'Bruce Lee In New Guinea,' Not Exactly As Advertised
The title of this quirky kung fu flick is virtually a textbook case of false advertising
For starters, the film doesn’t even star Bruce Lee. The leading man in this 1977 martial arts movie is actually Bruce ‘Li’ (born Ho Tsung-Tao) the actor thought by most kung fu flick aficionados to be the least horrible of the five or six professional look-a-likes that took to the screen after the tragic death in 1973 of the real Bruce Lee.
(Okay, okay. Bruce Li was really pretty good.)
Secondly, the film’s semi-exotic island locale doesn’t at all pass muster for Papua New Guinea. Anybody who knows even the teeniest tiniest smidgen about that place knows that five million Melanesians (i.e., “black islanders”) live there. But there are none to be found in this flick, and their conspicuous absence makes this film feel like something of a rip off. Well, that’s if you, as I did, decided to watch it with the expectation of seeing Bruce go toe-to-toe with kung fu fighting Papuan folk, i.e., Chinese actors in blackface and Afro wigs.
The irony of the previous statement isn’t lost on yours truly. Although I generally find actors in blackface to be racially offensive, it was — to my surprise — somehow even more offensive that nobody in Bruce Lee in New Guinea was wearing any. I mean…how else could a movie director semi-convincingly convey the film’s alleged “primitive and ancient” inhabitants of Snake Worship Island, a fictional isle situated off the east coast of Papua New Guinea?
Well, if you’re the, er…auteur responsible for the masterpiece that is Bruce Lee in New Guinea, you don’t even try. Instead, you cast a bunch of regular-looking Chinese guy’s (Bolo Yeung from Enter the Dragon among them), give ’em a choice of either red or blue hot pants, decorative headbands, leather muscleman wristbands, Greek-style lace-up sandals, and voilà! A perplexing-looking tribe of ‘high yellow’ New Guineans dressed up like gay-ass 1970s disco dancers.
If there’s room in your head for that senses-shattering visual, then you’re probably all set to watch and possibly even enjoy this brain-dead Bruceploitation film. I certainly did.
As the story opens, Wan Li — an archeologist and badass mofo — arranges with his associate Chuen Sing (Larry Lee Gam-Kwan) to go on a two-man expedition to Snake Worship Island. Both men want to study the island’s legendary Snake Tribe, particularly the Devil Sect. This infamous splinter group is apparently known to practice snake style martial arts, black magic, and even human sacrifice!
Shortly after their arrival on the island, where they are led all around by two pea-brained guides, Li and Sing chance upon a doomed sacrificial virgin as she attempts to flee the Devil Sect. The men make a vain attempt to rescue the distressed damsel but she soon dies from a dose of poison administered by the business end of a flying dagger.
Apparently death befalls all who seek to defy the Devil Sect and the will of its leader, the Great Wizard. This includes Chang Pow, an acquaintance of Cheun Sing who’s also on the island. He came to steal the tribe’s famed Snake Pearl, but has his life taken instead when he tangles with the Wiz.
Discovered by Li moments after a foolhardy fight, with his last dying breaths he tells Li the secret techniques used by the evil overlord in the hope that the tip will help Li to avoid falling for them too. But Li does more than fall, he falls off the friggin’ map.
Days go by and Cheun Sing has no idea of what happened to his Bruce Lee look-a-like archeologist pal. Knowing that Wan Li rushed off to confront the Great Wizard alone, the worst is feared.
After a few more days on the island with no trace of Li, Chen goes back home to give Li’s parents the bad news. But that bad news is promptly followed by a miracle, in the form of a phone call from Papua: Li has been found! He is eventually returned safe and sound to his family in Hong Kong, but without a ready explanation for his absence.
What happened when Wan Li went missing is first hinted at through whiffs of late night cigarette smoke in his bedroom: visions of a beautiful woman with long curly hair and a promise to return to her arms. But nothing more.
The next day Li receives a visit from a cute but really annoying cousin that has the absolute hots for him — an okay thing in China, apparently. But whenever she tries to get close to her blood-related-heartthrob, Wan Li appears to morph into a giant serpent.
Justifiably horrified by what she’s seeing, Wan Li’s cousin faints. Cheun Sing is there to witness her bizarre reaction and Li knows its finally time to share the events of his lost time on the island. This is done in flashback, that popular storytelling device of 1970s cinema.
The deathbed survival tips provided by Chang Pow weren’t helpful, and Li nearly gets himself murdered to death after running off to confront the Great Wizard (Sing Chan). During the fight he was hit with the poisoned ring that Pow tried to warn him about and the prognosis is no bueno (translation: not good). The Great Wizard tells Li, through a nasty snarl, that he has about an hour to live, and then leaves him to die in the jungle.
Minutes later, the languishing man is found by two handmaidens of Princess Ungawa, played by the singularly named actress Dana. Ungawa happens to be the rightful ruler of the Snake Tribe. After the death of her father, the Great Chief, the Great Wizard took control of the Snake Tribe and the princess has been powerless to reclaim her birthright.
Lucky for Lee, though, Ungawa does have the power to save his life when he’s brought to her hut.
The handmaidens tell the princess that if Lee is to survive the poison coursing through his system his body has to be kept warm. But —both of them being maidens— they are clueless as to how to accomplish this. The princess tells them to leave and begins taking off her clothes.
Princess Ungawa is well versed in the ancient art of keepin' a hot guy — er, cold guy’s body warm.
A few very unfortunate edits later (the free-to-watch ‘Wu Tang Clan Collection’ version posted to YouTube has the juicy R-rated part edited out), Wan Li and the princess are seen walking along a rocky island path like cooing lovebirds. She asks Wan Li if he feels any better.
Now, the fact that he's actually walking should make it obvious, seeing as how he had to be carried to her hut the day before. But you know how some women are: in constant need of reassurance. This might even apply to the curly-haired princess built like a 5-foot Barbie doll and wearing a slinky leopard skin dress with matching knee-high boots!
Anywho, as the couple strolls along they are seen by Sun Ba, the son of the Great Wizard. Prior to Lee’s arrival, Sun Ba had asked the princess if she’d take his hand in marriage and she said she’d think about it. She obviously wasn’t thinking about it anymore, though, so he runs to tell his daddy and the news makes daddy mucho furiouso (translation: very angry).
The Great Wizard wants Ungawa to marry Sun Ba so that he can consolidate his fraudulently gained power on the island. They soon head out with about twenty of their lackeys to put an end to the suave and debonair Wan Li.
Feeling frisky from his evening with the princess, Wan Li is all ready to rumble when the hunting party arrives. But the Great Wizard is much too powerful and beats Li down all by himself. Just as the Great Wizard is about to deliver the killing blow, the princess tells him that she’ll marry his bitch-ass, crybaby snitch of a son if Li’s life is spared. The wizard accepts her offer, but only on the condition that Li leaves the island.
The lovers both agree, but Li secretly vows to the princess to return. To help ensure that Wan Li does return, Ungawa offers him an elixir spiked with a black magic Love Potion Number 9. It’s a concoction that has the mystical power to deter any woman from getting too close to Wan Li — which explains those terrifying visions that his lusty cousin had.
Once the events of his lost days on Snake Island are revealed, Li knows that it’s time to honor his vow to Ungawa and he begins practicing his kung fu. With the help of Cheun Sing, he devises a fight strategy to combat the sneaky Snake Style kung fu of the Great Wizard.
Meanwhile, back on Snake island the evil overlord is overseeing wedding preparations when it is learned that Ungawa got knocked up with Wan Li’s unborn seed. Sun Ba reminds her that tribal law would forbid her from ruling the Snake Tribe if she bears a child out of wedlock, so she renounces the throne and leaves so that she can be what she desires most: Wan Li’s baby mama.
Sun Ba, however, still wants to marry the very pregnant Ungawa. So in an attempt to force the pregnant princess to marry his son, the Great Wizard puts a life-threatening curse on the soon-to-be-born child. If she doesn’t marry Sun Ba, sometime after his birth, her baby will die.
After delivering the kid, the princess is sitting in her hut fretting over having to soon become Sun Ba’s wifey. That’s when Wan Li returns to her arms and meets his newborn shorty. After learning about the curse on his kid, Li sets off to retrieve the famed Snake Pearl from the lair of the wizard, which is the only thing that can save the infant from the bad juju.
In the film’s climatic finale, we’re treated to the brief return of Ungawa’s guardian gorilla (did I somehow neglect to mention that there’s a #@$%ing gorilla in this movie?), a semi-thrilling fight on the edge of a pit filled with hundreds of snakes, and someone gettin’ their eyes gouged out their sockets, which is always fun to see (yes, pun intended) in a kung fu movie.
With its semi-exotic locale, simple good-versus-evil plot, tight martial arts choreography, beautiful babes, and…a guy in a gorilla suit, this trippy but entertaining flick has just about everything one could expect to see in a motion picture called Bruce Lee in New Guinea. Well, except anyone whose looks would suggest people who are, you know, native to New Guinea.
Rating: Three flying daggers