Birth of the Dragon: The Art of Making Movies About Bruce Lee

Birth of the Dragon is a movie inspired by the fight that occurred between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man in 1964 (before Lee was even cast in The Green Hornet). While Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) and Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) are central characters to the story, we follow protagonist Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen) who trains (initially) under Lee. Steve is an angry guy looking for direction, which he believes he finds under Lee’s tutelage until he meets Xiulan (Jingjing Qu), a Chinese woman who is enslaved by a local triad organization. When Steve falls for Xiulan, he looks to Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man to help him in his plot to set her free.

The best way to describe the film is that it is inspired by true events since the only universally accepted truth is that these two men did indeed fight. While there were a small number of witnesses, there are differing accounts of what occurred. Some say the fight lasted three minutes, others, that the fight lasted twenty minutes.

What actually happened will always be a mystery, but Birth of the Dragon works to show how their fight changed both men. The movie is as much about personal philosophy and growth as it is about martial arts and is part of what makes Birth of the Dragon so charming.

Here are six thoughts on Birth of the Dragon.

Steve

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Steve is a convenient protagonist. He’s an entirely fictional character (I think) and his primary function is to create an impetus to move the plot where it needs to go. He’s like a gofer. He runs to meet Wong Jack Man when he hears Wong is arriving in San Francisco. He runs to Bruce Lee to tell him he met Wong. Lee asks Steve to deliver a message to have Wong meet him. Steve delivers the message. Lee challenges Wong. Wong does not accept the challenge. Lee sends Steve to Wong to encourage him to accept the fight.

And so on.

There really isn’t too much substance to Steve to make us like him. We learn he has an abusive childhood and I suppose we’re supposed to cheer him on as he pursues Xiulan, but Steve’s most charming quality is the ability of actor Billy Magnussen to serve the plot and elevate the performances around him. There’s actually quite a bit of comedy to Birth of the Dragon and Mangnussen helps make that comedy work, while not getting in the way of others performances.

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Still, he’s a confusing character at times. There’s one scene where he’s encouraging Wong Jack Man to fight. Steve has an immense respect for Wong, possibly more so than he does for his own Sifu (master) Lee. When Steve pressures Wong to fight Lee, Wong tells Steve a very personal story about his beliefs, his reasons for coming to San Fransico, and his rationale for not fighting Lee. It’s such an intimate story that we assume Steve would apologize in response. But Steve continues to encourage Wong to fight, whining like a child.

Steve’s classy like that.

 

Bruce Lee is Kind of Villainous

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Bruce Lee is far from being a hero in Birth of the Dragon. In this movie Lee is cocky, aggressive, obsessively in pursuit of his own fame, selfish, and teaches his students to “kick ass.” The degree to which this is emphasized is entirely for the purpose of the plot, but it is a little unnerving sometimes. There’s no doubt that Birth of the Dragon idolizes Bruce Lee, but it’s somewhat uncomfortable to see Lee portrayed so negatively.

I understand some people describe the actual Bruce Lee using some of these qualities. When Lee first met Bob Wall (who was a longtime friend and appeared in many of Lee’s films) he told Wall, “Its amazing, you’re as cocky as I am! I like that!”

There’s also the famous incident Wall describes where Lee beat up a guy on set. As Wall recalls the events:

The main incident was a guy on the wall speaking in Cantonese who was basically saying “You’re not a martial artist, you’re just an actor,” and Bruce said, “Oh really. Come on down and show me what you got.” And the guy goes down there and Bruce was just playing around with him and the guy was trying to take his head off and Bruce realized, I know Bruce real well, I saw his whole face change cause this guy was really trying to hurt him and Bruce just then kicks the **** out of him, rammed him to the wall, arm-locked him, smacked him three or four times on the face, and the guy just started going, “I quit, I quit, I quit.” Bruce smacked him a few more times. The guy couldn’t move at all. And then Bruce told him “Not bad for an actor.” And the guy then bowed to him.

While this is an understandable story, it doesn’t paint Bruce Lee as a nice guy. And Birth of the Dragon takes that one step further.

There’s a scene where Steve comes to Lee and asks him for help. Steve has pursued a fight that is both beyond his ability to handle on his own and puts his life and the lives of others in jeopardy. Lee tells Steve it’s not his problem. Again, because of the story Birth of the Dragon is trying to tell this side of Bruce Lee is exaggerated, but it is still a little uncomfortable to see your personal hero behave this way.

 

About Teaching

Bruce Lee was a philosopher, so it’s no surprise that Birth of the Dragon has a deep focus on teaching. There are lessons not only for Lee’s students like Steve, but also for Bruce himself and Wong Jack Man.

It’s a layered theme within the film, and regardless of how I feel about the portrayal of Bruce Lee in Birth of the Dragon, the way the story revolves around people teaching and learning not only respects the tradition of martial arts films, but also puts a slight spin on it by making our assumed hero (Bruce Lee) someone who needs to learn lessons as well.

 

Accuracy

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Having just written a piece on why movies don’t have to be accurate to real life I suppose this is a hypocritical point to make, but movies about Bruce Lee’s life occupy an unusual place in terms of how accurate they are to Bruce Lee’s life. Obviously, first and foremost movies are entertainment, but in both Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Birth of the Dragon there is a clear intent on placing near documentary-like, real life details in the film while creating a dramatized story around those details. The Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story DVD even has an introduction with Linda Lee Cadwell giving a speech about Bruce’s life as the screen displays old photographs of him.

This creates an unusual mix. Are the filmmakers trying to teach the audience about Bruce Lee’s life, or are they using details of Lee’s life to insert him as a character in one of his own movies?

That’s meta, man.

While Birth of the Dragon is not predominantly about Lee’s life, it has a lot of accurate details. For example, while much of the actual fight between Lee and Wong Jack Man are shrouded in legend and there are discordant accounts of what actually happened, there are a few nods to Rick Wing’s book Showdown in Oakland: The Story Behind the Wong Jack Man – Bruce Lee Fight. For his book, Wing interviewed eleven witnesses to the fight and some of the details he revealed (like Lee immediately striking Wong after the handshake, cutting his forehead) are in Birth of the Dragon. Since Bruce Lee is the obvious draw of this film, I assume these are merely nods to Lee fans and in this regard, Birth of the Dragon does not disappoint.

 

Entertaining

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Watching Birth of the Dragon was one of those rare moments you get where you’re in the right place at the right time watching a movie with the right audience. Despite its flaws, Birth of the Dragon is a rewarding martial arts movie that is introspective and fun. The audience clapped when the movie made references to Bruce Lee’s signature elements and laughed along with the film’s self-aware jokes. While the fight between Lee and Wong is great, the climax is a warm, entertaining spectacular that wants to reach out and hug Bruce Lee fans.

A gentleman behind me said as the credits rolled, “That was a lot of fun! I can’t wait to see that again!” Right there with you, pal. Hopefully, the film will get domestic distribution soon. If it does, make sure to see it with friends of the genre — you won’t be disappointed.

 

What would Bruce think of Birth of the Dragon conscience-copy

I can’t help but wonder when I see a movie about Bruce Lee’s life what he would think of it. After the success of The Big Boss Lee said in an interview, “I hope to make multi-level films here – the kind of movies where you can just watch the surface story if you want, or you can look deeper into it if you feel like it.” That’s certainly true of Birth of the Dragon.

But what about the fighting? Philip Ng (Bruce Lee) has an extensive martial arts background and is also a fight choreographer and action director. Yu Xia (Wong Jack Man) on the other hand doesn’t appear to have a background in martial arts or martial arts films. I wouldn’t say the fight sequences were bad, but I can’t help but wonder if they would be up to Lee’s standards. I guess there’s no way to know for sure.

I wish he were here to tell us.

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