BIRTH OF THE DRAGON (2016)
Directed by George Nolfi
In UK cinemas now
Ask anyone who their martial arts idols are and more often than not their answer will be Bruce Lee. The legend, who made his way onto the screen as sidekick Kato in The Green Hornet before bouncing onto the global stage with films like Enter the Dragon and Fists of Fury, is often regarded as the godfather of mixed martial arts through his development of Jeet Kune Do – the way of the intercepting fist. Many of us know Bruce through his movies, his incredible technique and his martial art style which has been shared with the world by his friend and training partner Dan Inosanto but some things are still left unanswered. One of these mysteries involves a fight which took place in 1964 before he made his big break in TV in the US, which is the subject of this latest film…
Chock full of attitude, BIRTH OF THE DRAGON is a kick-ass action drama that provides a fictionalised account of what went down between Bruce Lee and a kung fu master named Wong Jack Man. Whilst there have been many accounts, both from Bruce’s wife Linda Lee and Wong Jack Man himself, amongst others, none can agree on what actually happened during their fight which took place in front of only a handful of individuals. it’s not a surprise that such a secretive event garnered interest over the years and thus provides a suitable centrepiece for this fictionalised biopic, inspired by an article ‘Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight‘ by Michael Dorgan, published by Official Karate in 1980.
Hong Kong star Philip Ng shines as the cocky, young and ambitious Bruce Lee who spends his time teaching students of all colour out of his gym in San Francisco when not shooting his own low budget action films. Eager to share Kung Fu with the world, Bruce has big plans to take Wing Chun to the world stage. However, he hears that Wong Jack Man, a Shaolin monk and Kung Fu master, has made his way over to America to study the American way of life and low and behold, he’s chosen to visit San Francisco. Convinced that Wong Jack Man has come to spy on him and degrade his kung fu teachings, particularly due to the fact he teaches white folk and is even married to a white woman, something which the insular shaolins disapprove of, Bruce decides to settle their differences by challenging Wong Jack Man to a fight.
Having served the Shaolin temple for many years, kung fu master Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) is a calm, spiritual martial artist, worlds apart from the hungry Bruce Lee who seeks to make kung fu famous. Having almost killed a Tai-Chi master during a demonstration fight, having succumbed to his own ego and wishing to save face in front of his peers, Wong Jack Man travels to America to humble himself as penance. Washing dishes at a local restaurant owned by his cousin, Wong Jack Man is resistant to sharing the art of Wing Chun, stating that it belongs to the Chinese people and is therefore for their knowledge and understanding only. He sees Bruce as a talented martial artist but a limited one and dislikes Lee’s passion for fame and kung fu glory.
The two skilled fighters find themselves on a path with only one destination; Bruce Lee’s street fighting kung fu versus Wong Jack Man’s spiritual style. Stuck in the middle is Bruce’s student Steve McKee, who’s fallen for a young Chinese woman being held as a slave worker by local mob boss Auntie Blossom, the owner of the China Gate restaurant and several unsavoury business ventures. With Bruce unwilling to help McKee free his girl, he turns to Wong Jack Man for guidance. Finding himself studying under both Sifus, McKee becomes a go-between for Lee and Man.
For a film about one of the greatest martial artists ever to have lived, this low budget offering absolutely delivers in every aspect of its storytelling, from the confident persona of Bruce to the slick, choreographed action scenes. Philip Ng is an outstanding choice as Bruce, encapsulating his cocky charm, his mannerisms and his style thanks to Ng’s own background in Kung Fu, Ju-Jitsu, Taekwondo and Escrima. His intense performance of the action scenes proves he has what it takes to emulate the great master on film. Likewise, Yu Xia floats and glides as the more traditional Kung Fu disciple Wong Jack Man, contrasting Bruce’s more aggressive and direct style. Whilst a slight bit of wire work is involved for Wong Jack Man’s fight scenes, it’s kept to a minimum and stays much more grounded in reality than say the Ip Man series with Donnie Yen.
Rather than just film scene after scene of Bruce wiping the floor with opponents, the film takes its time to include small but notable aspects of Bruce’s life that we know about such as referencing Yip Man who taught Bruce Wing Chun as a child to Bruce’s public exhibition fight demonstration against a Karate master in which we see the famous one inch punch performed. The detail that this film goes to has to be applauded with every effort made to reenact certain scenes as best as possible. The one inch punch scene, for instance, looks very much like the footage we’ve seen of the event online and it feels that, by including scenes like this, it adds an extra layer of authenticity to the screenplay rather than relying on the pivotal fight scene alone. In many ways, the fight between Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee plays second fiddle to the overall story although it without a doubt has the biggest impact. Saved for the final third of the film, the fight scene demonstrates a moment of change in Bruce’s life; a point in which Bruce’s outlook on Wing Chun and martial arts is changed forever and thus the seeds of Jeet Kune Do are planted, ready to be conceived. The film’s message of morals, respect and discipline, whilst allowing to free one’s mind and not be shackled by one’s own limitations, really spoke to me as a martial artist. Fictional or not, the message is pure and one everyone can take on board.
Funny, thoughtful and straight to the point, BIRTH OF THE DRAGON packs an intense punch that will thrill and delight martial arts fans everywhere. Whilst we’ll never really know what actually happened that night, this film provides an entertaining, action-packed slice of kick-ass combat to get the adrenaline pumping with a side-helping of meaningful drama that will hit home with many martial arts practitioners.