Bruce Lee's life has been brought kicking and screaming to the silver screen in the new biopic, Birth of a Dragon, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month. The film focuses on Lee's time in San Francisco, California in the early '60s where he began teaching Kung Fu, before becoming an international film star. The story centers on the legendary duel he took part in against world-renowned Kung Fu master and Shaolin monk Wong Jack Man, who was searching for an equal.
Check out the crazy trailer for Birth of a Dragon below:
Birth of a Dragon has no release date as of yet but judging by the trailer and reviews from Toronto, Bruce Lee's life has been put in the Hollywood washing machine for a spin cycle and has left somewhat westernized and filled with troubling embellishments. We're going to take a closer look at Birth of a Dragon to see how historically accurate it is and to discuss the ethics of manipulating facts in the biopic genre.
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Bruce Lee: The Man And The Legend
In martial arts, half of Kung Fu is practical instruction and the other half is the mythology that teaches followers about the spiritual oneness of the world. Therefore it can be difficult to separate the myth from the reality — they are intertwined. When Bruce Lee died at the ripe age of 32, he was a father of two, a Hollywood Icon, a Kung Fu legend and a mystery. To this day, it is difficult to separate the man from the myth.
To begin, let's look at the facts. Bruce Lee started teaching martial arts in Oakland (not San Francisco!) in 1959 and developed quite a following as he was the first to teach non-Asians. Although the film takes place before his film career, the biopic presents a larger-than-life, one-dimensional, catchphrase-filled, movie star version of Lee. Finding truth in the Bruce Lee legend is difficult but Birth of a Dragon barely attempts to delve into the man or the myth. Lee is not even the protagonist of his own film, instead we follow Steve McKee, a Midwesterner fresh off the bus, who begins training with Lee. Bruce becomes more of a Mr. Miyagi for Steve, dishing out wisdom about Kung Fu and life.
Check out Lee's real-life, very grounded fighting style below:
Secondly, there are several contradictory accounts of the fight that have varying opinions of what (or who) went down, but the general conclusion indicates that Lee won the bout after three minutes of messy sparring. The whole film builds up to the eruption of the fight, which in reality had no audience, but in the film it takes place in a warehouse of filled with a rowdy crowd. After about 80 minutes of depicting the grueling training of a Kung Fu master and the grittiness of "street" combat, the final bout features the monk and Lee flying around on wires like a bad remake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Historical Context Surgically Enhanced
In 1964, the Chinese community of Oakland revolted against Bruce Lee for teaching Kung Fu to non-Asians and enlisted the help of Wong Jack Man, a Kung Fu expert from a Shaolin monastery to challenge him. However, Birth of a Dragon frames the fight as a simple match of strength without providing any of the context. Secondly, if this monk had been summoned by the angry Chinese community to stop Lee from teaching non-Asians, why would the same monk agree to train the white protagonist, Steve McKee, later in the film?
To make matters worse, Birth of a Dragon follows the Steve who stumbles into town just in time to be part of the Beat scene and experience the free-love San Francisco became famous for. The story takes place in 1964, seven years after the publication of On The Road and three years before the Summer of Love and the advent of hippy culture. Too late for the Beat generation and too soon for the hippies, we're not sure who Steve was hanging out with but it's certainly a bogus account of '64.
Is Birth Of A Dragon Kicking Itself In The Face?
After more fact-checking than a Trump speech, it's safe to say that Birth of a Dragon fails to capture neither Lee the man, nor Lee the legend but instead uses the myth of the Kung Fu master as a wafer-thin plot device. To call Birth of a Dragon a biopic would be claiming that it offers viewers a window into the life of Bruce Lee, which it fails to do on all counts. To call it a period piece would assume that it faithfully recreates the historical context in which the action unfolds, which it also neglects.
Would you like to see a faithful film adaptation of Bruce Lee's life?