Friday, December 31, 2021

Way of the Coffin Flop: GAME OF DEATH II (1981)

 
Night #6 of the 12 Days of Ed Wood

Some deaths never last.

 Acolytes of the Great Bruce Lee temple generally sneer at the legions of posthumous 'final' films of their great one, for which there as many as there are posthumous Hendrix albums. It's much easier to 'finish' a Hendrix song as one can easily add and subtract tracks to any guitar, but it's harder to make a movie out of a few smiling reaction shots and home movies. Very rarely does a film like that transcend its ghoulish aspirations to become something top drawer Plan Nine-hilarious. Well, sneer away, acolytes, but GAME OF DEATH II (1981) --one of the earlier posthumous mashups from Golden Harvest--the sequel to what was a ridiculous mash-up to begin with--is right in that drawer, kicking its way out. It's a magnificent melange for the dissociative cinenambulist, with some great fights and stunts for those who like that sort of thing, so prett queetending and wag on the jump train! 

Strangely joyous and soothing in a post-modern sort of way, it's such a uniquely cool hodgepodge homage it demands to be taken on its own terms, and as soon as it figures out what those terms are, you'll know... everything, and beyond, until a Godardesque demonstration of the impossibility of a unified cinematic subject and you are merged to the point of inextricability.


Released a mere seven year after Lee's death, Golden Harvest pulls out three of the stops to let us know his spirit still very much present, ghostlording over a relentlessly shifting composite of doubles, dubbers, stunt-men, unused footage from other movies, dummies, and lookalike replacement 'little brothers' in a film that's half-seance, part-flashback 'clips' episode, part-verité  funeral footage /memorial, and part cheap-but-inventive Enter the Dragon / James Bond-emulating spy flick science fiction kung fu action movie. That's more than two halves, I know, but logic and math have no place in Game of Death II. It's not even really a sequel. All you need to know is this: it... is... the best...at what it does... and what it does... no one man can say. Until now.

I love it enough that I hate the dumb title. I wish it was called Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave. Alas, there already is an actual film Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave. It has no footage of Bruce Lee whatsoever. Can you imagine how cool it would be to have the below left poster be for GOD2, or to have a poster with Bruce leaping from a coffin hoisted 600 feet in the air lifted by helicopter? it's such an indelible moment in the film--one of those WTF moments bad film lovers stuff under their mattresses like tittering misers-- and yet the poster art for Game of Death II is woefully short of trumpeting its grandeur. 

I mention all this because death and graves and coffin imagery are a huge part of Game of Death II. Billy Lo (i.e. Lee... if his full face is visible, otherwise a stand-in/double) falls to his death after mysterious claw-wielding helicopter absconds with his buddy's coffin during a big funeral, hoisting it high in the air. Bruce tries to hold onto Death for dear life. But Death will not have him. Now Lo/Lee's subsequent funeral--is full of actual Lee funeral footage interspersed with footage from Lee's earlier, non-kung fu, acting roles, as a child actor and young romantic lead. By then, about 1/3 of the way through the film, we're so confused over the melange dummies, stand-ins, dubbers, projections, outtakes and doubles, we don't even know who the real Lee was or is or was supposed to be. What even is death? Can we live forever if we hire someone to dress like us and walk around our old neighborhood? Does the weird seductress in the poster at left really have a bat tied up in her hair, like if Medusa's snakes got tangled with a bat homunculus? Does she even appear in the film itself? Did Bruce fake his death in real life to avoid the triads? Were the triads trying to extort Lee into signing a long contract and he felt there was no way out other than a fake suicide? Or Did the triads whack him for not signing with them, and they successfully made it look like natural--if suspiciously unusual--causes? 

Nothing is answered in Game of Death II and that's how we want it. It's a film that starts off at an off-footing, and we never catch our balance. In his last fully alive film, Enter the Dragon, we heard Lee's real voice when he spoke--a careful, measured, sinuous purr. When Bruce speaks in Death II, his real voice is replaced by a strident, square-jawed, no nonsense hero-style voice actor, one we've heard a thousand times in other roles and who does not sound measured, sinuous, purring or remotely Asian. He sounds like he wandered over from a Dragnet audition. The effect is immediately disorienting, plunging us into an uncanny sense of disconnect. The Lee we're expecting has gone fluttering into a thousand different directions. But if we don't fight it, if we let the uncanny affect create a post-structural frisson, the payoff- is a post-modern kick to the back of the head (we'll see a lot of the back of Lee's head, i.e. a double with a very wide head that looks nothing like Bruce's). Everything evokes something else, making it all like the Golden Harvest version of a shaman embodying Lee in a mimetic trance while dancing around a tribal fire in a ceremonial Bruce Lee mask. We're in a kind of mash-up heaven, with fingers pointing a million different ways at once--if you let it happen, it's uplifting, it frees you from the trance of narrative hypnosis rather than the reverse. 

To use Hendrix album comparison, if the first Game of Death was Cry of LoveGame of Death II seems more a projected hologram of Hendrix in concert backed by a boozy cover band in some Vegas dinner theater Since it has much less Bruce footage to work with than the first Game, Part II is forced to think way outside the box. It gets so far away the box is left behind altogether. As such, I love it like a mother loves the bottom rung of her secret drug stash, or the writers at Bleeding Skull! love Doris Wishman's A Night to Dismember. In other words, I love it a lot. 


PLOT

The story begins with Lee walking the garden of his kung fu school's massive temple, talking to someone offscreen, not the orange-robed older monk he was talking to in Enter the Dragon, but a fellow badass named Chin Lu (Hwang Jang-lee, whose long black facial hair and ponytail decorated many a Golden Harvest kung fu villain). Chin--in a flowing gold robe--pauses their talk to decimate an Anglo challenger with his peerless sword technique while Lee watches and drinks tea. Afterwards, Lu notes they both have been receiving an unusual amount of challenges ("Someone may want us dead"). Lee tells of a recent challenger he had: so we flashback to a midnight (i.e. so it can be too dark to see faces clearly), greenhouse rendezvous he had with a young upstart some weeks earlier and we get our first composite restructured Lee: most of the time it's a fight double (lots of back of the head shots) plus what looks like an image of Lee from Game of Death I projected onto one of the plastic sheeted walls. The double keeps his mouth hanging open throughout so that dialogue can be attributed to him at any time. "That's what we call control!" he shouts at his whiny challenger after a pointed beatdown, "something you wouldn't understand!" We can't imagine the real Lee ever getting so smarmy after beating an opponent in a fair challenge, but it's not Lee's voice, and it's not him fighting, and its someone else's back of the head, so there you go. The fight still has lots of stillness and lightning quick moves and there's a great bit of Dolby foley work with a breaking clay pot mixed in there (on my 2004 Dragon Dynasty disc) it sounded like it was coming from my kitchen! 

Even in the narrative, doubling, flashbacks and mistakes commingle as if trying to confuse even the most astute of viewers as to whether the guy they're watching is supposed to be the actual Bruce Lee in flashback, or his character Billy Lo (who alternates between old Lee clips and his back-of-the-head double), or his college student pornography-owning, flaking-out-on-his-training brother Bobby. Whatever the truth, I don't care. The laconic nature of the first half, with its laid-back clip show flashback reminiscence of fights and and family matters, leads to a mellow glow that carries through to the rest of the film as young Bobby Lo ("Don't worry father, I won't let it bother me"), Billy's kid brother, decides to go full-on super spy in fun perhaps unintentionally goofy spin on Enter the Dragon's midnight black suit secret agent basement lair skulkfest, i.e. the best part of that film. 

But first! Billy learns his friend Chin Lu has been killed! He goes to tell Lu's sister, a performer in Japan. Rather than just call he goes to find her, plunging the movie into the nighttime world of 'the Ginza.' We hear a very Japanese rock/pop singer song of the moment (is it Meiko Kaji?) as Lee/Lo threads his way through the stock footage streets to find the nightclub where she underdressed waitresses wear bunny ears and customers all watch the performers glumly from their tables as if it's the 100th take of the night. Even with all that torpor, a fight erupts in her dressing room between Lee/Lo and a horde of assassins. Someone helpfully kicks out the lightbulb so a double can be used for most of the shots. Then our hero goes running through the streets which resemble a kind of sad indoor mall. Where are we anyway? Is this a real place or a big soundstage recreation? Are supposed to be outside in the night, or is it some kind of indoor vendor hall? Never will we know!

Next up, Lee/Lo goes to visit Bobby (Tae-jeong Kim) at college; but Bobby is wasting his time with pornography and non-martial arts studies. We see hands reading an erotic Chinese book then throwing it in the trash. They are Lo/Lee's!? Is he is at his kid brother Bobby's apartment or house or garage? Never will we know! He throws all his brother's dirty magazines into the trash basket, and then starts penning a letter 

"Dear Bobby - how are you? I was hoping to see you but you were out; sorry I missed you. I guess I don't have to tell you that to become an expert in kung fu requires more effort." 

Lo/Lee leaves him his bro the family's secret boxing manual, as if knowing he's about to die. At any rate, he's off to a funeral! A very Ennio Morricone-ish surge of blazing brass and vocalizing heralds a visit to a fancy pagoda for Lu's wake, where marital arts trainees in black, like an army of Japanese Lee replacements waiting to go, stand motionless along all the sides of the walkway. That seems to be a thing. Lots of pagodas. Lots of standing still along pagoda steps by guys in matching karate clothes. 

The funeral is Shinto Buddhist. Astute viewers realize instantly Lu's not really dead when four muscly guys in white won't let Lo get close enough to view the body. Lo runs into a Japanese guy and we see the swastika (in the right direction) on the casket. Hey, Buddhism is so much more cosmic than Christianity. The art shows a much clearer understanding of universal energy flows, the circular breathing of the monks echoes eternity. 

And when a helicopter comes to steal the casket the circuit is complete. 

Lee/Lo is so adamant at getting a look at the body, he hitches a ride grabbing onto the claws the chopper uses to steal the casket, only to drop down and fall to his death from hundreds of feet in the air. Now, it's Billy Lo aka Lee who is dead! But also-- the real Bruce Lee is dead!! Now we get Lee's real funeral with dissolve overlays of his whole career, from child actor onwards, a whole photo album of Lee's life, overlaid with footage of his funeral ceremony. 

Well if you got to go, the best way is to do it while falling off of a coffin claw from three hundred feet.  "After you've read this letter, go to Japan," reads dad's letter to young Bobby, "and avenge your brother, Billy." 

Bobby visits a wealthy white guy named Sherman (he looks a little like Daniel Day Lewis - coincidence?) who eats raw meat and drinks a pink milk cocktail for breakfast. ("This is raw venison, and deer's blood!") Lewis gives Bobby a tour of the grounds, pausing briefly fight to the death three idiot martial artists who arrive at the gate to challenge him. It's funny that Lewis, the only white guy in the whole film, is the worst dubbed, with a voice all halting and unevenly accenting the wrong words, as he shows off his grounds ("I keep a lot of specially trained.... peacocks... over there. They obey my command. It takes a lot of training.") It's pretty awe inspiring and strange when Lewis (who he calls Sherman for some reason) makes a signal and a whole flock of peacocks fly out of their aerie, across the vast lawn and right towards the camera! We also see lions just hanging out in the garden. "They are really big lions!" says Bobby, "I'm kind of frightened." We get quite a bit of the lion footage; at one point they surround the jeep "their favorite dish is fresh human meat").   

Bobby sleeps over at Lewis's estate and is visited first by an under-clothed Anglo lady named Angel (Miranda Austin) who tries to first mate with, and then kill, Bobby.  A guy in a convincing lion suit, acting like a lion (he may or may not be supposed to be an actual lion -we never quite know) comes flying through the window next. Hey, we've seen less convincing lion suits that were supposed to be actual lions. It's not Lewis sending these hit women and animals. Turns out there's also someone trying to kill Lewis, too: someone wearing a crazy red mask. Lewis may be the guilty one who ordered Billy's death, but Bobby still fights the guy trying to kill him, whom he encounters while they're both skulking around the grounds in the dead of night (Bobby wearing the iconic black catsuit Bruce Lee wore when sneaking around the island at night in Enter the Dragon), leading to a nice day-for-night fight in the garden.


Clues finally lead to the "Tower of Death" but the secret is - the tower is in reverse!! That's not what a tower is called, man! It's called a pit. But there you go. An elevator takes Bobby down down to a very cool combination of James Bond super villain lair, a 1960s TV Batman cliffhanger death trap and Han's underground opium processing plant in Enter the Dragon. Rivers of red blood (or some kind of red liquid) flank a grey industrial sci-fi room with ridged booby trap-laden hallways. Instead of Dragon's hall of mirrors we get the spinning throw room. An electrified grid of colored lasers fries Bobby's stick when he pokes it in, and so he must throw a rope so well it anchors between long boxes of tinsel and wrapping paper (that's what I saw anyway).

Luckily before Bobby can be fried, the bad guy leaps from out of his coffin onto a pedestal where the off switch can be easily accessed. A bit of the theme song from Enter is shoved into the faux-Morricone grandeur, and the film ends on a freeze frame. Blammo! No coffin can hold Lu, I mean Lo!  I man LEE!

Deadpan before Death! 

END OF PLOT

I usually don't do the whole "step-by-step plot explain"-style blog posts as I they're kind of lazy, even tacky, but that too has a kind of mimetic magic that matches Game and its deliberately confusing Lee compositing. With a star kind of Frankensteined together with other movie's outtakes, stunt doubles, stand-ins, dubbers, and fictional characters, the idea of narrative and of acting roles is exposed as the sham act it is, fuel for the hypnotist that is us. It takes many viewings to savvy all this, grasshopper, so let me help you skip the first dozen tries. It takes a lot of training! Now let those peacock's fly, Sherman!

See also the Other 11 Nights of Wood, and Wood-esquery:

3 comments:

  1. Some of the stills you showcased actually look really cool. Unfortunately I cannot digest Asian action movies. Anyway, do you know about the movie "Rainbow Bridge" from the early 70s? It's listed as a documentary but it really isn't. What movie had a guy at the Maui airport offering people "sunshine"? Half the cast is the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. You gotta check it out, man!

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  2. Thanks Janko - yes, I know Rainbow Bridge - I am a huge Hendrix fan and my band used to play "Hey Baby (New Rising Son)" a lot. Great Hendrix trip-babble and a groovy vibe, love the smuggling drugs in the surfboard bit.

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  3. (he looks a little like Daniel Day Lewis - coincidence?)
    This made me smile. Who knows what temporal paradoxes kung-fu exploitation films are capable of?

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