REVIEW: Birth of the Dragon (2017)

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The legendary fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man is depicted with a major twist that somewhat brings the film down but not to a point where it’s completely wasted.

1964, San Francisco. Bruce Lee operates his own kwoon, where he teaches the art of Wing Chun to both Chinese and non-Chinese, including friends Steve McKee and Vinnie Wei. Steve, who moved from Indiana, works at Vinnie’s family laundry business. When Vinnie tells that Steve that Wong Jack Man, a Shaolin monk, is coming to San Francisco, Steve intends to meet the man himself and the two eventually strike up a friendship.

While on a delivery, Steve meets Quan Xiulan, a young woman who works at a restaurant run by a local Triad gang. Meanwhile, Bruce learns about Wong’s arrival and questions why he is there. As for Wong, he is in America to restore his balance after an incident involving a sparring match brought shame upon himself and Shaolin. When Bruce learns of Steve’s friendship and eventual learning under Wong, he wishes to meet Wong and when he does, Wong admits he is impressed by Lee’s technique but there is a limitation. The Triads, learning full knowledge of the now rivalry between Lee and Wong as well as Steve’s love for Xiulan, hatch a plan to make everything work in their favor.

Since the announcement and trailers of the film, fans were upset and went as far as even branding the infamous term “whitewashing”, thinking that the film primarily revolves around Steve and his romance as well as his friendships with both Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. This may have caused those who saw the film to see it with just that in mind rather than keep their mind open as they saw the film.

While the obvious is quite farfetched, and it will be mentioned shortly, this is actually not a completely bad film. The film is a meshing of various themes that culminate to the legendary fight that happened between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. One of the primary positive concepts is that the film highlights the difference in “what is kung fu” to both Bruce and Wong. Bruce brings ambition and a bit of cockiness, perhaps to show that kung fu can be meant for everyone yet takes the street approach to it while Wong Jack Man at first sees kung fu as only something Chinese can learn, but stresses that it isn’t about the race of the student, but the more spiritual and disciplinary aspect of the art that is crucial.

In his much-anticipated Hollywood debut, Hong Kong star Philip Ng embodies Bruce quite perfectly. He doesn’t play him as a second rate Bruceploitation artist but rather someone who apparently has a lineage to Bruce and has heard these stories and brought them with his performance. He does come off as crass and cocky, but at the same time very loyal and respectful. As for Xia Yu, who also makes his Hollywood debut, he delivers a great performance as Wong Jack Man, a Shaolin monk who comes to America to find himself again. He is the persona of the Bruce Lee in The Big Boss: someone who does not wish to fight until he feels forced to and in this case, it is fighting Bruce, not so much due to a manipulation, but because he wishes to show Bruce that there is more to kung fu than just “kicking butt”.

And then there is the elephant in the room. Billy Magnussen’s Steve is someone who like Bruce and Wong, is also trying to find himself and in the midst of everything, falls for a Chinese woman, played by Qu Jingjing. Xiulan clearly is one of those girls tricked into living the American Dream and is forced to work at a restaurant run by Triads and it is when they learn that Steve is not only having a romance with her, but has ties to both Bruce and Wong, it is then that the legendary match is set up. Yes, this is the farfetched idea that the screenwriters could come up with. In honesty, this is a very very unnecessary angle and had they just kept focus on the “what is kung fu aspect”, even with Steve being the middleman in it all, then it would have done a better service.

On the plus side, while he has had quite a slump in recent years, Corey Yuen’s martial arts choreography proves that redemption is imminent and he delivers. Ng, a real-life Wing Chun stylist, gets to use those skills to a tee as Bruce. After all, this was before the creation of his martial art Jeet Kune Do while Xia Yu (with his stunt doubles) uses a style that meshes Wushu with beats of Northern Shaolin. Yes, there is some wirework, notably during their legendary fight, but thankfully, it is done to a minimum but brings out beats of fluidity with even the use of a 360-degree view of an exchange that looks quite great. Without spoiling anything, there is quite an invigorating finale that goes on a somewhat Brucepolitation level of excellence, but altogether fun nonetheless.

In conclusion, despite the very unnecessary angle involving romance and the Triads, Birth of the Dragon is quite an enjoyable film that brings mostly good stuff, notably the performances of Philip Ng as Bruce Lee and Xia Yu as Wong Jack Man along with some of Corey Yuen’s best choreography in recent years. Definitely worth checking out despite the obvious.

WFG RATING: B-

BH Tilt and WWE Studios present a Groundswell/Kylin production. Director: George Nolfi. Producers: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Janice Williams, James Hong Pang, Leo Shi Young, and Michael London. Writers: Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson; based on the article “Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight” by Michael Dorgan. Cinematography: Amir Mokri. Editing: Joel Viertel.

Cast: Philip Ng, Xia Yu, Billy Magnussen, Terry Chen, Simon Yin, Qu Jingjing, Ron Yuan, Jin Xing, Simon Chun, Lillian Lim, Zhou Yang, Vanness Wu, Vincent Cheng

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