Last year, “Birth of the Dragon”, a film inspired by the epic fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film stars Philip Ng, Xia Yu, Billy Magnussen, and was directed by George Nolfi, who’s helmed “The Adjustment Bureau”, and was the writer for “The Bourne Ultimatum”, and “Ocean’s Twelve”.
However, once the trailer was released online, it was immediately met with backlash (and rightfully so) from the Asian American community. IMDB user Bawlife probably put it the best:
“Film reduces Bruce Lee into a side character in his own story to force a white guy into the lead. Why is the main focus of the trailer on this silly white American dude? Asian males can never take the lead role. Only the sidekick even in their own movie. It is disgusting. White people, would it kill you to stop inserting yourselves into everything?
“And of course the white guy is dating the Asian girl. Can you stop socially engineer Asian girls to only see white guys as acceptable dating partner? Stop shoving this down our throat. A white guy kisses an Asian girl. Every movie. It’s like they want to brainwash us that Asian girls belong to white men. This turns into a sickening Asian fetish in real life.”
Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, who screened the film, even publicly condemned the project:
“A great number of you have written to me with your concerns about Birth of the Dragon. I share your concerns and want to make it clear that Birth of the Dragon was made without my family’s consent or involvement. I have seen the film (out of necessity alone) and, in my opinion and the opinions of many (see link), 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.”
NextShark covered the controversy (and also condemned the film) extensively, so you can imagine my surprise when Director George Nolfi reached out to me through a mutual friend to connect. Less than a week later, I found myself in a screening room in Beverly Hills with Nolfi for a private screening of the controversial film.
Right before the lights went out for the screening, Nolfi whispered something into my ear that set the context for me:
“It’s not a biopic, I just want to be clear about that.”
After watching the movie, which ran for 103 minutes, I was very surprised and a little puzzled at the same time. But before I get into that, let’s dive into the research Nolfi did to prepare for the film.
The Chinese company that financed the film flew Nolfi over to China to visit Henan Province, the “birthplace of Kung Fu”.
“I spent a day at Shaolin and day in Chen Village where Tai Chi was created,” Nolfi told NextShark.
“One of china’s greatest living Tai Chi masters, who is in his 70s, knocked me down about six times to the delight of observers. He is in the film in the opening — I also went to Bruce Lee’s ancestral home town.”
White Savior or Nah?
Like many others who saw the trailer, I was pretty irked because it pretty much just focused on the White character who seemed to overshadow the late legend. However, upon seeing the film, I was surprised to see that it was very different from the trailer.
While, there could be some small moments of the “White Saviorism” if you want to nitpick, Steve McKee was by no means a “hero” to this story. If anything, there’s a twist in the end (which I will not spoil) that actually makes him look pretty stupid. However, he does play a major role in this film for being a catalyst for one of the most legendary fights of all time.
I breathed a sigh of relief at this, but I was quickly suspicious because many scenes of McKee in the first trailer (like the kissing scene below) were not included in the cut I saw.
Did the creators freakout after the backlash and decide to recut the film? It could be possible, but as someone who knows quite a few people in Hollywood, I understand that the creators typically don’t have control over how the distributors market the film, but I still had to confront Nolfi about it.
The film that was shown in the premiere during the 2016 Toronto Film Festival was not complete, according to Nolfi. There were still integrating material from two location shoots (including one China). Along the way, they screened rough cuts of the film several times in LA.
The universal reaction of the film was that they loved Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man and wanted to see as much of them as possible. So, the entire editing process, both before and after Toronto, was really about focusing the movie on those two guys and their conflict.
“The biggest thing we were trying to figure out was how to cut a voice over from McKee (that gave crucial information about Bruce Lee) without creating confusion. We did eventually figure it out, but after Toronto. The film festival trailer that upset people highlighted the one element of the movie we all had questions about — the voice over — and created the false impression that McKee was the protagonist of the film. Unfortunately, it went viral and it’s a misrepresentation of the film that’s coming out on August 25th.”
Philip Ng’s Portrayal of Bruce Lee
I have to admit: I think Phillip Ng is one of the most qualified people to play Bruce Lee. Similar to Bruce Lee, Ng was raised in both Hong Kong and the United States. He’s fluent in both English and Cantonese, and martial arts was a huge part of his life.
Growing up, Ng studied Choy Lay Fut and Taekwondo, but it was Wing Ching that piqued his interest the most. He traveled to Hong Kong and became a student for Sifu Wong Shun Leung, a pupil of Ip Man and Kung Fu brother of Bruce Lee. Over the years, he’s heard a number of personal stories about Bruce Lee. He told me a funny story about Bruce Lee that his master shared with him:
“Bruce Lee was a very naughty kid, right? He was always superb in martial arts. He was always very smart and found new ways to solve problems — I think that has to do with his personality. Like he would find very nice, really smart ways to solve what he thought were particular problems.
“He wanted private lessons with my sifu, his older kung fu brother, so how did he solve this problem? What he did is he showed up earlier than all the other students, waited downstairs and told them as they came by that my sifu was sick. So they would go home and he would go in and just train privately with my sifu, and this happened for about a week until sifu started realized what was going on.”
Shortly after returning to the U.S., Ng founded the Illini Wing Chun Association at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is still active today.
One of the major critiques of Ng’s portrayal of Bruce Lee was that the film deduced him down to to an extremely arrogant and one-dimensional character.
But, we have to keep in mind that the movie’s time setting is nine years before “Return of the Dragon”, which makes Bruce Lee 23 years old. I think that the creators were trying to show a less seasoned Bruce Lee based on his age. However, further along into the film, you’ll see his character progress and show some other dimensions aside from the super arrogant persona everyone saw in the first trailer.
One of the biggest downsides of the film for me, however, was that the film didn’t touch upon Bruce Lee’s struggle with racism and prejudice growing up, especially when he was trying to make it in entertainment. I also found it odd that Linda Lee, Bruce Lee’s wife, was nowhere to be found in the whole film. As all Bruce Lee fans would know, she was a major figure in Bruce Lee’s life. When I brought this up to Nolfi, he revealed that she was actually a character in four scenes in the original script, but was edited out.
“The scenes really dimensionalized Bruce and brought out for the reader how he felt that the fight might have been part of a larger attempt to discredit him for teaching westerners and being married to a White woman,” Nolfi said.
“But ultimately the lawyers said we didn’t have the rights to represent her in a film as she’s alive and not a public figure.”
Does it Help Asians in Hollywood?
Despite all the controversy and criticisms the film will get, I believe that this film does contribute to helping Asian representation in Hollywood. There are 22 listed cast members — all are of Asian descent while only one is White. In Philip Ng’s words:
“It’s unprecedented in a Hollywood movie to have a cast this big as almost all Asian.”
With that fact alone, I think it’s important for us to go give this film a shot. The new trailer below, which was recently released, gives a MUCH better representation of what the film is about. If you are deciding whether or not to see this film in theaters, make your decision based on the trailer below, not the first one, which was a complete and utter shit show. How the marketers thought the initial trailer would do well is completely beyond me.
In the end, if you’re looking to watch a film that accurately portrays Bruce Lee’s life and highlights his struggles with racism and development as a martial artist, this film is NOT for you and you’ll be utterly disappointed. Hopefully, Shannon Lee’s upcoming film about her late father will help us fill that void, which I’m extremely excited for.
However, if you’re looking to watch a film with a mostly Asian cast, packed with epic fight scenes, choreography, and a cool (but fictional) story-line, I suggest you check out this film. After watching the film for myself, I will admit that it was actually pretty entertaining to watch and the climax was pretty epic.
If we want to criticize the makers of the film for not being accurate to the original story, then we’d also need to criticize the “IP Man” trilogy with Donnie Yen, which is a heavily dramatized film series of the late mentor of Bruce Lee (come on! Ip Man never fought Mike Tyson!). In the end, this is a movie and we all know how much sensationalism and dramatization Hollywood does to make things more interesting for the audience.
“I didn’t sign up to do a biopic I signed up to do a kick ass kung fu movie — something that hasn’t been done in English in a very long time. This is not a biopic, it’s a Hollywood dramatization about a highly controversial, massively disputed real life fight that indisputably sowed the seeds of Jeet Kune Do and, ultimately, the Mixed Martial Arts movement,” Nolfi said.
“I mean, it’s like a fun kung fu movie and I don’t know how else to describe it. Obviously it’s based on an actual event, but it’s not a documentary. It’s akin to those ‘Ip Man’ movies, or the ‘Once Upon a Time in China’” movies where they take an important Chinese character and then romanticize it — and it’s acceptable,” Philip Ng added.