The Dragon Lives Again is one of those oddballs that inspires confusion among many viewers—a movie so weird, so spectacularly ill-conceived, that it couldn’t possibly have been made that way on purpose. (A rough analogue would be 1991’s Story of Ricky, another demented cult favorite that’s sometimes treated as an unintentional comedy.) Try this for a logline: the newly-deceased Bruce Lee arrives in Deihyuhk (the so-called “Chinese Hell”) and teams up with the One-Armed Swordsman, Caine from Kung Fu, and Popeye the Sailor Man to foil a coup by Dracula, the Man with No Name, and various other pop culture fixtures. The crazy-quilt combination of such wildly disparate elements makes it tempting to think the filmmakers stumbled into it by accident, without ever realizing how stupid it was.
Or is it, as Homer Simpson would say, stupid like a fox? The Dragon Lives Again was released during a boom period for Hong Kong comedy, and while it stands well apart from the genre’s mainstream, a mutant offspring is offspring nonetheless. The film owes its existence to Shaw Brothers’ hit comedy The House of 72 Tenants (1973); though the similarities are all but nonexistent, The Dragon Lives Again pays homage with an appearance by Lau Yat-fan, reprising his crooked cop character from the earlier film.
Lau Yat-fan in The House of 72 Tenants (l) and The Dragon Lives Again (r)
The House of 72 Tenants not only jumpstarted Hong Kong comedy, but also revived Cantonese-language cinema after its displacement by the more “prestigious” Mandarin variety. Shaw uncharacteristically failed to follow up in earnest—Cantonese comedy never became a major part of the studio’s output—and others rushed in to fill the gap. Among these was The Dragon Lives Again producer Goldig Films, one of the innumerable fly-by-night outfits that littered the Hong Kong cinema landscape before the industry’s mid-nineties decline. Goldig started in 1972 as a maker of Mandarin sexploitation flicks, then jumped aboard the Cantonese comedy bandwagon with films like Tenants of Talkative Street (1974) and Don’t Call Me Uncle (1975), drawing on stars from 72 Tenants‘ huge ensemble cast.
But the biggest beneficiary of the comedy boom was Shaw’s arch-enemy Golden Harvest. The upstart studio had already stolen Shaw’s thunder by signing Bruce Lee; now it responded to 72 Tenants (a film loaded with talent from Hong Kong’s then-burgeoning television industry) by hiring Michael and Samuel Hui, the colony’s most popular TV comics. (Adding insult to injury, Michael Hui had previously been a contract actor at Shaw.) With Michael as writer-director, the Huis’ work with Golden Harvest, such as Games Gamblers Play (1974) and The Last Message (1975), became touchstones of Hong Kong popular culture, and The Private Eyes (1976) was the decade’s highest grosser at the local box office.
The Huis’ combination of quick-fire verbal wit, elaborate slapstick, and biting satire is rightfully seen as a forerunner of the mòuhlèihtàuh (“nonsense”) comedies that emerged in the 1990s, but with some key differences. Stephen Chow, Jeff Lau, and other mòuhlèihtàuh practitioners loaded their films with parodies of movies old and new, foreign and domestic; the less explicitly referential Huis reworked genre conventions instead of singling out specific films. In The Private Eyes—the film that saw the Hui sensibility in full flower—youngest brother Samuel plays an amateur kung fu enthusiast, whose skills unexpectedly come in handy against a group of thugs headed up by Shih Kien (best known as the villain in Enter the Dragon). The filmmakers enlisted the young Sammo Hung to serve as action director, ensuring these martial arts elements would be more than a throwaway gag.
The Private Eyes
The blend of comedy and action was nothing new in itself. More than a few kung fu movie mavens had learned to grit their teeth through comic relief interludes—themselves a reflection of Hong Kong filmmakers’ cheerful disregard for tonal consistency, permitting a single film to veer between deadly self-seriousness, mawkish sentimentality, and lowbrow humor. But the Huis derived humor from the juxtaposition itself, playing up the incongruity of martial arts tropes in a contemporary comedy about detectives. Cantonese comedy had gone meta.
The Dragon Lives Again elevates incongruity to a guiding principle—though “elevates” might not be the most appropriate word here. Its starting point is “Bruceploitation,” a sordid genre that emerged after Bruce Lee’s unexpected death in 1973. The worldwide success of kung fu cinema was to a great extent the product of Lee’s popularity, and producers were eager to keep the gravy train rolling. One solution: quickie cash-ins with stars who looked and acted sorta like Bruce Lee, sporting screen names like “Bruce Li,” “Bruce Le,” and “Bruce Lai.” Some of these films were fictionalized biopics (Bruce Lee: The Man, the Myth); others spun elaborate conspiracies around Lee’s death (Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger); some were low-budget ripoffs of movies Lee actually made (Way of the Dragon 2, a.k.a. Bruce Le’s Greatest Revenge).
To its credit, The Dragon Lives Again doesn’t follow any of these well-trod paths, and treats Bruceploitation with as little reverence as it deserves. Star Bruce Leung Siu-lung wasn’t the only Lee “clone” with no great resemblance to his ostensible model, but the film openly acknowledges the problem and presents a hilariously half-assed excuse: the deceased take on a new face and body in the afterlife. As though to remind us that we’re supposed to be watching Bruce Lee, Leung at one point dons the uniform of The Green Hornet’s Kato, only to drop the the costume just as abruptly.
Bruce Leung as Bruce Lee as Kato
This ersatz Lee also comes with a less familiar accoutrement. Compounding the bad taste inherent to Bruceploitation, a fair amount of The Dragon Lives Again turns on Bruce’s alleged sexual prowess, including his oversized endowment. This aspect of the plot is unsubtly implied by the film’s original title, Léih Sāamgeuk Wāijan Deihyuhk Mùhn “Three-Legged Lee Shakes the Gates of Hell”; the nickname “Three-Legged Lee” originally referred to Lee’s real-life fighting technique, but it takes on an obvious double meaning in this context—though the inevitable “third leg” joke is one of the film’s more inspired moments.
This also conveniently gave the filmmakers a pretext for gratuitous nudity, courtesy of the female underworlders who all but throw themselves at the “generous” lover they’ve heard so much about. The combination of humor and titillation was nothing new, and Goldig had tried it themselves with 1976’s Fertility Bank, adding new comedic sequences to footage from the erotic drama Bald-Headed Betty (1975). Indeed, the seventies were a libertine time for world cinema in general, and even Shaw Brothers cranked out its share of softcore sleaze. (The studio’s Bruce Lee and I—a perverse work of posthumous score-settling—boasted semi-explicit sex scenes between Lee and his mistress.) In a nod to the global trend, the small army of pop culture villains in The Dragon Lives Again includes French sensation Emmanuelle. The character’s name had already been hijacked for the likes of Black Emanuelle, Yellow Emanuelle, and Emanuelle in Bangkok, but it’s still a bit jarring to see her here, attempting to seduce Bruce Lee and the King of the Underworld. (The part is played by a Caucasian woman mononymously credited as “Jenny,” in what appears to be her only screen appearance.)
Emmanuelle (Jenny) with James Bond (Alexander Grand) and a skeleton
Emmanuelle is but one of the film’s many violations of copyright and common sense. Hong Kong cinema had long taken a relaxed attitude towards intellectual property—The Dragon Lives Again wasn’t the first or last film to make unauthorized use of the One-Armed Swordsman, and its shamelessly stolen music (credited to Frankie Chan, who found eventual renown as “legitimate” composer) is typical of the period. But the film is uniquely indifferent to whether these assorted borrowings actually belong together in the same universe: besides Dracula (Cheung Hei) and the Man with No Name (Bobby Canavarro), the bad guys include “The Godfather” (Korean action star Sin Il-ryong, whom Golden Harvest unsuccessfully tried to turn into a “new Bruce Lee” with 1976’s The Double Crossers), “The Exorcist” (Fong Yau, inexplicably dubbed with a French accent), Zatōichi (Wong Mei), and James Bond (gwáilóu actor Alexander Grand, billed as “Champion-Boxer of Europe”). Weird as this is, though, The Dragon Lives Again has a fairly transparent logic: Bruceploitation was built on the appropriation of one man’s image, so why not go the whole hog and appropriate from all and sundry?
It’s worth noting here that Bruceploitation was a made-for-export phenomenon disdained by Hong Kong audiences, which might explain the character roster’s international makeup. But then the typical Western viewer could hardly be expected to recognize Zhong Kui (San Kuai), the ghost-king of Chinese mythology, who faces Bruce at the film’s climax. (In a possible concession to foreign sensibilities, Zhong Kui summons a group of mummies instead of Chinese-style ghouls or demons.) It’s also doubtful a grindhouse crowd would appreciate the references to Han Dynasty physician Hua Tuo, to the aforementioned “Constable 369” from The House of 72 Tenants, or to the classical beauties Yang Guifei (Terry Lau Wai-yu) and Zhao Feiyan (Koo Ming), who hang out in the Deihyuhk’s own version of the Huaqing Pool. One resident of the underworld’s Chinatown (played by Lily Foo) is modeled, fake mole and all, on popular “sex kitten” actress Hu Chi, and more specifically her “seductive widow” roles in The Warlord (1972) and Honor and Love (1973).
So it’s not exactly clear who The Dragon Lives Again was made for, and perhaps the filmmakers didn’t know either—hence the general sense of chucking stuff against the wall and hoping some of it sticks. In fact, the film has acquired a higher profile among Chinese viewers than almost any other Bruceploitation flick, though for a reason nobody could’ve anticipated: the presence of future superstar Eric Tsang, who delivers an entertaining turn as Popeye. The then-24-year-old Tsang also served as an assistant director, and one wonders if his talent for spoofery (given fuller expression in the early Aces Go Places films, among many others) informed some of the film’s weirdness.
Popeye (Eric Tsang) and Kwai Chang Caine (Hon Kwok-choi)
In any case, the filmmakers could’ve used the help, as neither director Lo Ke nor his co-writer Leung Wai had any particular expertise in comedy. (A quick aside: despite the IMDb’s claims to the contrary, Lo Ke is not the Law Chi who directed The Crippled Masters, fitting as it would be for two of kung fu cinema’s most dubious classics to be the work of one man.) I’m reluctant to make categorical judgments based on the English dub—which includes world-beating dialogue like “I’m gonna die? You’re gonna die!”—but the movie suffers from inconsistent action direction (credited to Bruce Leung and veteran Leung Siu-chung) and awkward stretches of exposition.
As it happens, The Dragon Lives Again was released just before kung fu comedy became a full-fledged trend, thanks in part to a more disciplined parody of the Bruceploitation craze: 1978’s Enter the Fat Dragon, which involves a would-be heir to Lee’s throne portrayed by the rotund Sammo Hung. With Hung pulling double duty as director, Enter the Fat Dragon found the perfect mix of action and humor, and along with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow—the film that saw Jackie Chan break with his earlier image as “the next Bruce Lee”—it heralded a new direction for martial arts cinema. But The Dragon Lives Again was destined only for cultdom, the supreme oddity of a genre that was pretty odd to begin with. Perhaps its proper lineage is not seventies comedy but the disreputable Cantonese sàhngwaai (fantasy) cinema of the early sixties, which mixed ancient demons with cardboard box robots because… well, why not? There are probably stupider ways to make a movie.