By John Liu
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
You may remember Birth of the Dragon when it was released last year, at the Toronto International Film Festival, about a legendary fight between Bruce Lee and Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man.
Fans were excited to hear about a new Bruce Lee movie. Then a trailer of the movie was released and it starts with a narration by a fictional Bruce Lee and involves a Caucasian student named Steven McKee, played by Billy Magnussen. Later in the trailer, Steven is starting a romantic relationship with a Chinese lady played by Jingjing Qu. Social media lit up with tweets of whitewashing (Bruce Lee is a side character in his own story and the white guy is in the lead role) and negative Asian stereotypes.
Director George Nolfi claimed the movie shown in the trailer was not finished, and the final version would be released nationwide on Aug 25. I didn’t see the early version, but I read that scenes missing were 8 minutes establishing Steve and Bruce’s teacher-student relationship, and a kiss with his love interest was also removed. Unfortunately, that didn’t fix the central problem that an epic fight was a side story to Steve’s self discovery. Steve starts out as Bruce’s student — Bruce Lee is played by Philip Ng. Steve learns that Wong Jack Man, a Shaolin monk, played by Xia Yu, is visiting San Francisco. Steve investigates his reasons for coming to America. Eventually, Steve leaves his master Bruce Lee to train under Wong Jack Man and ends up meeting and falling for a waitress under the control of Chinese triads. In order to secure her release, Steve must get Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man to agree to fight. Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Caldwell, is briefly mentioned in this movie, but not once do we see her. This is funny since Linda Lee was actually present during the legendary fight. Other witnesses who were at the fight claim it was as short as 3 minutes or as long as 25 minutes. That means there’s still at least one hour to fill up for a standard movie length. Outside of Philip and Xia Yu’s fight scenes, there’s not much substance.
Philip Ng’s appearance does bear a physical resemblance to Bruce Lee, and the fight scenes with Wong Jack Man were well choreographed. In fact, Philip started training in martial arts when he was 7 under Bruce Lee’s students and mentors. However, Bruce’s dialogue in the movie doesn’t feel authentic and feels very one dimensional. The audience doesn’t get to see Bruce Lee’s wife or his great dancing skills. Wong Jack Man also contrasted greatly with Bruce’s fighting philosophy and it was great to see them butt heads. Then when things are getting good, Steven McKee jumps in the scene and kills the immersion.
After watching the movie, I am in consensus with Shannon Lee, daughter and CEO of Bruce Lee Company, who stated, “I think this film is a step backward for Asians in film, not to mention that the portrayal of Bruce Lee is inaccurate and insulting. I am disappointed that such a project would be funded and produced.” Shannon Lee is currently working on their own Bruce Lee biopic called Little Dragon.
Birth of the Dragon bombed at the box office, earning only $2.7 million its opening weekend. If you’re a Bruce Lee fan, do yourself a favor and wait for Little Dragon.■
John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.