AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from ALTITUDE FILM DISTRIBUTION
RUNNING TIME: 92 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1964, China. Shaolin Temple master Wong Jack Man nearly kills an opponent in a demonstration fight and goes to Chinatown, San Francisco to do penance by washing dishes in a restaurant. Bruce Lee, who runs a Kung Fu Academy, there specialising in Wing Chun, feels threatened by Wong’s presence while Wong is offended by not just Lee teaching Chinese martial arts to Caucasians, but Lee’s teaching emphasis on “kicking ass” over spirituality. Steve McKee, one of Lee’s students, finds himself drawn to the more esoteric methods of Wong. He also falls for a Chinese woman named Xiulan, one of many brought to the U.S. by a Chinese crime lord called Auntie Blossom who forces these girls into servitude….
It’s one of the most famous fights in martial arts history, and yet it’s a fight that only had around twelve witnesses, meaning that the length, style and even victor of the duel have been debated by many. Future movie star and martial arts icon Bruce Lee issued an open challenge in which he claimed he could defeat any martial artist in San Francisco. Responding to this was master Wong Jack Man, who showed up at Lee’s school to accept the challenge. Wong, a traditionalist who only believed in violence as a very last resort, tried to delay the match and requested some restrictions, but Lee refused to agree, wanting a no-holds-barred fight which is what resulted. How the fight went varies depending on who’s account you read, though it’s often claimed that Wong still didn’t want to actually fight, while its running time has been reported as varying from three minutes to twenty-five. Most seem to agree that Lee won, though not everybody, while even Lee admitted that he had to change his fighting style to something more practical and adaptable in order to win, something which led to him developing Jeet Kune Do a few years later.
This is the basis for Birth Of The Dragon, the latest in the long line of films about the Little Dragon, and I’m going to admit right now – I expected the worst. Partly this was due to the last Lee film I watched being the lousy The Legend Of Bruce Lee from 2010, a messy cut down of a lengthy TV series which was full of ineptitude despite a rather good impersonation of Lee by Danny Chan and a few decent fight sequences that belonged in a much better film. Also, I recall that Birth Of The Dragon has been heavily criticised for inventing stuff and even sidelining Lee in favour of a white guy in what some claim amounts to racism. Would this be yet another example of cynical, insulting Bruceploitation, offensive to a guy whom I developed a huge man crush [or should that be boy crush?] on ever since I was allowed to stay up and watch Enter The Dragon on ITV when I was 9 or 10 [uncut with nunchucks, and weren’t those of us who had kind parents the cool kids in the playground the next day raving about what we’d seen and trying our best to re-enact favourite bits?] and who has been a source of fascination and inspiration to me [along with millions of others] ever since?
Well, even the opening credits made me feel better, because they only claim that this film is “inspired” by the famous fight – though those who are well read up on this stuff will have to grit their teeth immediately afterwards in which it’s claimed that the Shaolin Temple was active at the time. In fact it was shut down by the communists who outlawed traditional Chinese martial arts. If Wong Jack Man was as public a figure as the film claims, then he’d have probably been shot way before the action of the film began. Soon after that, characters in America start mentioning “kung fu”, even though that term only became widely used in 1971 when the TV series of the same name [the one that Lee was turned down for] appeared. Likewise the term “chop socky” as applied to a kind of movie only started to be used when the first wave of martial arts film hit the US at around the same time. Birth Of The Dragon even twists some of the facts that we do know about the events depicted, so I’m tempted to say that how much you enjoy it may depend on how much you know. But I’m not quite going to say that, because, as long as you realise that this is more fiction than fact, there is actually a fair bit of enjoyment to be had watching it, and I don’t feel that it especially insults Lee and his legacy – though I can understand entirely how some fans have the opposite opinion.
In fact, one thing that pleasantly surprised me right from the offset is the portrayal of Lee by Philip Wang-Lin Ng. No, he doesn’t look much like him, but he has a solid stab at sounding like him, and makes the wise decision not to do much in the way of the familiar Lee mannerisms [mannerisms that are mostly part of the screen persona he created], things that few actors can do as well as Lee anyway [though he’s a dab hand at the nunchucks]. This means that he’s quite believable as the rather egotistical, arrogant Lee of 1964/65, and yes – by all accounts that’s what he was like. I’m not even sure that he ever totally got the better of those personal flaws, and I say that out of respect – I don’t like my heroes to be perfect, it makes them less relatable to me. We see him teaching students how “the idea is to put away the other guy first….if you see a brick, use a brick. If you see broken glass, use broken glass”. Well, I agree in a way, but it’s also easy to understand how Wong is aghast as what he sees as a bastardisation of the art. The ideas of old vs new, tradition vs practicality, are of course central to many martial arts movies and is a major theme of this one, but the issues are made easily understandable even if you know little about the subject matter. The film doesn’t really take sides either, we are given time to criticise both Lee and Wong for their attitudes and even the decisions that they make. The latter is also very well played, by Xi Yu. He simply exudes wisdom, plus the sense that he can be extremely lethal – but also has a certain rigidity. Both Ng and Yu are impressive and help steer the film past its sillier passages.
Most of those involve the character of Steve McKee, whom I guess is supposed to represent Steve McQueen who was a pal and student of Lee’s. Unfortunately, while McQueen often barely seemed to act but didn’t need to because he had such magnetism, Billy Magnussen is just thoroughly bland throughout. Perhaps too much time is spent on him befriending Xiulan [Jingjing Qu really is luminous in her very cliched role] who belongs to a local gangster – and you don’t need me to tell you where this part of the story is going. I would have rather seen some scenes with Lee and his wife Linda who is unforgivably absent here. But there’s a cuteness to some of this – or maybe it’s just my weakness for Romeo and Juliet-type stories? Despite what you may have read, Lee has just as much – in fact probably more – screen time as McKee, who is shown to be something of a fool throughout. More annoying to some viewers may be that the fighting is very brief and sparse until the final quarter – but the film tries its best to make up for this afterwards. Even though no account I’ve read of the famous showdown matches what we see depicted in the film, and choreographer can’t resist employing some obvious wire work, it’s still blisteringly well stage, genuinely well staged and full of lovely long takes where the camera just pulls back and observes the action like a spectator – though cinematically my favourite bit is near the beginning when Lee takes out three gangsters without a cut as the camera soars into the air. The finale is ludicrous really but the resulting action, attempting it seems to evoke the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980’s, is considerably better than you may expect even though there’s not really a big climactic duel, and our two very different heroes make a great team, the film maintaining their distinct approaches to the end.
Though there’s a bit too much of that ugly green look that’s oddly prevalent these days, parts of the film have a nice lushness to them and the period recreation really isn’t bad [I noticed no glaring anachronisms] for a low budget piece – it’s simple but is also quite enough. Too many big budget films seem to feel that they have to go overboard on this kind of thing, the result often being that it often ends up suffocating everything else and detracting attention from the plot. The score by Reza Safinia and H. Scott Salinas starts out rather too Remote Control [Hans Zimmer’s musical empire] in style for my liking but improves thereafter and you have to love the way it suddenly gets really loud and rocking and aggressive for the fight scenes. Though it certainly has its issues, I feel that many have been too hard on Birth Of The Dragon. One can certainly argue that it’s rather fraudalent, but then it never really pretends to be a truthful depiction of events that are partly shrouded in mystery anyway, and I was quite entertained – which is perhaps the main thing anyway. It still manages to provide a sense of what many say was the major turning point in Lee’s life, and to give an impression of the man that’s maybe more honest then some. Keep an open mind and give it a go. It may not be something you’ll then pull out to watch frequently, but if your collection contains a lot of Lee-related stuff then you’ll probably have far worse things in it. I know that mine does.
Birth Of The Dragon looks good in its indoor scenes but considerably more than that in its outdoor footage, Whether you enjoy the film or not, you’ll probably agree that the filmmakers tried their best to make it look as visually pleasing as possible within the limitations they had to work with, and the sound mix works well whenever it needs to. Replacing the tiny featurettes on the Region ‘A’ disc is a six minute interview with Ng who emphasises that the film is more fan fiction than anything, says how his teacher was a classmate of Lees’s, and says how he tried to embody rather than imitate Lee, something in which I feel he succeeded fairly well.
*interview with Philip Ng