Monday, March 31, 2008

Bruce Li: In The Shadow Of A Master by Linn Haynes

I'm always amazed by the power of stored e-mail boxes. Many years ago I was on a hardcore Brucesploitation kick-right around the time I realized that I was destined to enjoy these films more than most Shaw Brothers films actually. Sifu Linn was working on an essay on one of the true kings of the beloved subgenre of kung fu films for Cave Of Kung Fu. I don't know if it ever found a home, but here is a great essay on Bruce Li. Another gift of information from the one and only Sifu Haynes. Enjoy, and watch a "Bruce" in his memory sometime!

Bruce Li: In the Shadow of a Master

by Linn Haynes

The man best known as Bruce Li was actually a fan of Bruce Lee seeking to follow in his idol’s footsteps. Along the way, unscrupulous producers and filmmakers made him into what many people considered a joke at the time. Though he started off as a poor screen fighter, hard work and dedication molded him into a screen presence in some of his later films. Seen today, his films often entertain and in some cases, can be considered minor classics of the chop-socky genre.

Born Ho Chung Tao, August 1950 in Taiwan, Ho discovered martial arts at a young age, taking Judo and Taekwondo classes in high school. After graduating, he entered college majoring in physical education with an emphasis on gymnastics. To make extra money, Ho worked as a stuntman with the Taiwanese Movie Association in the early 70’s. After the death of Bruce Lee, while everyone was looking for the next big thing, producer Jimmy Shaw was looking for someone to actually BE Lee. One of the directors Ho worked with suggested Shaw checkout the young stuntman. Shaw found Ho teaching physical education at a local high school. His film experience and facial resemblance to Lee impressed the producer and he signed Ho to a contract with Atlas International Pictures.

The first film they made together was Conspiracy (1973). Though rare in its original form, this film was re-edited and released later as the movie Enter the Panther (1976). The production is a pretty poor example of film making by any measure, depicting a plot by a man to cheat “Bruce’s” uncle out of a fortune in gold. With poor acting and martial arts, the film is something that should have stayed lost, but was pulled from the vaults when Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1976) was released. Footage shot between this film and the next would later appear in the movie The Real Bruce Lee which would be used to sell yet another Bruce Lee clone to the west, Dragon Lee.

The first true Bruce Lee bio-pic was Bruce Lee, A Dragon Story filmed in early 1974. This movie took a different tack from most of the Bruce Lee bio-pics that followed, by focusing primarily on Lee’s time in Hong Kong. The filmmakers went the extra mile by getting actors who were nearly identical to the people they portrayed for the Hong Kong scenes. Though heavy on melodrama, the basic formula for future exploitation biographies on Lee are all here. The original version of the film released in theaters and on video, had credits for a Nick Cheung film that were added on the beginning to hide the original production credits. According to interviews with the Ho in the 90’s, the plan was he would only make a film on the life of the late superstar and then move to straight kung-fu roles. The film studio had a different idea though and as a shade of things to come, credited Ho in the film as “Lei Hsiao Lung,” Bruce Lee’s Cantonese name.

The next pair of movies expanded the formula by having Lee be a smaller part of the narrative, instead of the focus of the movie. In Bruce Lee, Superdragon (1974), Lee’s ghost appears to Ho in dreams spurring him to find who killed him. Though the film has a decent cast, including John Chang, it’s far from a good film and Ho had not gotten his legs under him as an actor or an action star by this time. The follow-up, Goodbye Bruce Lee, His Last Game of Death (1975), was marginally more interesting. The production was credited upon release as a re-filming of Bruce’s final movie, Game of Death (1978) and was actually released about 3 years before Lee’s film. It appears the producers used pictures taken from on set of the original to create their version, but it is still argued they got shooting script for Lee’s movie from Golden Harvest. Regardless, the film shows Ho getting away from the awkwardness present in earlier films and becoming a more comfortable performer in front of the camera.

Contrary to popular belief, the Lee knockoff films did play in Hong Kong. Atlas even tried to depict Li as a “real” actor early on, having him show up for film openings, the Golden Horse Awards,(The Hong Kong equivalent of the academy awards), and the like. The films were just not as successful as they were abroad, specifically in the booming kung fu market of the US. According to Ho, he constantly urged the studio to make films without Lee image as a crutch. In early 1975, Atlas finally made a film that wasn’t a bio-pic and didn’t have Lee in it at all. Unfortunately for Ho, it was far from what he could have imagined as his first “clear” film. Bruce Lee Against the Supermen (1975), was without a doubt one of the craziest chop-socky films ever. Ho plays the "Kato" character (with a CAPE!) from The Green Hornet TV show, who must help a scientist who has discovered a way to create a synthetic food from oil. And the supermen of the title? Lung Fei and some acrobats in black jumpsuits. Considering Ho’s suit looks like the cheap knockoff it was and production values were nearly non-existent, this is in the higher realm of “so bad they’re good” Hong Kong films. To top it off, this marked the first time Ho was billed as Bruce Li. No other movie could’ve have made a more fitting beginning for the moniker.

The films made in 1976 showed an improvement for Ho and confirmed he could be a good martial artist and expand his acting chops beyond just playing second fiddle to Lee. The year began with Ho acting in one of only two period kung fu films in his career where he’d play someone not related to Bruce Lee. Ming Patriots (1976) tells the story of a young princess trying to escape the Ching army with Ming gold. This is the classiest movie Ho made during this period, with Shaw Brother's style production values and a stellar kung fu cast including Chang Yi, Carter Wong, and Judy Lee.
Showcasing excellent fight sequences directed by the Liu Brothers, this is without a doubt one of Ho’s best films. An unfortunate step back into bio-pics followed with He’s a Legend, He’s a Hero (1976) and The Young Bruce Lee (1976). The best that can be said about He’s a Legend, He’s a Hero, is the title music is catchy. The Young Bruce Lee is basically a remake of Bruce Lee, A Dragon Story (1974), but more interesting and less focused on melodrama. Neither of them could prepare the company for the success of Atlas’s next film however.

Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1976), directed by legendary chop-socky director Lee Tso Nam was the most successful film of Ho’s career up to that point. The story follows “Tiger” as he’s asked on the set of Bruce Lee’s newest film by the Dragon himself. “Lee” tells him he’s been getting strange phone calls and Ho is to become his successor if anything happens. Tiger later finds out Lee has just died and decides to investigate. Though the plot’s not that important, the film is a benchmark in Ho’s film persona.
Even with a Lee connection, the direction, choreography, and opposition(veteran villain Chang Yi) here are a marked improvement over Ho’s previous endeavors. The film was a hit and prompted future films to be released with “Tiger” in the title to trick filmgoers into thinking they were sequels to this film.

In Fist of Fury 2 (1976), Ho plays the brother of Bruce Lee’s character from the original who comes to Shanghai. Finding his brother’s school in a shambles and overran by the Japanese, he decides to unleash the fury of the fist one last time. Many of the actors from the original return, including Wei Ping Au, who again plays the weaselly Japanese interpreter who was killed in the first film! Working under the pseudonym To Po Lo, which he used many times, the film was actually directed by Lee Tso Nam. Though it’s a sequel to a Bruce Lee film, which is tantamount to sacrilege, this is a good film. The directing is sharp, Ho’s acting here is well above average, and he has a good foil to play against in the form of the villainous Lo Lieh. This was released theatrically in the U.S. under the title Chinese Connection 2. To further confuse matters, its sequel, Fist of Fury 3 (1979), was mislabeled as Fist of Fury 2 for its U.S. video release.

Released just before the end of Ho’s contract with Atlas, The Secret of Bruce Lee (1976) is yet another film based on Lee’s life, featuring the period he ran a martial arts school in California. Unfortunately the film is barely worth the time, it’s a typical chop-socky film in every way, with bad kung fu and Japanese masters wearing crazy wigs. The film is only notable as the Hong Kong debut of Korean super-kicker Whang Jang Li, who went on the make The Secret Rivals (1976) just a few months later.

His time with Atlas ended, director Ng See Yuen approached Ho with a contract. Pai Ming, the head of Eternal films green lighted the Bruce Lee bio-pic Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth (1976), and they wanted Ho to play the dragon once again. With one of the largest budgets for an independent kung-fu film at the time, international locations including filming at The Ice Factory in Pak Chong, Thailand from The Big Boss, the Coliseum in Rome from Way of the Dragon, Seattle and San Francisco to show Lee's early days in the U.S. and the tennis courts in Hong Kong that were the training grounds in Enter the Dragon), and the promise that he would be billed under his own name, Ho quickly signed with Eternal Films Company. Considered by many to be the definitive Bruce Lee bio-pic, this is without a doubt Ho’s best work onscreen at the time. He trained in Wing Chun two months prior with Yip Chun, the son of Bruce Lee’s teacher Yip Man, who also played his own father in the film. Ho even spent time studying film of Lee to copy his actions and speech patterns. The script like most bio-pics, is a letdown because of the large amount of misinformation, but the film itself became the measuring stick by which all Brucesplotation films were judged. It also marked the debut of a young Carl Scott, who Eternal discovered while filming in San Francisco, as one of Lee’s students.

Ho’s output over the next year featured the most unusual movies of his career for the independent Hai Hua Production Company. It seems filmmakers decided to craft productions in the mold of Bruce Lee Against the Supermen (1975), meaning each release got progressively weirder. Ho's next three films were lensed in Malaysia and teamed him with veteran Chen Sing for the films The Deadly Strike (1977), Bruce Lee: The Invincible(1977), and Bruce Li in New Guinea(1977). The Deadly Strike is basically a retelling of the Dirty Dozen, with Ho playing a sheriff sent to a jail to put together a group of prisoners who can bring down a local gang. Featuring wall to wall action and Lung Fei and Wang Yung Sheng in sympathetic roles for a change, this is a solid film. Bruce Lee: The Invincible features Chen Sing as a martial arts teacher who goes with his student (Ho Chung Tao) to bring an old pupil (Chan Wei Man) to justice. When his student points out the Master will be recognized in public, Chen dons a mask and another actor take his place for a portion of the film. The other actor? None other than Mars from Jackie Chan’s stunt team! Add slave trading and a pair of kung fu fighting gorillas to the mix and you have the makings of a trash classic. Bruce Li in New Guinea is even more bizarre featuring snake gods, wizards, and Bolo Yeung. Ho plays an archaeologist who travels to “Snake Worship Island” and gets the local princess( Danna Lei, a former Shaw Brothers starlet) pregnant. When the island wizard hears of this, he’s none to happy and he sends Bolo to settle the score. Though not highlights in Ho’s filmography, these last couple of films, are two of the most enjoyably loopy found in chop-socky cinema.

Concentrating on a modern, gritty style that would dominate many of his later films; Ho starred in Bruce Against Iron Hand (1977) and Image of Bruce Lee (1977). Lee Tso Nam directed Bruce Against the Iron Hand, again under an alias. Ho plays a cop on vacation in Hong Kong, who becomes intrigued by a series of murders perpetrated by a neck-puncturing killer played by Shaw Brothers great Ku Feng. The madman is a white slave trader who practices Iron Finger Kung Fu, which requires celibacy to perform. His one problem, he has a twenty-year old girlfriend who’s constantly wanting sex. This means every time she’s with a guy, he goes into a jealous rage and rips their throat out! With the help of super-kicker Bruce Liang, they try to bring the murderer to justice.

With what can honestly be considered one of the best intros to a modern day chop-socky film ever, The Image of Bruce Lee begins with a cop (Ho Chung Tao) trying to stop a man from jumping off a building. He manages to grab the man’s arm before he can fall ,but while pulling him up, he plunges to his death, leaving the cop holding a prosthetic arm with a file of top secret documents! Of course, the rest of the film can not live up to this incredible beginning, but it gets an “A” for effort. With a slutty Danna Lei teasing every man in sight, Bolo Yeung beating them up, and a sequence where Ho takes on a room full of karate fighters; there’s little doubt this is one of the wildest films in Ho’s filmography.

The crazy 1977 period over, Ho settled into making quality films again. A step up from his last few movies and a film that would mark the beginning of Ho’s best productions was Soul Brothers of Kung Fu (1978). Ho teams in this film with Shaw Bros. veteran Lo Meng as a pair of immigrants trying to make living in Hong Kong. They soon find work and a young American friend played by Carl Scott. When a woman he's in love with shuns Lo Meng, he takes to gambling and drinking. This downward spiral ends with him working for the local crime boss (Ku Feng) and sitting up a finale not soon forgotten in Bruce Li films. This film sets up the style of many of Ho’s future films featuring stories with sometimes downbeat conclusions. The script is good and the acting from all involved is above average. This is also one of only a handful of chop-socky films with two different endings. Had this not been a “Bruce Li” film, this would be remembered as a minor classic.

The first film of Ho’s career to break the one million-dollar mark in Hong Kong, Edge of Fury (1978) re-united Ho with director Lee Tso Nam. Though cursed with an irritating child actor for some of it’s length, the film is actually one of the better crime dramas from the period. Ho plays the chauffeur a Hong Kong businessman who turns out to be a drug smuggler. After his boss is captured in Thailand, fellow drug dealers played by Tommy Lee and Yasuaki Kurata figure the chauffeur must know where the drugs are stashed. Danna Lei is actually good in this as the businessman’s bitchy wife, but her sex scenes are cut from most versions.

Considered by many fans to be the quintessential Bruce Li film, Dynamo (1978) has a lot going for it. When a taxi driver (Ho Chung Tao) is pegged as the new kung fu superstar, a crusty martial arts master (Ku Feng) is hired to whip into fighting shape. A rival studio soon starts to chaff at the star’s success and decide to take him out by any mean necessary. The film is actually about Bruce Li for a change, or specifically, the creation of a star from the death of Bruce Lee. As such, it’s the role Ho Chung Tao seemed perfect for. The fight choreography by the Yuen Clan is top notch, thought Ho is doubled for some of the more acrobatic moves. But the secret of the film is it’s story, the chemistry between Ku Feng and Ho is excellent, as are the bits about the overwhelming power of fame. When the film ran out of money, two sequences from Bruce Lee: His Last Days and Nights starring Danny Lee was used to pad out the movie. The film is actually about Bruce Li. As such, it’s a role Ho seemed born to portray.

Often mistaken as being made the same year as Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1978), Return of the Tiger was actually made in 1978, with Paul Smith hot off his role in Midnight Express released the same year. The confusion comes from the filmmakers using some of the same locations as the previous film. Reunited with Jimmy Shaw, this time as director and producer Return of the Tiger (1978) is lacking the polish of Lee Tso Nam’s direction and is not nearly as good a film. The addition of kung fu star Angela Mao was welcome, but she does very little and the overall feel of the film was a step down. It must be admitted, the finale set in an industrial complex with Smith and Ho hitting each other with everything they have is certainly worth a view.

After a string of modern films, the decision to feature Ho in a period kung fu film made little sense, other than to jump on the comedy kung fu started by Jackie Chan with Snake in Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. Fist of Fury 3 (1979) was a direct sequel to the pervious entry made years before. This finds Lee Tso Nam directing again under his To Po Lo pseudonym and even acting in a brief cameo as a kung fu teacher. The film takes place after the events of Fist of Fury 2, with Chen Shan (Ho Chung Tao) returning home with his brother’s ashes. He promises their mother that he won’t fight again, but when the Japanese hear he’s back, they’ll have none of it and decide to get to him before he can ruin their plans. Overall the film is a pretty humdrum sequel to what was one of the better Brucesploitation films. The direction of Lee Tso Nam is adequate, but the film is lacking to say the least.

Made directly after Fist of Fury 3, Blind Fists of Bruce (1979) was a more blatant attempt to follow in the footsteps of Jackie Chan. This movie teamed Ho up with Simon Yuen, who played Chan’s master in his early Seasonal films, and is an obvious Snake in the Eagle's Shadow clone. The movie is actually not bad for its type and less doubling than was typical for Yuen at the time (here he’s doubled by Chien Yuet Sun). Though Ho holds his own in the period setting against the villain Chang Tao and Korean kicker Tiger Yeung, the film is more or less a curiosity piece.

Ho’s next film was a return to modern day, and fairs much better than his previous efforts. The Three Avengers (1979) is an unusual combination of a modern day film mixed with elements of a kung fu comedy, which ALMOST works.

When two street performers (Ho and Chien Yuet Sun) decide to open a kung fu school, a local teacher (Lee Hoi Sang) decides to take the duo down a notch. When Chien is put in jail, Ho goes on to become a kung fu movie actor. Upon Chien’s release, the friends reunite, but it seems the teacher has not forgiven his grudge against them. Though set in the 70’s (wait for the disco scene), the fights are well staged by Chieh Yuet San and offer a good mix of old-school martial arts and modern street-fighting.

The last two films starring Ho before he retired were the pentacle of his film output and should be seen as the chop-socky classics they are. The first was The Gold Connection (1979), easily the darkest film of Ho’s career. While on vacation, some friends, find a chest of gold while scuba diving. Fearing repercussions if they take the loot, they decide leave it. A while later, one of them comes back and takes the gold. No sooner does he sell it off, then all hell breaks loose as the villains who smuggled the gold show up to collect. With enough twists and turns to fill a Hitchcock film, exciting fights, sleaze in all the right places, and a final fight sequence slightly influenced by the thriller Wait Until Dark (1967), this is without a doubt one of the best modern kung fu films made during the period.

Disgusted by the Hong Kong film establishment, Ho decided to make his own film about the rigors of the life behind the scenes. Ho’s final starring role was in Chinese Stuntman (1980), which he wrote, directed, and produced. A thematic follow-up to Dynamo, this film tells of the slow descent of a Hong Kong film star who’s no longer at the top. When a salesman (Ho) unknowingly sells insurance to unscrupulous filmmakers wanting to kill off their star, he winds up becoming a stuntman himself and learns the business of stardom is not all it’s cracked up to be. Using this basic premise, Ho takes us on a tour of the world of Hong Kong filmmaking circa 1980 showing us how the stuntmen truly worked and bled for their art. Here Ho created a film ahead of its time, as the world of Hong Kong stuntmen would not be the source of a film until Ah-Kam starring Michele Yeoh over 10 years later.

After the filming of Chinese Stuntman, Ho went back to teaching physical education in Taiwan. Aside from bit parts in a few films since, Ho retired from filmmaking after the death of his wife from cancer in 1985. Considering he was the star of over 30 films and one of the only martial arts actors featured in predominately modern films, there’s a good chance Ho could have made a transition from the kung fu era with ease. It seems his life was full of what ifs, and all that’s left is a smattering of good films and the honorable intentions of a man who simply wanted to follow his idol, and only to become trapped behind his shadow.

THE best opening song ever? Could be!!


Douglas A. Waltz said...

What's better than oatmeal and a cup of tea for breakfast. Well, lots of things, but a breakfast of Bruce Li trailers is one of the best ways to start the day. Screw MAxwell House!

David A. Zuzelo said...

I know this will probably shock a few people (heh, not really), but I will take a Bruce Li flick over a Bruce Lee every time. He was in some FUN flicks. If only Sifu had written up Bruce Le and Bruce Liang...

Douglas A. Waltz said...

Wasn't Bruce Li supposed to be in the Bruce Lee VS. Ilsa flick??

David A. Zuzelo said...

I'm going to guess no on that one, his name might have been jammed on a promo poster-but that would have been a Canadian film if I'm right about the history of it. Probably easier and cheaper to get your own clone than bring in one from HK.

Only way to the screenwriter-I believe there was a Bruce Vs. Ilsa story ;)

Anonymous said...

According to Dyanne Thorne, it was an actor that legally changed his name to Bruce Lee. Li's best movie was THE THREE AVENGERS. It's as fun as anything else from 1978 and was a staple of the Black Belt Theater packages. If only Linn had uncovered the secret of Li's Louisiana State University sweater, which he wears in about four movies.

Wildside Cinema said...


Dude, thanks for posting the awesome article! It's a shame there isn't one of those cheap-ass box sets featuring a large portion of Li's work!

Anonymous said...

Linn was wrong about there not being another film that went behind the scenes of making a film, Hong Kong Style - between CHINESE STUNTMAN and AH KAM. There were three other films. The easiest to find would be BLOODY MONEY, an early Chow Yun-fat vehicle written by Alfrend Cheung and produced by Goldig films.

David A. Zuzelo said...

Thanks Anonymous reader...could you tell us the three titles? Thanks.