Though it has been five years since its release, and critics and fans have already passed their judgement and gave opinions on it, I finally had the chance to watch 2016’s Birth of the Dragon over a rainy weekend. The film covered Bruce Lee’s duel with Wong Jack Man in 1964, differing from other Bruce Lee-centered films, which surprised me. The film used its source material in such a fanciful way – perhaps too fanciful in my opinion – creating characters that were not even present in the events and implanting motives, backstories, and mannerisms that were fictional and somewhat exaggerated, leaving us with their creation of one-dimensional characters.
Firstly, the film does not truly focus on Lee, but rather a fictional student, Steve McKee, and his “quest” to free a love interest from the grasp of eternal servitude to a Chinatown gang. Somehow, the film forces both Lee and Man together to fight each other for the young woman’s freedom, even though McKee is the one who wants her free. When that fails, he tries to take on the entire gang himself, only to be saved by a recently reconciled Lee and Man. It is true that Lee was open to teach kung fu to everybody, regardless of race or creed, however, creating a fictional student under Lee when the film could have used Taky Kimura (a Japanese student), Jesse Glover, or James DeMile seems like an opportunity to embellish on any historical accuracies that seemed to be void from the film.
Secondly, the portrayal of both the main Chinese kung fu masters is a bit suspect. Starting with Man, the film mentions that he traveled to Oakland to do penance for a transgression while in a Chinese monastery, which the source of his calm demeanor and hesitancy to fight originates. Lee, on the other hand, is overconfident, arrogant, and always looking for a fight, to the point where it is overbearing. Both of these portrayals are one-dimensional and do not accurately represent the historical fighters. Man was born in Hong Kong and mastered three styles of kung fu, however, he was no monk as the film presents him to be. Conversely, Lee opened his school in Oakland and performed demonstrations that he knew would initiate a strong emotional reaction to what he was saying. He was confident and arrogant to certain people, however, in real life people have said that he was not that way to his inner circle of training partners that included James Lee. While focusing on new students, Bruce Lee emphasized the basics, even though he wanted to do more than just the basics – that’s why he trained with other martial artists who wanted to push the boundaries of martial arts, like James Lee, Edmund Parker, Wally Jay, and others who wanted to push the limits of martial arts. Overlooking or omitting their relationship with their respective students and inner circles of each practitioner further underscores the one-dimensional-ness of the characters. In reality, Man arrived at Lee’s school with at least four of his students and it was his students that passed letters between him and Lee. How Man acted in front of his studnets was different from how he addressed Lee. None of these smaller details were present in the film. Likewise, Lee lived with James Lee and his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell at the time of the fight; both were also there when the duel occurred. In the film, Lee never discussed the duel or his feelings about it to James or his wife – neither were in the film. In doing so, Lee, much like Man, would have become much less one-dimensional
Lastly, Lee and Man never met each other before their duel at the former’s martial arts school. Rather, friends and acquaintances passed letters to and from each would-be combatant until an agreement was reached. Furthermore, the demonstration that set in motion the legendary duel was one of Lee’s at the Sun Sing Theater, in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Man, by his own admission, was not present at the exhibition and did not bear witness to Lee’s heavy and harsh criticisms of kung fu, but his emotions flew when friends relayed the words and actions of Lee that tread on the established martial arts order in Chinatown. In the film, the karate tournament where Lee demonstrated his Wing Chun and proto-Jeet Kune Do and also where he met Man on the sidelines never actually occurred, and the scene essentially changed the roles of initiator and reactor to Lee and Man, respectively. The build up of tension was lacking, if not there altogether, between the two fighters. Moreover, using the duel as a centerpiece or the main event to ensure a fictitious character’s fictitious love interest achieves freedom from a fictitious Chinese gang tarnished the secrecy and essence of the historical duel. Also, with the film not having a clear winner and having Lee grow beyond his limits through a philosophical conversation with Man does a disservice to the source material that is in no short supply.
While some may close out such an editorial by endorsing a certain source to help viewers gain a better understanding of what actually happened, I will go a different way – a call to action. Research is crucial in most projects, therefore, those in charge of research must take the time they need to either fully understand or have a working knowledge of the subject they are sharing. As this film has shown, there seemed to have been a lack of research into the duel, Bruce Lee, Wong Jack Man, and the context surrounding the event – it looked like research was scrapped for a more fanciful story, borderlining on something one would see in a video game. While I am not opposed to such stories and experiences, showing “Based on True Events” at the beginning of the film and proceeding to disregard the interesting and tension-building history and source material is a bit farcical. Therefore, as I mentioned previously, adequate research should be done so such artistic liberty would be more believable and, perhaps, result in a more gripping film.