Bruceploitation: A Dive into Cinema’s Most Hidden Profiteering Genre
“There was Bruce Lee’s true story. About his love story and his life but I don’t like it. The producer changed my Chinese name…and English name to Li Shao Lung but I don’t like it.”
Ho Chung Tao, The Bruce Lee Stories (2000)1
Ho Chung Tao was one of the first stuntmen to be personified in the Bruceploitation genre with the film Yi dai meng long (Shih, 1974)2, translates to A Generation of Hazy, which was the first of its kind to reach an international market. A kind that will formulate into a genre unlike any other that not only defined an audience but defined an icon almost into legend.
Following on from Bruceploitation came a wave of unique films for decades to come. Many cited it as one of the grandfathers of B-Movies but in the cinematic age where B-Movies were rather contextualised for their amateur and innocently humorous elements and not their ability to tell iconographical plots about a real-life figure, would a foreign audience digest this more explicitly than the genres home audiences? Producers in America thought so.
During the early 70’s, Bruce Lee was quickly rising to become one of the biggest names in pop culture with his third and most influential film, Enter the Dragon (Clouse, 1973)3 garnering just over $90,000,000 worldwide ($511,267,765 adjusted for inflation) off of a budget of only $850,000 ($4,828,640 adjusted for inflation). This is just one of the handful of examples of how heavy this genre culturally impacted a worldwide market. So, with his sudden death shortly occurring before this film’s release, these numbers were seen as gold mines to producers and studios that, at the time, were grabbing onto anything that was financially dominating.
Studios decided to use a deceptive marketing tactics with Bruce Lee’s name by hiring lookalike stuntmen and casting them in martial art films under stage names reminiscent of the warrior himself (e.g. Bruce Li and Bruce Le) and they were marketed as being the actual Bruce Lee thus spawning Bruceploitation.
Though this genre was short lived, merely lasting roughly a decade, it was the Biopic genre that was affected most. A rise in demand for films like this was paved after the absence of Bruceploitation films with biopics taking a more serious route than the one set by Bruceploitation. In fact, when you look at almost every film in this exploitative genre, the common theme within them is their burlesque depiction of violence. There is no sense of realism or pragmatism in these works, it is mostly a sense of mythos.
John G. Cawelti separates a genre like this into four key stages or categories in his essay Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films (Cawelti, 1992)4. There is the Burlesque of Parody, this is when a “well-established set of conventions or a style is subjected to some form of ironic or humorous exploitation.” (Cawelti, Pg. 503)5 For Example, Deadpool (Miller, 2016)6. Then there is the Evocation of Nostalgia when contemporary elements either update or romanticise past experiences, reminding the audience of the relationship between past and present which is evident in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Black, 2005)7. Demythologization is evident when a popular myth and convention is subjected to a reality that undercuts and exposes them as hurtful, inadequate or destructive. This can be seen in films like No Country for Old Men (Coen, 2007)8 and Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)9. Finally, much like Demythologization, the Reaffirmation of Myth subverts the genre also but in the end, chooses to proclaim the myth as something that we need to believe rather than something that is real. Films that spring to mind are The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969)10 and The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)11.
The beauty of Bruceploitation is that it filters in all four of those categories when really, a genre is commonly only subjected to hone one of each of the four categories. In a very similar way, this genre also plays with Christian Metz’s Genre Cycle where not only does it come full circle in the cycle but it also contributes heavily to both the Experimental Stage of the Biopic genre and the Classic and Parody stage of the Martial Arts genre. In a way, it also contributes in a weird periodic state with the Deconstruction Stage of both Martial Arts and Biopics considering it’s a sub-genre of the two.
Leo Braudy quoted:
“Genre turn to self-parody says, ‘Well, at least if we make fun of it for being infantile, it will show how far we’ve come.’”
Braudy, The World in a Frame, Pg. 66912
The genre of Bruceploitation was never meant to seem as something creatively indifferent or avant-garde, it was purely a genre bred from economical profit. A lot of its films like Re-Enter the Dragon (1979)13, Enter Three Dragons (Kong, 1978)14 and Enter another Dragon (Hope, 1981)15 were all just cited as “rehashes” and featured plots that had nothing to do with Bruce Lee’s story at all. Sometimes the lines between these movies and Bruce Lee’s actual life would become blurred massively and the writers for these films never actually did any research when it came to its source material.
The most bizarre fluctuation of Bruce Lee came in his fighting which was arguably his most iconic trait. For example, Lee introduced a concept of using body armour in full contact sparring in 1967 with him never fighting outside of his home country. In biographical depictions, many of his accolades and achievements came from fighting an array of opponents from across the world in often a bare-knuckle, back street setting. Mass misconceptions were also depicted in the way Bruce trained with American filmmaker’s demonstrating Bruce Lee’s stuntmen using machines in a way that were nonsensical to how Bruce Lee actually used these machines. Even plots were developed that took supernatural digs at Lee’s backstory to explain his almost supernatural abilities.
“Genre films essentially ask the audience, ‘Do you still want to believe this?’ Popularity is the audience answering ‘Yes.’ Change in genre occurs when the audience says ‘That’s too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated.’”
Braudy, The World in a Frame, Pg. 66816
Popularity is all that was given to studios and producers. Bruce Lee fans and cinema-goers alike were flocking to theatres just to get a glimpse at what the next new Bruce Lee film had to offer because what it offered was an extended legacy. A continuation of something that was lost and especially during a stretch of time where cultural icons such as James Dean (1931–1955), Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962) and Elvis Presley (1935–1977) were passing way, pop culture was heartbroken by this so being able to relive their presence in the most realistic way was seen as an opportunity of a lifetime for most audiences.
This thematic idea carried on into the modern mainstream market as people are feeding off of nostalgia and to feed it, studios are producing holographic performances of dead artists such as Tupac Shakur (1971–1996) and Eric Lynn Wright (1964–1995) better known as Easy-E. This genre kind of lead to a very post-modernistic in terms of the past and the difficulty in beloved audience members letting go of something lost.
It presented the icon with a very surrealist tone. When he was alive, he was represented as a supernatural figure that could move mountains, kill a single person in one punch and in some cases, even turn into a Dragon and after his death, Bruceploitation was his renaissance and furthermore, enticing that supernatural viewpoint into him being immortal. This lead to even more imaginative filming techniques and styles as the genres editing and directing was minimalistic in quality but gargantuan in quantity. The sound effects featured in these films went into the thousands upon average with most of them being second-hand stock sounds we know and love. However, not all of them were. The iconic Bruce Lee screech that he did before a fight was about to commence became even more iconic because of the amount of times it was used in Bruceploitation films.
The bad quality of these films was laughable but it wasn’t seen by many to be disrespectful. Most people definitely saw Bruceploitation as being one of the staples of the B-Movie genre and it supported some of the known clichés of fight movies we know of today. Robert McKee explains the most important factor that should be evident in a genre:
“The genre sophistication of filmgoers presents the writer with the critical challenge: [He or she] must not only fulfil audience anticipations…but…must lead their expectations to fresh, unexpected moments, or risk boring them. The challenge is to keep convention but avoid cliché.”
McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Pg. 8017
Quality of the genre aside, Bruceploitation achieved this, it wasn’t massively new by any stretch of the imagination but it was not old. In both the 70’s and modern society, we often do thrive for traditionalism with a hint of something fresh and Bruce Lee can be seen as an archetype of that by developing and honing his abilities in classic fighting techniques, he used them to introduce new and bold moves to an audience that was very culturally bound to their own. This was even evident in his own fighting style known as Jeet Kune Do, a philosophy of fighting that encourages the fighter to take techniques from all the best fighting styles to make their own optimised way of fighting. Alter and transfer this philosophy to genre and Bruceploitation would definitely be an example of that.
This led to a very polysemic viewing standard and after his death, we still felt that there was so much more to see out of this icon and over the course of the genre, he slowly went into legend and almost forgotten. There were homages to Bruce Lee, especially from director, Quentin Tarantino that adopts that wacky, almost comedic style of movie combat. He also displayed his tribute in costume as The Bride’s iconic yellow and black fighting suit in Kill Bill (Tarantino, 2003)18 is a direct link to Bruce Lee’s yellow and black fighting suit he wore.
What is formulated here is an admiration of significant culture. Bruce Lee was seen as the reason martial arts took off internationally, not just as a genre but as an actual lifestyle but in the end, the martial arts culture changed into something else. In the early 1990’s, the prolific Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted its first fighting event and over its popularity, martial arts, although still reigning relevant, started to fluctuate into a whole new bread and a whole new audience. It’s sad to say that art is a progressive system, we have seen genres and sub-genres come and go due to their desire and necessity becoming lost. Media Scholar, John Fiske states:
“[Generic genre conventions] embody the crucial ideological concerns of the time in which they are popular.”
Fiske, An Introduction to Genre Theory, Pg. 919
For a genre to be popular, it needs to be encoded and decoded by its audience. Once a popular genre has sustains that and continues to be encoded and decoded profusely, what begins to happen is a collapse of its acclaim. In some instances, it can be conventions that collapse where audiences still love the genre but they refuse certain conventions. For Bruceploitation, its popularity was dependant on the popularity of Bruce Lee rather than the popularity of Bruce Lee being dependant on Bruceploitation which spawned a huge problem for the genre and eventually leading to its own death in the early 1980’s.
With Stuart Hall’s Reception Theory applied, the genre weighed heavily on the negotiated responses of its audience. Viewers knew they were ultimately bad movies but it was exactly that factor that contributed to them being so good. The original Bruce Lee films were not as bad but they were not good, they were actually showing a steady decline in quality over the years. In a way, Bruceploitation could be seen as not only a genre but a glimpse into an alternative future. A future where Bruce Lee in fact lived on and so did his film career, sticking to its pattern of becoming worse and worse in quality. Maybe that was the true beauty of this genre, why audiences reacted so positively and financially to it and why it died off because like an actor’s career in the film industry, an actor has to retire at some point with them eventually losing their popular status over the coming decades as a result of that.
If that is the case then Bruceploitation could not only be seen as one of the most unique genres of the last century but possibly one of the most unique contributions to cinema ever produced.
7 Black, S. (2005). Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Burbank: Warner Bros.
12 16 Braudy, L. (1976). The World in a Frame. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
4 5 Cawelti, J. (1992). Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films. Oxford: Oxford University Press
3 Clouse, R. (1973). Enter the dragon. Hong Kong: Golden Harvest.
8 Coen, J & Coen, E. (2007). No Country for Old Men. Los Angeles: Miramax.
19 Fiske, J. (2010). An Introduction to Genre Theory. Washington: The Media and Communications Studies Faculty.
15 Hope, H. (1981). Enter Another Dragon. Hong Kong: Asso Asia.
14 Kong, J. (1978). Enter Three Dragons. Hong Kong: Asso Asia.
17 McKee, R. (1999). Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd.
6 Miller, T. (2016). Deadpool. Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox.
11 Nolan, C. (2008). The Dark Knight. Burbank: Warner Bros.
10 Peckinpah, S. (1969). The Wild Bunch. Burbank: Warner Bros.
9 Polanski, R. (1974). Chinatown. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures.
2 Shih, T. (1974). Yi dai meng long. Munich: Atlas International.
18 Tarantino, Q. (2003). Kill Bill. Los Angeles: Miramax.
13 Unknown. (1979). Re-Enter the Dragon. Hong Kong: Unknown.