Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Review: Bruce’s Deadly Fingers

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Bruce’s Deadly Fingers (aka Lung men bei chi; The Young Dragon)
Written and directed by Joseph Kong
VCI Entertainment / United Cine-Production Enterprises / MVD Visual
91 minutes, 1976 / 2018

Do you remember where you were when you heard Bruce Lee died in 1974, when he was just age 32? He would be 78 now. I don’t, but there are countless who do. His passing, probably due to his brain swelling in reaction to mixed medications, has led to two cultural side effects: the weird one was all the conspiracy theories about how he died, such as a popular one that he was killed by a kung fu punch to his heart (as characterized in Kill Bill: Vol. 2) that did him in days later; the other was the rise of what is known as Brucesploitation [BS].

People, as they are wont to do, tried to cash in on the Bruce Lee [BL] craze and death by pouring out quick and cheap martial arts films with actors who changed their names to the likes of Dragon Lee, Bruce Li and Bruce Le (from Taiwan, who started as Chien-Lung Huang). Nearly all of them imbued some of Lee’s outward tokens, such as clothing and mannerisms, but it also helped that they bore some resemblance to the late star.

Bruce Le doing his best Bruce Lee
For this film, Bruce Le picked up the mantle playing Bruce Wong, who has returned to Hong Kong from San Francisco after learning of the death of a parent and not being able to find his sister, Shiu Ju. Arriving, he finds that her boyfriend has tried to sell her into prostitution to pay off a gambling debt. Le rescues her, and then it’s either the mob vs. Le, or Le vs. the mob. That’s where most of the mayhem starts.

Another major plot point is the search by everyone for “Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu Finger Book,” which supposedly shows how to kill with your fingers (a direct relation to the rumor about how the star died). If you took a drink every time some uses the phrase “Kung Fu Finger Book,” you’d die of alcohol poisoning, arguably before the film is half over.

Nora Miao
There are also some other subplots, such as Mina (the cute Nora Miao, who actually did star with BL onscreen), the fictional actress girlfriend of the actual Bruce Lee (I’m curious to know what BL’s widow thought of that storyline premise) and his sis are kidnapped by the gang; Le is out to get them back with the help of two friends.

Unlike a BL film where all the action centers around BL, here Le is only in about half of the battles, others being his friends, and someone from Interpol (Michael Chan, the best actor/strongest fighter here) who wants to bring the gang to justice.

As for Le, he is shorter than most of his opponents, and exhibits all the Lee clichés, as they would be known now: the yellow track suit with the stripe (again, also employed in Kill Bill: Vol. 1), oversized shaded glasses (like Elvis), wiping the side of his nose (more than once), and the open mouth/wide eyed scream (“Eeeeeyaaaahhhh”).

Beyond the BL-isms, there is also a lot of kung fu flick tricks that are also employed, including the quick zoom to a close-up of the eyes (was this tic taken from the Spaghetti Westerns, or the other way around?), and the sound of wood blocks crashing every time a fist is thrown, whether it lands or not.

The story is a bit convoluted, and honestly a bit hard to follow at times, but I believe that is in part because of the translation issues. I’ve always found it humorous how the overdubs try to match the lips so there are awkward pauses in weird spots, such as (I’m making this up: “I have come here to see…how you are doing.”) Also, the talking seems to either be monotone or yelling. As for the language conversion, the story may make sense in Cantonese, but something is definitely lost in the translation. The confusion  includes the following plot points: why is that guy fighting those thugs in in the pool hall, exactly? How come that same is now fighting with Wong’s friend since he seems to be on their side?

The thing is that hardly anybody in the center of the United States, at that time, really cared about motivation, but rather they wanted to see some fighting. And there is a lot of it here. It’s amazing how rarely you see guns, even though it takes place in then-modern times. Other than a sniper, it’s nearly all fists, knives, swords, nunchucks, and poles. In the West, this probably confused a lot of people who grew up on Westerns, and having assault rifles (sorry, I mean ArmaLite rifles) are normalized.

Michael Chen vs. Bolo Yeung
There are four or five main fighters here: Le who is okay, his two friends (one who is good, one who keeps getting the snot wacked outta him), Chen (who steals most of his scenes), Lee Hung (Lieh Lo [d. 2002]), the head of the mob who is looking for the Kung Fu Finger Book), and Le’s teacher and Uncle, Master Wong. Bolo Yeung (aka Yang Sze), who is also known as Chinese Hercules for his sheer size and strength since he was the Chinese bodybuilding champion for a decade and a star in his own right, also makes an appearance as a villain in one scene. And you just know, as it’s bound to happen in these films, Le goes through a training session with his Kung Fu Master to build up to the big fight with Hung, with which these genre films nearly always end. This one is short, but particularly gruesome.

I found it interesting that it almost seems like the fights are choreographed by two different people with different styles. Some of the action is kinda shoddy and lackluster, with people missing each other by inches. Others, especially towards the end, look really well staged. While Chan definitely is the best actor and consistent fighter, Le is the worst actor and sometimes great chopping action and other times meh, Personally, I feel the reason for the bad acting is two-fold. First, it’s the genre: this equivalent of B-films tend to be ramped up to emoting level 11, or hang around 2 at a monotone. Second, Le seems to be trying hard to appear like BL on screen. In other words, acting like someone who is acting. Everything is too emphasized without any nuances. That’s not to say it’s not fun, because it is, but it’s important to remember that it is what it is.     

"When is #MeToo again?"
The area where this this is dated the most, though, is the way women are represented. There are lots of kung fu films where women are warriors in the past, but I find that ones that take place in the present are less likely to do so. Here, women are seen tied up almost as much not, forced into prostitution, tortured with lizards (it’s an infamous scene in this particular release), and almost always seen as submissive. Even when one proves to be proficient in the martial arts, she is easily defeated and talked down to as being inferior and not really a threat. Even the two strongest characters, the gang leader’s mistress and the actress Mina are either put in danger often, or seen as not important.

Like a lot of post-BL releases that fall into the BS column, many of the actors here overlap from BL films, such as Yeung, Lieh, Chan, and Miao, among others here.

Being a Blu-ray and DVD combo package, there are extras up the wazoo. The most basic one is a collection of Brucesploitation trailers. The first few are among the last batch of BL’s films, followed by the “Elvis Impersonators” (as I like to call them), including Li, Le and Dragon. What I found interesting about this collection was being able to compare the original BL with his imitators; in style and personality, it’s easy to see why Lee is valued above others. There is also a HD version of this film’s original trailer.

The commentary track is with a BS and BL expert, as well as actor, director and author, and especial fan, Michael Worth. It’s a great talk about the film, both the direct and indirect connections with BL, and some history of the genre. Definitely worth a listen.

Le being wide-eyed and bushy fingered
There is a 6-minute Deleted Scenes with mostly superfluous material that doesn’t really add or take away from the story, but are enjoyable to view (some dubbed into English, others with subtitles, and one silent). Also, humorously, is a 6-minute “Bad Kung Fu Dubs,” which is clips from this film and the bad overdubs (and acting) that I mentioned earlier. Last up is an image gallery of stills for mostly this, and some for other BS films.

I remember having a conversation with Mariah Aguire (RIP), who was a photographer and scenester during the early New York punk days, and who was a huge kung fu film fan. Over lunch at Dojos on St. Mark’s Place, I mentioned that my personal taste was period pieces about pre-18th Century Asian history (the Japanese equivalent would be the samurai films) more than modern gangster tales, and she chided me, saying there was fun and a sense of cheesiness in both. Of course, she was right, and even though I still have my preferences, I see what she was saying back then. This is a good example of that.

Despite wallowing in all the kung fu clichés, including some really bad overacting by some of the players, this is exactly what it was supposed to be: a story that is secondary to the action, and in that way, it’s extremely successful. 

No comments:

Post a Comment