I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Birth of the Dragon

BIRTH OF THE DRAGON is now on video. A very fictionalized riff on the legendary challenge fight between two early ’60s Bay Area martial artists named Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee, it was not exactly welcomed to screens with open arms. Shannon Lee and the Bruce Lee estate (who are currently developing an official Lee movie) did not approve, white director George Nolfi (THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU) was viewed by most with an understandable raised eyebrow, and an early trailer showing not-in-the-finished-movie first person narration by a white character caused widespread derision (including by me).

But look, I’m fascinated by Bruce Lee, the man and the myth, and by this event in particular. If there’s gonna be a movie about it, no matter how possibly misguided, but especially if produced by the prestigious WWE Films and Blumhouse (whuh?), of course I’m gonna watch it. So I did.

First thing’s first: this is not the Lee biopic the title implies. If anything, the emphasis is on Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu, DRAGON SQUAD). Presented as a villain who breaks Bruce’s back in DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY, here he’s a wise Shaolin grandmaster. Sifu Lee (Philip Wan-Lung Ng, ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI, THE KUMITE) assumes Wong has come to San Francisco to keep an eye on him. The white student, Steve (Billy Magnussen, INGRID GOES WEST), sees him as a visiting dignitary. In fact he’s come to wash dishes at a restaurant as a lesson in humility after going overboard in a challenge.

A title specifies that ENTER THE DRAGON is nine years away. Bruce is teaching Wing Chun to a small class in a cramped garage. His talk about street fight applicability and developing the one-inch punch are treated with awe, but this is not a hagiography. He’s a charming dick. His claims about Shaolin fearing his ideas seem like they might be too presumptuous, and in his demonstration with a karate champ he comes across as a bully. Moreso when he draws Wong out of the crowd to publicly challenge him. It’s kind of embarrassing.

It being a legendary, ego-driven incident with only a few witnesses, there are varying accounts of the actual fight. In Lee’s version it was three minutes long and ended with Wong running away from him, getting pounded to the ground and then yielding. In Wong’s it was more like 20-25 minutes. The movie has it somewhere in between, with Wong seeming to win at one point, but Lee impetuously refusing to concede. Wong comes across as a guru, backing up a stairway to demonstrate an idea to Lee, getting him to jump off as a literal and figurative leap beyond his perceived limitations.

Then it kind of plays with the idea of winning vs. losing. They don’t really have to show who won because what is winning, anyway? The duel ends inconclusively, and the final act of the movie is about the Triads demanding a declaration of a winner for their gambling racket. But for Wong there’s not an answer yet, because he has a philosophical definition of winning and losing that depends on whether or not Lee received the lesson he was trying to give him.

According to Lee’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell (and DRAGON, which is told in her POV), the fight was about other Chinatown teachers trying to stop Bruce from teaching Caucasians. In the movie Wong does compare that to sharing nuclear secrets with other countries, but he accepts the duel

1) after a contrived story about Triads holding Steve’s girlfriend (Qu Jingjing) hostage

2) to teach Lee a lesson. Like, to actually help Bruce improve. Wong changes his mind and no longer opposes Bruce’s mission to share kung fu with the world, and feels he’s needed to push him to the next level before he can do that.

This is a very charitable interpretation of what happened and is not supported by Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight by Michael Dorgan, the 1980 Official Karate article credited as the source material adapted by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson (ALI, NIXON, MILES AHEAD). Both it and a more detailed article from Vice’s Fightland indicate that Wong did not object to teaching Caucasians, but that Bruce had pissed off half of Chinatown in his arrogant, trash-talking lectures about his superior style, and Wong just responded to his open invitation to fight. Years later Wong regretted the fight, but it did in fact influence the creation of Jeet Kune Do since Lee was embarrassed by how winded he was at the end and decided to change both his approach to fighting and to training.

Now we must discuss co-lead character Steve, who as I mentioned is a white. I have always hated the tendency to shoehorn white POV characters into movies about other races, as if white people can’t relate to anybody else in the movies they watch. But I don’t think this one deserves our kneejerk rejection as much. This is a story about two teachers and although it doesn’t seem to be true, the legend is that their disagreement was over teaching white students. Therefore it makes plenty of sense to have a white student as a go-between character, torn between their two philosophies. And though he does learn from them and kick off the last act battle, he gets beat up and lays in the alley groaning while the two stars do their thing. Definitely not a white savior. More of a white witness to Chinese greatness.

Maybe I would be less open to it if we didn’t already have DRAGON and the various Hong Kong biographies going back to BRUCE LEE: THE MAN, THE MYTH and BRUCE LEE MY BROTHER, or the series The Legend of Bruce Lee, or what will hopefully be a great IP MAN-esque series authorized by the estate, not to mention dozens of documentaries. It’s not like this version where there’s a white guy also in the story is ever going to be the dominant version of it to anybody, and it does reflect the diversity of Lee’s students.

The weirder and more distracting part is the origins of the character. I don’t know if I would’ve picked up on this if it wasn’t pointed out to me, but Steve McKee is Steve McQueen. He’s got the right haircut and clothes, he rides a motorcycle, is from Indiana, was abused. The difference is he’s a regular dude, not a rich celebrity. McQueen was one of Lee’s students, but not before fame. He started acting in the ’50s and by this time had already done THE GREAT ESCAPE.

And by the way, they give Lee three slashes on his chest during a fight, would it have killed them to have Steve jump over a fence on a motorcycle?

I assume they wrote it as McQueen/Lee fan-fiction, but couldn’t get the rights to say it was him. Similarly, Bruce mentions having a white wife, but we never see Linda, even though she was one of only a handful of confirmed attendees to the fight. I guess her seat is taken by Vinnie (Simon Yin), a fictional student who I recognized because oh yeah, he’s the comic relief guy in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 2.

It’s fitting that this movie has been accused of white washing, because Lee was one of the most famous victims of that practice when his idea for a TV show was ripped off and given to David Carradine (did you know Justin Lin is turning Lee’s notes into a show though?) It’s also appropriate because I often think of the fight with Wong Jack Man whenever these related conversations about cultural appropriation come up. I’m not asking for blanket okays for white people to commodify elements of other cultures, but I’m always skeptical about where the line must be drawn.

There was a very good episode of The Canon where guest Cameron Esposito explained a gay reading of THE MATRIX that I never thought of before. But she also makes a casual reference to white actors doing martial arts as cultural appropriation, and I just can’t believe we’ve gotten to that point. It seems to me if you’re going to take that point of view then you are challenging the (exaggerated or not) legend of Lee bringing kung fu to the world. You’re saying yes, he was wrong, those other teachers were right, he shouldn’t have been teaching white people, he shouldn’t have been making movies, it is wrong for cultures to learn from each other and share and be one. Not to mention the hotbed of problematic-ness that is mixed martial arts, a gigantic worldwide sport based on people of all races and nationalities combining all kinds of martial arts, following Lee’s philosophy of cherrypicking what works rather than following specific cultural traditions.

Do you really want to redraw those lines, and tell fictional-Wong that actually he was right in the first place and shouldn’t have changed his mind? I say let’s not be so progressive that we flip back to the beginning, like getting too high a score on a video game and starting back over at zero.

Like the IP MAN movies, we know this is not historically accurate. Put more bluntly, it’s mostly complete bullshit. I don’t care that much, especially when it gets into the more fanciful stuff at the end. It’s delightful to see this LETHAL WEAPON pairing of monk-like Wong and cocky, stylish Lee storming the gang den as a team and beating up a bunch of thugs to get to the bosses. Since we didn’t get to see Lee playing enough characters in movies, it’s nice to see characters in movies playing Lee.

And I was impressed by Ng, who looks nothing like Lee but does a very accurate impression of his voice, movements and attitudes. Corey Yuen (EASTERN CONDORS) is credited as martial arts choreographer and “designer,” and though this is closer to being grounded than his usual work he does a good job of establishing Lee’s Wing Chun-based street fight style vs. Wong’s more fanciful Northern Shaolin, and using specific moves for storytelling purposes (a certain kick that’s deadly, a wire-assisted jump that represents progressing beyond previous limitations). And I like that Wong wears a bright yellow long sleeved robe that dances around like fire when he fights, so Bruce can flow like water.

I look forward to the estate’s movies, which may or may not be closer to historically accurate and, I assume, will be based more firmly in Lee’s philosophies. But that doesn’t stop this from being a well-meaning and fairly enjoyable piece of Bruceploitation. Or Wongjackmansploitation?

I guess this is one of those times when all I can say is if you like this kind of shit you might like this.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017 at 11:06 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Birth of the Dragon”

  1. I was looking forward to this one and then I didn’t read a single good thing on it and that it was boring so I decided to wait for video. It’s kinda silly for me to listen to such things of movies I’m looking forward to because I’m not always in agreement with the common wisdom (often accused of being a contrarian due to that, also see that I though JUSTICE LEAGUE was perfectly fine and entertaining). Glad to hear you liked it. I’ll definitely plan on watching it soon.

  2. The “Bruce” gags get me every time

  3. The comments sidebar has stopped updating for me. Anyone else have this problem? Not showing any of the Justice League comments for example.

  4. Fred: Everyone is experiencing it. We just have to wait for it be fixed. In the meantime you’re going to have to Ctrl+R the pages to see when I post.

  5. I listen to the Canon weekly and loved that episode, but I think you’re mischaracterising Esposito’s comments. She meant to that martial arts used in movies that sideline Asian philosophies (as well as actors) constitutes cultural appropriation. Martial arts is not just the punching and kicking; it’s an entire worldview and philosophy. To take just the punching and kicking is to defile the whole. At least in her view.

  6. Wasn’t interested in this at first but Corey Yuen’s involvement pretty much sold me on it.

  7. Jackie Chan movies often have no martial arts philosophy in them. Can culturally appropriate Asian culture if you’re Asian?

  8. Chinese filmmakers have exploited their own cultural heritage for a very long time, so I think her point is moot. To reduce Chinese philosphy into kicking and punching is certainly not above Chinese fimmakers as well.

    I have not heard the podcast or even know who this Esposito is, but she cannot have seen many Chinese martial arts films.

  9. I meant “below Chinese filmmakers”. I think.

  10. Thank God for Control-R, geoffreyjar!

  11. I went back to the podcast, and this is the quote: “How bout whitewashing martial arts? Because it also does that. Because everybody uses martial arts, including Neo and Trinity, who are both white people, who are at the center of the movie.” She goes on to bring up GHOST IN THE SHELL and later says “white people stole that shit,” so I guess she’s saying that THE MATRIX could’ve led to white actors starring in movies that could/should star Asian actors?

  12. CTRL +R? Cool kids F5!

  13. Or just hit the refresh button. Why make it complicated?

  14. Had a ton of fun with this.

    I’m guessing the Lee Estate was upset ‘cos they didn’t make any money off this one?

    Great fanfic, and Ng as Bruce was pretty cool.

    The whitewashing complaint is ridiculous.

    You guys should check it out.

  15. Hmm. Maybe I should relisten to the episode while I’m road-tripping this weekend. I know Esposito in a work context and she and her wife are whip smart and very political. They run/ran their on b-movie podcast for a few years, so she’s not an outsider to the world of badass cinema. Think I recommended Stone Cold to her.

    I donno that I that I totally agree with her argument, but I generally try not to tell members of marginalized groups that they’re wrong to be concerned about issues of media representation. That said… The Matrix specifically, as Esposito notes in the same podcast episode, is notably non-white-washed, so I think it earns the right to feature white folks using martial arts, even by her elevated standards.

  16. Yeah, she defends THE MATRIX against the charge she brought up. No disrespect intended toward her. And i really like her take on THE MAYRIX. I just was surprised by the concept and thought it was worth noting that it’s the opposite of a stance that Bruce Lee has long been celebrated for.

  17. Watched this one last night, I’m with Vern and karols, this one is a lot of fun. When they announced this one I thought it was a terrible idea but they pull it off by not even trying to be close to the true story. Reminds me of a bunch of Chinese martial arts movies based on true stories and people (any Wong Fei Hung film) and Westerns they made back in the day that were about true people but the film was just using their image and legend to tell a story.

  18. Oh I didn’t think you were talking smack. Not that it would matter: she was not a fan of me at all. I think your argument about Lee’s cultural exchange stance vs her perference for some maybe-impossible cultural authenticity would make for a fascinating debate. I’ll work on some fly-on-the-wall technology and then introduce you two.

  19. I like Bruce Lee movies, but one thing I’m not interested in is the legend of Bruce Lee. I suspect it’s 90% horseshit and if he’d lived longer we’d all roll our eyes at his tough guy talk like we do at Seagal’s tall tales of being a CIA assassin or whatever. By nature I am skeptical of anyone with such a huge cult of personality, like Hendrix, James Dean, or Bob Marley. I feel like the mystique makes it impossible to accurately gauge their work. I can never tell if I think they’re genuinely great or if I just think that because I’ve been told it so many times. So I tend to keep it simple. I stick to the work and leave all the mythmaking to poster-buying college kids. All I know about Lee is that he was fun to watch onscreen most of the time, and that’s all I need from him. So I think I’ll skip this. A Bruce Lee movie with none of Bruce Lee’s presence but all the Bruce Lee baggage is not gonna work for me.

  20. I like to bring up Brandon Lee. Here is a guy living under the roof of an, in most peoples eyes, a legend. Being son of a legend can not be easy shoes to fill. Still he made an impact until his death. He impressed with his martial arts skills on RAPID FIRE. Proved he had comedic talents as well as charisma in SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO. His dramatic skills on display in THE CROW showed he evolved as an actor.

    There is no mythology to Brandon Lee. Yet, I think we should celebrate how he managed to live under the shadow of the mythology of his father during the short time he was on this Earth.

    Wait, am I trying to mythologize Brandon Lee? I guess that is inevitable when you try to build a narrative around a person.

  21. Even in Brandon Lee’s tragic death, the noted emphasis was always on “the curse of Bruce Lee continues” or something like that, which again leaned toward Bruce’s mythology and overshadowed Brandon. But c’mon Shoot, he DID have Bruce Lee for a father. Bruce Lee. Bruce. Goddamn. Lee. Motherfucking Bruce Lee.

  22. “Cultural appropriation” is the biggest fucking bullshit loser idea in the history of loser ideas and a great way to get everyone to tune you out.

    “Cultural EXPLOITATION” is absolutely a thing and can be discussed – mostly because it’s absolutely recognizable – but me being a white guy who went down to Mexico and learned how to make some authentic salsas in his kitchen is absolutely not a negative thing. Me learning MMA which includes Muay Thai and Judo is not a negative thing. Me trying Yoga is not a negative thing. Kiss my ass if you treat Indians, Mexicans, Brazilians, and Asians as being some monolithic block that doesn’t want me doing “their” stuff.

  23. I think that’s a good distinction, Crushinator.

  24. Mostly irrelevant, just a cool fact, but my teacher is from Wong Jack Man’s lineage. Whatever the reality of the fight itself, I’ve heard wonderful things about the man. I was really shocked when I learned that he was supposed to be the bad guy in that 90’s movie, because that didn’t mesh with anything I’d learned about him.

  25. I admit I’m skeptical of the idea of “Cultural appropriation” as well, it just seems like a pretty wrongheaded and unfair idea.

    I mean I guess I can understand if someone’s trying to say they’re part Native American when they’re not or something like that, but if we’ve reached the point where someone just casually drops the idea that a white person shouldn’t be practising martial arts, especially if that person is Keanu fucking Reeves, then we’ve gone too far.

    It’s especially bizarre because that sort of idea used to be something asshole conservatives would say, if you listened to rap and hip hop it’s because you “wished you were black”, if you liked anime it’s because you “wished you were Japanese” while meanwhile the left encouraged white people to seek out and appreciate things from other cultures, how have we gotten to the point where it’s the left basically saying the same thing, that whites should “stick to their culture”? Like I said, just totally wrongheaded.

    It’s also a sore subject for me personally because of my love of Japanese culture, I mean I don’t go around wearing a kimono or have my hair in a knot-top style or anything, but I am nevertheless passionate about it and I hate the idea of the left making it off limits or taboo for a white person to be into it, especially after as I said years of negativity about it coming from the conservative side.

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