“Enter the Clones of Bruce” – 2023 BIFAN Review

These men all have one thing in common: they’re Bruce Lee imitators. (still courtesy of the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival)

Bruce Liang.  Bruce Li.  Dragon Lee. Bruce Lo.  Bronson Lee.  These are just several of the actors who bear both the physical and psychological scars of the “Bruce-ploitation” film genre that sought to capitalize on the global demand for martial arts films following the death of Bruce Lee.  This cult phenomenon is one that is well researched and explored in the documentary “Enter the Clones of Bruce.”

The sequences that bookend the heart of the documentary can be forgiven for feeling a bit rushed, as they assume that the casual fan is aware of both the meteoric rise of the famed martial artist/actor in the 1970s and the current decline of the Hong Kong film industry, notably with the action film genre.  After all, the crux of “Enter the Clones of Bruce” is meant to focus on the time period between Lee’s passing in 1973 and the emergence of a new wave of Hong Kong action films less than a decade later spearheaded by Jackie Chan.  But there’s a factoid in the introduction that sets up an important catalyst for the insatiable demand to come: Lee had initially approached the Shaw Brothers film studio for a contract.  Money wasn’t the aim, stardom was.  But longtime Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh was unimpressed with Lee’s bravado, resulting in a rejection that later came to haunt the studio.  That’s because Lee then turned to Shaw Brothers’ nearly bankrupt rival Golden Harvest.

Fast forward to Lee’s untimely death, days before the theatrical release of “Enter the Dragon.” An insatiable demand for martial arts films rose worldwide, but specifically film festival organizers and audiences were clamoring for Lee himself.  This was an obvious impossibility, so another approach had to be taken. Lee’s Shaw Brothers rejection seemed to curse the studio, as it was unable to promote its own stars such as David Chiang, Ti Lung and Jimmy Wang Yu – all excellent martial artists in their own right, but none with the star power of Lee at that time. 

So, as the documentary title states, “Enter the Clones of Bruce” it was.  It is equally a treasure trove of Bruce-ploitation film footage and filmmaker interviews, not just limited to those who carried the unfortunate burden of imitating an icon whose stature continued to exponentially grow after his death.  In a cinematic world devoid of intellectual property rights at the time, studios copiously looked beyond Hong Kong; plucked actors from obscurity in places like Taiwan, South Korea and Burma; assigned similar names so that markets less familiar with Lee’s actual works would be fooled; and churned out Bruce-ploitation flicks to the point that no one could keep track of how many actually came into existence.  “Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger,” “Fist of Fury II,” “Super Dragon – The Bruce Lee Story,” and “Bruce Lee – The Man, The Myth” were just a few of the vaguely familiar titles of an estimated 200 that were produced during this time.

“Enter the Clones of Bruce,” however, smartly does not perceive this period as 100 percent farce.  It treats its Bruce Lee imitation interview subjects with dignity, recognizing that both permanent knuckle scars and the unfortunate position of having to build careers off a legend who was no longer alive fused into a constant mental tug-of-war.  The film also recognizes that some Lee collaborators went on to expand their own careers – some linked to the Bruce-ploitation genre, some not – including “Enter the Dragon” co-stars Bolo Yeung, Angela Mao and Jim Kelly (who segued into blaxploitation films).  Overall, “Enter the Clones of Bruce” is a fascinating tribute to those who truly suffered for their art, yet contributed to the success of the Hong Kong action film movement in more ways than they may have realized at the time.