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Enter the Clones of Bruce Comes out Kicking

Enter the Clones of Bruce looks down a tempting rabbit hole. Some will be intrigued to delve further into the subgenre it reveals. Others may be solely content with what the documentary offers. Either way, Enter the Clones of Bruce provides a surprisingly touching tale of exploitation alongside movie history.

The documentary opens with a brief look at the rise of Bruce Lee. The legendary action star catapulted to success with films like The Big Boss (1971) and Enter the Dragon (1973). His untimely demise on July 20th, 1973 seemed to put an end to his career. However, filmmakers apparently saw little reason for death to stop them from milking this cash cow. As such, so began the brief era of Bruceploitation films, a series of low-budget action movies designed to capitalize on the deceased star’s reputation.

[L-R] Bruce Li, Dragon Lee, Bruce Le in Enter the Clones of Bruce (2023). Severin Films. Three photos of performers who starred in Bruce Lee exploitation films because they resembled the legendary actor.
[L-R] Bruce Li, Dragon Lee, Bruce Le in Enter the Clones of Bruce (2023). Severin Films.
Sarcasm aside, Enter the Clones of Bruce does an interesting job of depicting this as more than a money-motivated move. Rather, the Bruceploitation era comes across as a tragic decline into cynical cash grab. The subgenre actually starts as a desire to honor his legacy with films spiritually aligned with his previous motion pictures. Essentially, romanticized bio pics evolve into movies Lee might’ve made if he lived before degrading into comically bad knockoffs. In a time before endless access to ubiquitous content, these movies gave audiences a chance to taste something lost forever.

The main narrative comes from a variety of people. There are the intense fans who have collected every bit of memorabilia and scrap of film they could find. Their enthusiasm for the subgenre infectiously drips off the screen. Meanwhile, commentary from interviewees like Valerie Soe, a professor of Asian American film history at San Francisco State University, give the documentary cultural depth. The importance of representation and how these films improved the perception of Asiatic people is made clear. However, the best bits come from the Lee-alikes who, in their own way, took up Bruce’s mantle.

Individuals such as Ho Tsun-Tao, Moon Kyoung-seok, and Huang Kin-lung relate how they became performers as well as how they earned names like Bruce Li, Dragon Lee, and Bruce Le. They never come across as crass imitators happy to have a pay day. Instead, Enter the Clones of Bruce gives them a chance to express their respect for the icon, and the ways they meant well, while sidewise hoping audiences will believe imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In addition, they all are shown to be talented martial artists which gives their stories a touch of tragedy.

Ho Tsun-Tao a.k.a. Bruce Li in ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE (2023). Severin Films. An older Bruce Li strikes a martial arts pose in a park.
Ho Tsun-Tao a.k.a. Bruce Li in ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE (2023). Severin Films.

It’s clear throughout the film each could have had a career of some degree in martial arts movies but embracing Bruce Lee’s image meant being eclipsed by it as well. Never able to get out from under that shadow, their own stars never got a chance to shine. In a way, it’s a story anyone could relate to. The era isn’t shown as a glamorous time, but rather an economically struggling period for Hong Kong. Studios offered financial opportunities with a taste of fame few could decline.

In that respect, Enter the Clones of Bruce provides a wonderful glimpse into the world of low-budget filmmaking. There are numerous amusing anecdotes about cranking out pictures on the fly. The trials and tribulations of shooting without permits. Writing scripts while filming. Occasionally, the documentary feels like a peek into guerilla moviemaking as production crews quickly shoot fight scenes on the streets of Rome, Italy, perplexed pedestrians in the background clearly wondering why a kung fu brawl just broke out.

Visually speaking, Enter the Clones of Bruce benefits from miles of footage and photos. Clips from the multitude of movies it references break up interviews, so the documentary is never just talking heads. Some sections are wonderfully edited to highlight various performers’ skills or emphasize how some flicks simply copied Bruce Lee movies note for note. Occasionally, motion graphics also help flavor the film with more than just newsreels, snippets, and chatter.

Poster art for ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE (2023). Severin Films. Movie poster featuring art work depicting the three most well-known Bruce Lee-alikes: Bruce Li, Dragon Lee, and Bruce Le.
Poster art for ENTER THE CLONES OF BRUCE (2023). Severin Films.

Director David Gregory is no stranger to documentaries about genre films. His award-winning film Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) is a must see, not simply for its quality but the stories behind that ill-fated production. Similarly, Enter the Clones of Bruce isn’t merely a rundown of various films which fit the Bruceploitation criteria. It’s a slice of cinema history with parts that may not be flattering, but which honesty makes endearing.

If the film falters in any way, it’s by sticking too close to its central topic. The personal lives of the main interviewees never really come into focus. While that may simply have been respecting the privacy of all involved, other than vague general references about difficulties balancing family life with a whirlwind demanding schedule—the studios involved sometimes shot whole movies in fifteen days—there isn’t much time devoted to the impact being in these productions had on the Bruce Lee variants. It’s not that the documentary needs to become a gritty exposé about personal tragedies, but it would be interesting to know the level of stardom these performers achieved as well as its effect on them.

Still, perhaps that’s merely my personal curiosity. Those solely interested in the subgenre will find plenty of satisfying information. Enter the Clones of Bruce acknowledges 80 films as official Brucesploitation flicks, while also admitting that around 200 movies may fit the bill. Obviously, that means a varying degree of quality. However, Severin films, who produced the documentary, has a box set planned for release around May 21st which presumably includes some of the best—The Game of Clones: Bruceploitation Collecton Vol. 1.

Enter the Clones of Bruce is a captivating introduction to a subgenre that may be your next obsession. It’s also a celebration of low-budget moviemakers’ tenacity. A tale of imitation, cinema history, legacy, and occasionally questionable motivations, Enter the Clones of Bruce has it all.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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