borrowed from his fellow Fortunes brother Sammo Hung), such as New Fist of Fury (1976). It was only when he made some comedy-themed movies for another studio that he was able to gain box-office success.
Movies and television
Some of the movies, such as Re-Enter the Dragon, Enter Three Dragons, Return of Bruce, Enter Another Dragon, Return of the Fists of Fury or Enter the Game of Death, were rehashes of Bruce Lee's classics. Others told Lee's life story and explored his mysteries, such as Bruce Lee’s Secret (a farcical rehash starring Bruce-clone Bruce Li in San Francisco defending Chinese immigrants from thugs), Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (where Bruce Li is asked by Bruce Lee to replace him after his death), and Bruce’s Fist of Vengeance.
Other films such as The Clones of Bruce Lee (where clones of Bruce Lee portrayed by some of the above actors are created by scientists) or The Dragon Lives Again (where Bruce Lee fights a plethora of fictional characters in Hell such as James Bond and Dracula and finds allies amongst others such as Popeye and Kwai Chang Caine). Others, such as Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave, featured Lee imitators but with a plot having nothing to do with Bruce Lee.
One of Lee's fight choreographers, actor-director Sammo Hung, famously satirized the phenomenon of Bruceploitation in his 1978 film, Enter the Fat Dragon. Elliott Hong's They Call Me Bruce? satirized the tendency for all male Asian actors (and by extension, male Asians in general) to have to sell themselves as Bruce Lee-types to succeed.
One notable film is Fist of Fear, Touch of Death released in 1980. While the real Lee does appear in the movie, it's only through dubbed stock footage. The movie passes itself off as non-fiction but is indeed fictional. The plot involves a martial arts tournament where the prize is recognition as Lee's successor. This in intertwined with what the movie passes off as the life story of Bruce Lee. The film says that Lee's parents didn't want him be an martial artist and he ran away from home to become an actor (In real life, they encouraged his careers). The film conflates China and Japan by stating Lee's martial art was Karate (a Japanese art) instead of Kung Fu (a Chinese art)and that his great grandfather was a samurai (impossible as samurais are found in Japan, not China).
The comic book medium also gave birth to several characters inspired by Bruce Lee, most notably in Japanese comics or manga. Paul Gulacy was inspired by Bruce Lee when he drew Marvel Comics's Shang-Chi. In Tetsuo Hara and Buronson’s influential manga Hokuto no Ken, known to Western audiences as Fist of the North Star, the main character, Kenshiro, was deliberately created by them drawing inspiration from Bruce Lee and Max Rockatansky from the film Mad Max. Kenshiro’s appearance initially resembled more that of Lee in the first chapters of the manga, blending it with Mel Gibson's likeness. Later on in the work, he still retained mannerisms inspired by Lee, such as his fighting style and battle cries. Additionally, in Hokuto no Ken’s prequel Souten no Ken, the main character is Kenshiro’s uncle, named Kenshiro Kasumi, who is also modeled after Lee’s physique and mannerisms in the same way as his nephew.
Datasoft Inc. released the game Bruce Lee in 1984. EA Sports UFC includes Bruce Lee as an unlockable character, though it came with the approval of his daughter Shannon. For video game franchises, Super Street Fighter II character Fei Long was designed as a homage to Bruce Lee as well. The character Liu Kang in the Mortal Kombat franchise was also modeled after Bruce Lee. The Tekken franchise followed suit with Marshall Law, and just once had him substituted by introducing his son Forest Law.
One notable game that features Bruce Lee is The Dragon, released in 1995 by Ramar International (also called Rinco) and Tony Tech in Taiwan. The game is for the Famicom (better known as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the west) but is not licensed by Nintendo or the Bruce Lee estate. The game's plot is loosely based on the plots of Lee's films and most levels are given titles from them. The game mixes fighting parts with platforming parts and is also noted for stealing graphics from Mortal Kombat (including using Liu Kang to represent Lee), being one of the few Famicom/NES games to have two languages (English and Arabic) available in game and one of the few in Arabic at all. The game's official Arabic title as shown on the title screen is التنين ("Al-Tinneen") and the box also gives the game the Chinese title of 李小龍 ("Lǐ Xiǎolóng", Bruce Lee's name in Chinese) and the alternate title of Lee Dragon.
Many other video games have characters based on Lee, although he is rarely credited. Video game characters synonymous with Lee are usually spotted by fighting techniques and signature “jumping stance", physical appearances, clothing, and iconic battle cries and yells similar to those of Lee. Examples include fighting game characters such as Maxi in the Soulcalibur series and Jann Lee in the Dead or Alive series.
End of a trend
Bruceploitation ended when Jackie Chan made a name for himself with the success of the kung fu comedies Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. These films established him as the "new king" of Hong Kong martial arts cinema. Another factor in the end of Bruceploitation was the beginning of the Shaw Brothers film era in the late 1970s, which started with movies such as Five Deadly Venoms. Since the end of the trend, Bruce Lee's influence on Hong Kong action cinema remained strong, but the actors began establishing their own personalities, and the films began to take on a more comedic approach.
Bruceploitation has continued in the United States in a muted form since the 1970s. Films such as Force-Five, No Retreat, No Surrender, and The Last Dragon used Bruce Lee as a marketing hook, and the genre continues to be a source of exploration for fans of the late Little Dragon and his doppelgangers. Fist of Fear, Touch of Death told a fictional life story of the star.
Michael Worth in 2017 began an effort to shine more light on the subject, beginning with helping to produce the first official documentary on the subject with Severin Films. His decade-long writing is set to be the first book on the subject, set for release in 2018 and featuring interviews with many key players. A series of new scanned film prints are also in the works for 2018 and 2019.
In May 2010, Carl Jones published the book Here Come the Kung Fu Clones. It focuses on a particular Lee-a-like, Ho Chung Tao, but it also explores the best and worst actors and movies that the genre has to offer.
The first Spanish book by Ivan E. Fernandez Fojón, Bruceploitation. Los clones de Bruce Lee, will be published by Applehead Team Creaciones in November 2017.
Stewart Home’s book Re-Enter The Dragon: Genre Theory, Brucesploitation & the Sleazy Joys of Lowbrow Cinema (Ledatape Organisation, Melbourne 2018) “is cleaning up the territory and sharpening the contours of the category of Bruceploitation which as he sees it has not been worked out rigorously enough by early pioneers.” This book appeared after Home made and exhibited an art film meditation on the subject of Bruceploitation for Glasgow International in 2016.
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