This past year or so has been unusual for the number of films long thought lost that have made a sudden reappearance. And, now, with the surfacing of Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power, we see the appearance of a movie that many were beginning to think never existed in the first place. Like a lot of people, I first became aware of Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power via a fleeting reference in Pete Tombs’ book Mondo Macabro, and from there quickly went on to join the ranks of those unshakably enthralled by the monolithic stupidity of both that title itself and of the underlying film it suggested. And the stubborn unavailability of said film, as is so often the case, only made the spell that much more potent.
However, the extent to which Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power actually exists under that title is still arguable. For, behind the great and mighty Oz of that thuggishly high concept moniker cowers a comparatively humble Brazilian comedy that came into this world as –- and, judging by the Portuguese language version I watched, in its native country still goes by -- Kung Fu contra as Bonecas (“Kung Fu against Dolls”). And, despite the opacity of the Portuguese language to yours truly, what Kung Fu contra as Bonecas appears to be, first and foremost, is a broad spoof of Brazil’s then popular Cangaco film genre. Now, mind you, only twelve months ago I would not have been able to identify it as such, as it was not until late last year, when a friend came back from Brazil with a passel of Cangaco films under his arm, that I even became aware of that genre and the history behind it in the first place.
To briefly recap, Cangaco films alternately romanticized and sensationalized the exploits of early 20th century Brazilian bandit tribes known as the Cangacieros. First appearing in the early 50s, these films started out as a sort of Brazilian answer to the Hollywood Western, but as the genre continued through the late 60s and 70s, they became more rough and exploitative in their content. Kung Fu contra as Bonecas establishes a strong tie to the genre through its casting of actor Mauricio do Valle as its chief Cangaciero. In addition to starring in numerous Cangaco films throughout his career, Do Valle played the pivotal role of the Cangaciero hunter Antonio das Mortes in 1964’s Black God, White Devil, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest of all Brazilian films, and is probably the Cangaco genre’s toniest iteration.
Now, I’m hoping that someone out there will help me out with this, but I’m entirely unclear on just how Kung Fu contra as Bonecas came to be known as Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power in the first place. Was there actually an English language release of the film under that title, or was it simply an informal name by which it came to be known in fan circles? In either case, I suspect that the title just might be the work of someone who was attempting to contextualize some of the more unusual aspects of the Cangacieros for a non-Brazilian audience, chief among those perhaps being the bandits' manifest fanciness. The vanity of the Cangacieros, who were known to prettify themselves with stolen cosmetics, is well documented. However, as the invention and subsequent overuse of the term “metrosexual” demonstrates, vanity in a man does not equal gay. And, while perhaps it’s simply a matter of my gaydar being off, the Cangaceiros in Kung Fu contra as Bonecas, as flamboyant as they may be, do not read as gay. Perhaps it’s all of that heterosexual sex, both consensual and not, that they’re shown having throughout the film.
Nonetheless, there is something undeniably odd about the appearance and comportment of the Cangacieros that, to the uninitiated, could conceivably demand an accounting. With their distinctive headwear and uniquely ornamented leather outfits, it’s understandable that someone not in the know might assume that they were just some fanciful construct of a filmmaker’s imagination, and a pejorative one at that. (I’ve noticed that some English speaking reviewers of the film, struggling for a corollary, have referred to the Cangaceiro as looking more like “pirates”, while others mistakenly interpret the term Cangaceiro as an anti-gay slur.) It doesn’t help that Kung Fu contra as Bonecas’s director and star, Adriano Stuart, often shows the Cangaceiro rank and file doing shuffling, chorus line style dance routines in the background of scenes, presumably as a parody of the stagey song and dance numbers that typically dotted the Cangaco films of the era.
This is a spoof after all, and for proof that it is an especially broad one, we need look no further than our hero, played by the aforementioned Stuart. Clearly the target of satire here was less Bruce Lee than it was David Carradine’s character in the TV series Kung Fu. And, in case that wasn’t made clear enough by Stuart’s appearance and the frequent flashbacks to his character’s training at the side of his master (during which he is shown wearing a cap and gown like a highschool graduate), his character is also outfitted in a pink wife beater with the words “Kung Fu” clearly printed on it beneath an illustration of Carradine in the role of Caine. That shirt was distracting for me, because I kept musing over just how much a Mission District hipster would today pay to have the honor of wearing it ironically. Seriously, it’s a good shirt; I will be mentally dressing baristas with it for months to come.
Stuart demonstrates some fighting aptitude, but it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with kung fu. I’m far too ignorant of the subject to judge, but I’m guessing that perhaps some of the moves –- which are very heavy on the kicking –- originate with Capoeira? Anyway, what’s most impressive about Stuart’s character is not the way he fights, but the noises he makes while fighting. One of these is sort of a prolonged nasal shriek that sounds like a skunk caught in a bear trap. The other, even more stirring, is a slowed-down guttural roar that sounds like Mr. T yelling through a didgeridoo. Overall, the fight scenes in Kung Fu contra as Bonecas are played straight, except for those instances in which they’re not, during which there’s a lot of emphasis on crotch damage.
The plot, to the very limited extent that I can understand it, seems to involve Stuart’s itinerant martial arts badass arriving in a town besieged by Do Valle’s colorfully clad gang of Cangaceiro misfits. True to the state of the Cangaco genre at the time, few punches are pulled in terms of portraying the bandits’ cruelty, and, though undeniably goofy, they are clearly shown to be a violent and horny bunch. One of their victims is the father of the character played by, I think, Celia Froes, who turns out to be as good at swiftly kicking Cangaceiro groin as Stuart is. (Froes, by the way, is as iconic a 1970s fox as you could hope for: one part Joyce DeWitt and one part Joan Jett, with a mean spin kick to top it off.) Together the two fighters join forces and set out to clean up the town, also finding a little time for some good old, family strengthening heterosexual romance on the side. And, of course, some other stuff happens, but my inability to understand the dialog prevents me from adequately describing it to you.
Throughout all of this, Kung Fu contra as Bonecas does present us with a number of instances of what could be interpreted as gay-based humor, but it is just as often our “Bruce Lee” character who is the butt of the joke. Both he and Do Valles’ character are shown at different times lounging with curlers in their hair, preening exaggeratedly in front of mirrors, and generally mincing around in a not traditionally masculine manner. There is also a ladyboy character whom Stuart’s character appears to hook up with at the end. In addition, I thought it was interesting that, upon his arrival, the effeminate looking Stuart is jeered at by the town’s children, who pelt him with garbage. However, not knowing what they were saying, I couldn’t say for sure whether this sequence had anything to do with his character’s perceived sexuality or not. In any case, most of the above seemed intended more to take the piss out of macho stereotypes than it did any kind of homophobic “us vs. them” mockery.
So, in the final analysis, it seems that we might have at last found Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power in order that we may finally let it go. But letting go is hard. Without any knowledge of the somewhat tame film that hid behind it, that title promised so much. With its suggestion of an archetype of hetero masculinity pitted in violent opposition to its exact antithesis, we cult film enthusiasts saw in our minds something thrillingly un-“PC”. What was promised was yet another opportunity for us to, however ironically, display our hard earned callousness in the face of exploitation cinema’s relentless and reflexive flaunting of liberal sensitivities. The real article, however, is something far less mean spirited. It turns out that Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power, as a concept at least, may simply have been too absurd to exist after all.