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BACK when I was a yoof, me and my mates’ favourite things were reggae music and kung fu films. Girls and football surely had their pleasures but they were fleeting and frequently all too elusive.
A weekend often led from the game to a dance and then to a late-night cinema. The vampire charms of Ingrid Pitt saw me through puberty but, equally, so did the intensity and fierceness of Angela Mao Ying.
Both brought more than pulchritude to my view of femininity. They were independent, direct women who took no nonsense.
Kung fu pervaded much of 1970s youth culture. There were plenty of reggae records adopting kung-fu stances and the moves made their way into dance steps, dynamically on the talcumed Northern Soul dance floors.
The scatological humour in Chinese, particularly Cantonese, films touched a chord with British working-class audiences, as did the fact that the films frequently had a little man-against-the- boss plot. Women were as likely to be kung fu stars as men, with no big deal made of it.
The 1978 Pelican sociology book Knuckle Sandwich has a whole chapter on the impact of kung fu films on council estate gangs: “Bruce could not only be idolised by girls in the traditional terms as Supermale, his films demonstrated that the so-called weaker sex could master a technique which meant that they could fight on equal terms with boys – and win.
“Even if his girl fans didn’t in practice follow the way of the dragon, Bruce Lee ratified their entry into the precincts of the fighting crew.” The Slits were doing the same thing with guitars.
There’s much focus on representation in films these days, I often think too much on the actors rather than on where the money goes, but it’s no bad thing. It’s often a surprise to “woke” youths when us older types can reel off a string of Chinese names as the favourite film stars from our teens: Angela Mao Ying, Lo Lieh, the Venoms, Cheng Pei-Pei and many more.
Stewart Home has taken a look back to the massive impact of Lee, particularly the slew of “Brucesploitation” films from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s in his book Re-Enter the Dragon. It is a finger pointing to the sleazy joys of an overlooked, and defiantly lowbrow, genre. As you’d expect from Home, he revels in the lowbrow but doesn’t necessarily accept it as such. He brings genre theory and an enthusiast’s eye for specifics to the book.
Lee was undoubtedly kung fu’s biggest star. Not necessarily the best martial artist but the one who broke the US market and got the world to look at Chinese cinema differently. He only made a handful of films and in the wake of his all too early death the production line cranked out film after film, with Bruce after Bruce.
Bruce Le, Dragon Lee and Bruce Li, among others, are explored as are films such as Enter the Fat Dragon, Bruce and the Shaolin Bronzemen, The Clones of Bruce Lee and 143 other “found poetry” titles.
The well-sketched chapter on director Joseph Velasco is especially welcome as there’s a dearth of information readily available about “the king of Brucesploitation.”
Home ranks him alongside Spanish horror legend Jess Franco and his book is a must for kung fu fans and enlightening for anyone with an interest in culture beyond the commercial narrative.
It’s all there to be fought over. As Home says: “Your kung fu, sorry I mean bullshit theory, is pretty good — but it can’t beat my trash cinema dialectics!”
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