He might’ve died forty-four years ago, but Bruce Lee still attracts controversy. Director George Nolfi found that out, with the release of his Lee sort-of biopic, Birth of the Dragon. Centering on the legendary 1964 fight between Lee and Suaolin master Wong Jack Man, the film bowed yesterday clouded by accusations of white-washing. Does Birth of the Dragon deserve to be kicked around? Find out after the jump!
When you think about kung fu films, it’s pretty amazing that Bruce Lee is still among the first names to come to mind (along with Jackie Chan). The guy’s been gone a long time. Lee was searingly charismatic, and brought martial arts to Western audiences in a big way. Growing up in Hong Kong, he was a prodigy, starring in twenty films by the time he was eighteen. His appearance as Kato on the short-lived tv show The Green Hornet was electric, including crossover appearances on the Batman series, and his early seventies martial arts films found massive appeal. If you haven’t seen Enter the Dragon, I beg you, get out of the bomb shelter, we made it, you’re okay, and go see it. (Then go back. It might be a good idea.)
Birth of the Dragon focuses on Lee’s transition to America, when he was working as a kung fu instructor in San Francisco in the early sixties. A cocky, conceited martial arts rockstar, Lee wanted to grow kung fu and find fame and fortune for himself. Wong Jack Man was a Shaolin monk who’d also come to San Francisco. The legend surrounding their fight is that either the Shaolin temple or the Chinese community didn’t want Lee teaching white people martial arts. The fight was to settle that. If Lee won he’d continue as he pleased. If he lost, he’d shut down his school. Wong Jack Man disputed this, and much that Bruce Lee said, saying he simply wanted to fight Lee after hearing him boast about being the best. There’s probably truth on both sides, but Lee was never one to let a good press opportunity slip away.
The fight took place in a private location, with only a few witnesses, and has become the stuff of legend, a turning point in Lee’s approach to kung fu. So it’s not surprising that director George Nolfi wanted to tell the story. But in doing so, Birth of the Dragon found itself a lightning rod for the white-washing controversies swirling around Hollywood. Nolfi’s been surprised by the backlash, stating the film’s creators tried to be sensitive to the real story. The unfortunate part is that they decided to tell the story through the frame of a white observer, to make the story more accessible. So a good chunk of the film unspools from the perspective of Steve McKee, one of Lee’s students. Ironically, the figure of McKee, the source of the backlash, is loosely (very loosely) based on the actor Steve McQueen, who was one of Lee’s real life celebrity students.
In Birth of the Dragon, McKee isn’t a Hollywood star in his own right. He’s a regular joe, training to work out his daddy issues. He falls in love with an Asian girl, but the Triads hold her contract in America, so he begs Lee to help free her. Lee refuses, explaining he has a sort of neutrality pact with the Triads. McKee drifts between masters, studying with both Lee and Wong, setting up their fight and trying to enlist either of them in his quest to free his girl.
That conflict makes up a good half of the movie, and people have gotten pretty worked up over it, accusing Nolfi of selling out Bruce Lee’s story to make it easier for white audiences. Which is too bad. The McKee character is practically one of the only white guys in the movie. But by making his narrative compete with the Lee-Wong fight for space, the film gets mighty muddled. No doubt there are deliberate contrasts meant to be invoked, between Wong’s purported narrow-mindedness and Lee’s fight for a more universal martial arts (that would profit him, of course), and for McKee’s forbidden romance with an Asian woman. The parallels just don’t quite work.
Much of the controversy stems from an early cut of the film that screened at TIFF in 2016. The movie wasn’t finished, and its creators wanted to test out the frame they were working with. The backlash was livid, people accusing the filmmakers of making Bruce Lee a side character in his own story. Since then, Birth of the Dragon has been significantly recut to give more play to the Lee-Wong story. But the producers are still plenty nervous, with the film embargoed until its release.
There are some decent moments in the movie. Philip Ng brings great swagger to Bruce Lee, coupled with calculated ambition. Yu Xia’s Wong Jack Man is dignified and graceful, even as he gives voice to a close-minded worldview. And Billy Magnussen is, well, he’s okay as the maligned plot device Steve McKee. There are a few good fight scenes, and the pivotal contest between Lee and Wong is the highlight of the film, expressing two different philosophies and temperaments in the choreography of full contact. Beyond that, Birth of the Dragon is kind of flat. The pieces don’t fit together and you can tell it’s been a lot of work to get the film to gel at all. The sixties vibe is authentic enough. But the clunky dialogue and the mangled motivations for the story just don’t work. The awkwardly grafted narratives don’t make for a compelling whole.
As to the controversy, and taking a big step back, we’re deep into a very shitty culture war. There are a lot of fronts to the fight, and some really demented nostalgia (let’s leave Nazis and a certain President out of this, for now). The people beating up Hollywood for its lack of diversity are right. It’s better than it used to be, and that’s still not good enough. And yet it’s hard to get past the group-money-think that stars anchor pictures, and that’s why you cast Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. Big budgets mean bankable actors. Hollywood’s deeply conservative that way. Bruce Lee was very cognizant of this when he started out making American films, and it was only with Hong Kong coproductions that he finally broke through.
For a small film, the mechanics are different, but similar. The McKee character is meant to give a window into the story for a broad audience. And yet, many people are tired of staring through that white guy frame. He’s been hogging the view forever! More specifically, does a legend like Bruce Lee really need somebody else’s window to shed light on the drama of his life? Hell no. But the filmmakers needed more movie than a three-minute fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man, a private contest where history has never revealed a clear winner. So they made their choices to flesh it out, and boy, they chose poorly.
That’s a lot of baggage to bring to bear on a little piece of martial arts history. Birth of the Dragon is just a middling muddle of a movie. You can check your brain and find some fleeting moments here and there. Take it as B-grade kung fu, something to scarf down with your cereal on a hungover Saturday morning. As a Bruce Lee biopic, it’s one more wasted opportunity. We don’t get anywhere near enough insight into the man or the legend. Just some heroes nobody wants or needs.