Enter the Clones of Bruce illustration by Billups Allen

Enter the Clones of Bruce (2023), review by Billups Allen

May 30, 2024

Directed by David Gregory, U.S.A. 100 min. 

Many good video stores had/still have a section dedicated to karate. Included therein was almost certainly a collection of confusing video boxes: covers hinting at movies starring the late Bruce Lee. Hong Kong cinema was operating at quite a deficit when the master passed away at the height of his popularity in 1973.

According to a new documentary about the many films produced that hinted at Lee’s name and/or legacy, a hunt for the next Bruce Lee ensued immediately upon Lee’s passing. The film begins with a good timeline of the heyday of Hong Kong cinema. It’s a romantic segment for film buffs: actors and crew from the era are interviewed, testifying to a time Sir Run Run Shaw ran Shaw Brothers Studios similarly to the movie studio system of yore. 

There are fun stories regarding factory-style production techniques, including “borrowed” sets, bussing actors and crew to the studio, using forests as free sets, shooting in cities without permits, and loads of ignored accidental injuries. Shaw Brothers Studios was a force in Hong Kong cinema and they made a name for themselves on the world stage. The only thing bigger in this game was Bruce Lee himself.

After a bit of background on the Hong Kong scene, the film delineates the copycat phenomenon, interviewing actors charged with picking up the gauntlet, including actors who were hired to cause confusion if or not footage of the one and only true Bruce Lee was included in the film. 

Among the interviewees is the infamous Bruce Li, a Taiwanese boxer most famous for his role portraying Bruce Lee in Bruce Lee: A Dragon Story (1974). The film acts as a biographical story, but plays fast and loose with the facts: a technique that many movies about Bruce Lee embraced, to the chagrin of those close to Lee. Li discusses his own kung fu philosophy and techniques. He talks about imitating Lee’s style. It wasn’t enough to get the look right (Li doesn’t believe he resembles Lee, but the footage is pretty damning), but it was vital to understand Lee’s fighting style and affectations. Nose thumbing during a fight is a key example. Li wavers on this issue, occasionally claiming it’s simply a technique for removing sweat that most of them practiced. But Li has a good attitude regarding his part in the legacy and where it brought him in life.

More pseudo biographies were turned into action films, and more Lee-inspired martial arts actors are interviewed, including Wang Yu, David Chiang, and Ti Lung. None of these fine champions/actors went on to impact the world stage to the same level Lee did, but many went on to have interesting and successful careers in film and martial arts. If the conversation ever reaches too far into the territory of imitation, they mostly fall back on the most obvious answer: they were actors who wanted to work.

But the documentary isn’t meant as an indictment. It’s a testimony to the magic of the movies and a reminder that, no matter what difficulties you’re faced with, the show must go on. –Billups Allen

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