Following Bruce Lee’s death, the icon was succeeded by a number of martial arts actors skilled in kung fu, with the most notable of them being Bruce Li. Li’s long career in the industry allowed him to play the starring role in more kung fu movies than Lee himself.
The Hong Kong movie industry was in shock after Bruce Lee died in July 1973, ahead of the release of his first (and only) Hollywood movie, Enter the Dragon. Though he had only starred in three martial arts movies in Hong Kong, he had already changed studios approaches to their films. One of the ways they reacted to his death was to cast actors who could continue his legacy; this including finding actors who looked similar to him, and having them fill roles akin to the characters Lee played in The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon. The focus on capitalizing on Lee’s success caused this period in martial arts cinema to earn the name “Bruceploitation”.
The most well-known Bruceploitation actor in the 1970s was Bruce Li. Born Ho Chung Tao, the Taiwanese actor started out doing stunt work and small parts in Hong Kong movies. That changed when Lee died, and the hunt for new lead actors who could replace him began. A martial arts director who had recognized Ho’s skill and resemblance to Lee recommended him to a producer, who decided to make Ho into a star [via YouTube]. His name was also changed to “Bruce Li”.
Between 1974 and 1982, Li starred in dozens of kung fu movies. Many of these had titles, posters, and sometimes stories that directly connected him to Bruce Lee. During his career, he has played Lee, a fictionalized version of Lee’s brother, a student of Lee’s, and more. He also made sequels to Lee’s Fist of Fury. Among his other movies are Fists of Bruce Lee, The Dragon Lives, Soul Brothers of Kung Fu, and Bruce Lee’s Secret. For the most part, Li only worked with smaller Hong Kong studios, rather than the two giants in the industry, Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers. However, at one time Golden Harvest (the studio that Bruce Lee was contracted to) did try to hire Li to help them finish Lee’s incomplete film, Game of Death, by taking over his role. But Li, who objected to their approach of having multiple stand-ins instead of just one, passed on the offer.
Lee retired from acting in the early 1990s, and he has since discussed his frustration with the way studios marketed his films and his image. During the Bruceploitation era, multiple actors were treated in the same way; they even had to copy Lee’s mannerisms. Some of the posters for the movies featured pictures of the real Bruce Lee instead of the stars. Li felt that he was unable to be himself in many of his movies, and that was an unfortunate truth about the state of the industry of the time. That being said, it’s worth noting that while Hong Kong studios did eventually move on from Bruce Lee, a large number of Bruceploitation films – several of which being Bruce Li’s – have evolved into cult favorites for martial arts fans.