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August 2017

Bruce Lee Film, Birth of a Dragon

A new film called, Birth of a Dragon was released in theatres this weekend. It is inspired by the legendary face-off between Bruce Lee and Master Wong Jack Man in 1964. Debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, Birth of a Dragon is a modern presentation on the classic Bruce Lee movies.  The film is directed by George Nolfi, the writer for “The Bourne Ultimatum”, directs the film and “Ocean’s Twelve”.

Philip Ng, a Hong Kong actor and fight choreographer who actually got his Masters at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, plays the role of Bruce Lee. Ng is a Martial Arts Master who marks his North American debut portraying the inspiring Bruce Lee.  Ng is trained in Wing Chun Kung Fu (Wing Chun), and is a 6th generation disciple of Choy Li Fut Kung Fu. His other film credits include Wild City, Zombie Fight Club, Sifu vs. Vampire, The Man from Macau, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, Young and Dangerous: Reloaded and Naked Soldier.


The Asian American community and Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce Lee, have met the film with some criticism. Philip Ng however, is touted as a perfect cast for the legendary Bruce Lee. Much of the criticism centers on three primary issues. First, the film makes Bruce Lee a side character in his own film, it features a ‘white guy.’ This is not cool. This protagonist is actually the actor Billy Magnussen who plays Steve McKee. I am not mad at Magnussen, but wish Ng carried the majority of the film. The second point of contention is the relationship between an Asian girl, played by Qu Jingjing and said ‘white guy.’   I understand why Asian Americans are upset about this, but I circle back to wanting to see more about Bruce Lee. The last point fueling some of the controversy is Shannon Lee’s comment, “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.”

I agree with the first two concerns and wish the film was 100% committed to as many factual details about Bruce Lee’s life, starring Philip Ng, while still indulging us with a picturesque portrayal of the Lee vs Wong Jack Man encounter. I have read several versions of this story over my 37 years in the martial arts. But if you are going to tease fans with a full reenactment of this epic face-off then you have to give it all, not fall short

Despite my personal admiration of Lee family, I don’t mind it when writers and directors extrapolate on legends and fill in the voids that exist in a story. Therefore, I do not believe that the Lee family needs to contribute to a writer’s process. However, I have seen the film characterized as a biopic film, which contradicts a story quoting Director Nolfi, “It’s not a biopic, I just want to be clear about that.” A biographical should solicit some collaboration from the family. The film needs to decide if it is a biography or a fantasy anchored by some key facts.

For the martial arts fan, Birth of a Dragon is still a MUST SEE. Come on let’s be honest, why would you ever want to miss out on seeing any ‘Bruce Lee fight scene.’ I have taken my picture with Bruce Lee statutes and smiled all day, in fact I owned one for 12 years. Once you get past the film’s criticisms and Shannon Lee condemning many elements, Philip Ng is an amazing and worthy cast. The film offers illustrious action scenes. At the end of the day, I love being transported to a moment in time when I was a tween and saw my first Bruce Lee film.