The makers of the new Bruce Lee ciopic “Birth of the Dragon” have not had a good last few months. After the film’s trailer came out, it was immediately slammed for focusing the whole story on one white character, while seemingly pushing Bruce Lee to the side.
Early reviews on IMDB condemned the film, saying it was pretty much exactly as bad as people assumed. Philip Ng, who plays Bruce Lee in the film, was quick to defend his movie on Facebook and urged people to actually watch the film before they make assumptions.
Then, their day got worse when Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, went on Facebook to express her disappointment after seeing the film:
“… This film is a travesty on many levels. 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.”
Michael London, one of the film’s producers, recently defended his film at the Toronto film festival:
“No one had the intention to do anything other than celebrate Bruce Lee, at a time when east and west are opening up to each other in a profound way.”
His intentions are absolutely fair. However, what he said next is making people feel really uneasy:
“It was made primarily to allow distributors to see the film as a marketable proposition. From a Hollywood standpoint, ‘Birth of the Dragon’ looks like a foreign film: it has a largely Asian cast, it was financed by Asian financiers, there’s only a single white actor. What’s so funny was that, while we have been accused of tokenism over the portrayal of Asian characters, during the making of the movie we were concerned about tokenism for the exact opposite reason, because we only had one white character.”
It’s a very sad feeling when those who have the power to leverage Asians in the entertainment industry still feel they need a white character in order to make a film successful in the West. YOMYOMF, a blog that focuses on Asian American pop-culture, noted that the 1993 film “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” did not need a fictionalized white character in order to become a box office success.
Dr Felicia Chan, s lecturer in screen studies at the University of Manchester, told The Guardian:
“Bruce Lee is iconic and well-known, and holds near-mythic status both in eastern and western markets. It is not as if his character/persona needs to be ‘explained’ to an audience … There is something illogical and ironic about depicting the apparently strong ‘influence’ Lee is said to have had in the west by sidelining him.”