Dateline: San Francisco, 1964. Bruce Lee is the most prominent martial artist on the West Coast, poised for motion picture superstardom. Just ask him, he’ll be happy to tell you. Wong Jack Man was a traditional Shaolin practitioner who came to America to do penance. He would find redemption by helping the cocky Lee reconnect with the spiritual dimension of Kung Fu. At least that is how their mythic behind-closed-doors martial arts match is framed in George Nolfi’s Birth of the Dragon (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.
The fight between Lee and Wong remains a real life martial arts Rashomon. Who won depends on who you ask. Lee partisans have a greater platform to make their case, but if you dive deep enough into San Francisco’s Chinatown, you will find old-timers who claim Wong really won.
According to Birth, Wong was not in San Francisco to serve as a Kung Fu cop, but to lower himself after disgracefully maiming an honorable opponent in an exhibition match. Some claim Wong was outraged to find Lee teaching dorky white guys. Initially, he does indeed have his reservations, yet he spends a heck of a lot of time trying to pass on some wisdom to Steve McKee, Lee’s former hotheaded Hoosier student. In fact, McKee will serve as a catalyst for the controversial match, when Wong finally agrees to fight Lee partly to secure the freedom of the student’s not-so-secret girlfriend Xiulan Quan from Chinatown human trafficker Auntie Blossom. However, he also hopes a dose of humility will do wonders for Lee’s karma.
Reportedly, Birth has been dramatically re-edited from the cut that screened at last year’s TIFF. At the time, the Lee family made their lack of amusement very clear. Yes, Nolfi and screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (adapting an article originally published in Official Karate, perhaps representing a motion picture first) portray Lee as being boastful and ambitious. However, nobody comes up through the mean streets to become an international movie icon if they’re a shrinking violet. Nevertheless, the film is obviously aligned with Team Wong (giving it a distinctly different perspective), but they eventually try bring the two masters into harmony, setting them against the villains of Chinatown. That might not satisfy Lee or Wong loyalists, but it is exactly what the rest of us want to see.
No matter which sifu you identify with, you have to admit Philip Ng Wan-lung is a spooky dead-ringer for Lee. If there was a curse, it might turn on him now. Plus, he is deeply steeped in Wing Chun, so the fight scenes he choreographed in collaboration with Cory Yuen (credited as “fight designer”) look spectacular, but there is also a grittiness to them that is in keeping with Lee’s classic films.
Yet, Yu Xia (somewhat ironically) takes ownership of the film as the self-effacing Shaolin master. He makes Wong’s complicated mixture guilt and enlightenment look pretty darn charismatic. He also forges some appealing mentor-student chemistry with Billy Magnussen’s McKee, whose likable screen presence will frustrate those who would resent his screen time. Of course, it is always fun to see Ron Yuan do his thing as Auntie Blossom’s chief enforcer.