birth of the dragonSet against the backdrop of 1960s San Francisco, BIRTH OF THE DRAGON is a modern take on the classic movies that Bruce Lee was known for. It takes its inspiration from the epic and still controversial showdown between an up-and-coming Bruce Lee and kung fu master Wong Jack Man – a battle that gave birth to a legend.

Director: George Nolfi
Writers: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson
Stars: Billy Magnussen, Yu Xia, Philip Ng

Review by Gilbert Seah
Premiering last year at the Toronto International Film Festival at a running time of 103 minutes, this shorter version is a re-cut version, according to the film publicist that now runs a 10-minute shorter version. I had not seen the original version but a colleague of mine at the press screening had seen both, remarking that the re-cut version is an improved one. Which is not saying much – since BIRTH OF THE DRAGON is still not a very good movie.

The end credits say that the film was based on a Bruce Lee article: ‘Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight’. In other words, the film was inspired by true events. The setting is 1964 in San Francisco, where a real fight took place between Bruce Lee, 9 years before his fame and making of his first movie and a monk named Wong Jack Man. The question then is who won the fight. Since this film is about Bruce Lee, and not the monk, one assumes that Lee won the fight, or why make a movie if he lost the fight. But the script has more up its sleeve.

The film opens with a monk (Xia Yu) fighting in a province of China, which the title claims is the place of birth of Kung- Fu martial arts. The monk is said to travel to America to learn how Kung Fu has been taught there. It has been taught a great deal by Bruce Lee (Philip Ng), then and shown to be a conceited and proud instructor, though his intentions are respectable. The two fight in a competition with a plot that is supped to cause a girl to be enslaved unless there is a clear winner. So, one of Lee’s pupils, a hot-headed Mack (Billy Magnussen, BRIDGE OF SPIES, INTO THE WOODS and the recent INGRID GOES WEST) decide to save her. The two fighters combine their efforts to save the girl, but unfortunately they are unable to save the movie.

The film is aimed strictly for Bruce Lee or Kung Fu fans. Main actor Ng who plays Lee suits the part, with a chased body much like Lee. Ng’s mannerisms (body stances, sounds) down to his face twitching resembles Lee too.

According to my colleague who had seen the original film, the original was centred on the white man, Mack, who is given a less impotent role after the film’s major re-cut. This makes more sense in that no one be satisfied paying good money to see a Bruce Lee story than end up with a film with a white man story. The white man plot is now reduced to a subplot with him in a minor supporting role ending up in hospital, though Mack does get his (Chinese) girl.

BIRTH OF THE DRAGON aims high in revealing the fact that Bruce Lee changed his style of fighting and became the man he did, as a result of the fight – thus he film title BIRTH OF A DRAGON. This might be true but the film is still quite the mediocre film.


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