Loosely inspired by true events, and particularly an article by Michael Dorgan, which was first published on Official Karate in 1980, “Birth of the Dragon” attempts a recreation of the events that led to the infamous fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man in San Francisco, in 1964.
Birth of The Dragon is being released in UK cinemas from Altitude Film Entertainment, starting February 23rd
At the time the film takes place, 24-year-old Bruce Lee owns and operates a martial arts school, and is on the verge of making a break into the show business, with “Green Hornet”. He is hip, cocky, and willing to go to extremes to introduce himself and kung fu to the world. However, everything changes when Wong Jack Man, a Buddhist monk who is also a martial arts master and a man, who, according to Lee, can unravel everything he has accomplished, arrives in town. Lee does not waste time challenging him to a fight, but the monk has other plans, at least in the beginning. Two of Bruce’s students, McKee, who becomes fascinated by Wong, and Vinnie Wei, a gambler with a large debt whose mother owns a laundry business, complicate the situation even more through their “interaction” with gangster Auntie Blossom. Eventually, the clash between the two masters and their radically different philosophies, becomes inevitable.
George Nolfi directs a film that is definitely not a biopic, since the recounts of the fight and its outcome differ much among the few who watched it. On the other hand, this base allowed him much creative freedom, which he used to implement more action and even some romantic elements in the story, particularly through the secondary axes revolving around Lee’s students.
The main theme however, is the clash between the two masters, and Nolfi spends a large portion of the film introducing the two of them. The outcome of this comparison however, may disappoint the fans of Bruce Lee, since he is presented as too full of himself, condescending, occasionally superficial, and in general, immature. On the other hand, Wong Jack Man is kind, calm, and wise to the point of majestic, completely different from Bruce one could say, with the scale definitely tilting towards his side regarding character. Philip Ng and Yu Xia respectively, present these differences in very convincing fashion, with the latter’s role being much harder, though. This difference extends to the actual fight, where their two personas come to the fore in the most eloquent fashion.
Despite all the above, “Birth of the Dragon” is foremost a martial arts film, and on this aspect it truly excels, particularly in the bout, where the two actors highlight their prowess as fighters (although stuntmen were used on occasion) to the higher extend. Corey Yuen’s martial arts choreography is spectacular in this part, while Amir Mokri’s cinematography and Joel Viertel’s editing highlight the action even more.
The technical prowess extends to the depiction of the era, with Aieisha Li’s costumes (particularly the one Wong Jack Man is wearing during the fight is stunning) and Shannon Gottlieb, Jennifer Kom-Tong and John Micheletos’ set decoration capturing the essence of the time and the place quite nicely.
The film is not without faults, and the secondary axes, particularly the romance between McKee and the Chinese girl are a bit out of place and remain undeveloped, and occasionally suffer from some poor acting. The action scenes and the general aesthetics of the film, however, definitely compensate.
“Birth of A Dragon” is not much of a biopic, but it flows smoothly, includes some impressive action sequences and is fun to watch, and that is where it’s true value lies.