Young Bruce Lee (a.k.a. Bruce Lee, My Brother), 2010.
Directed by Manfred Wong and Wai Man Yip.
Starring Aarif Rahman, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Christy Chung and Jin Auyeung.
A biopic exploring the early years of martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
There’s a great story about how Davey Boy Smith (aka The British Bulldog) got his name. Smith’s mother, still weary from giving birth, accidentally wrote her newborn son’s gender, “Boy”, as the middle name on his birth certificate. Young Bruce Lee opens with a similar mix-up. Bruce Lee has just been born, and his mother, tired and slightly delirious, murmurs the word “push” over and over, echoing her long gone doctor’s words of encouragement. When asked for the child’s name, the American nurse mishears “Push” as “Bruce”. His family and friends knew him as “Phoenix”, but he kept “Bruce” as a stage name. There’s a lot in a name. The Americanised “Bruce” sits snugly alongside the Eastern “Lee”. That juxtaposition was arguably what made him such an international star.
Young Bruce Lee is the story of Bruce Lee before this happened, opening with his birth and ending as he leaves for his first trip to America. Two of his surviving siblings introduce the film in a brief prologue, claiming theirs as the untold Bruce Lee story. One of them is Robert Lee, and it is his book, ‘Bruce Lee, My Brother’, on which the film is based.
There are three stages: baby Bruce (1941), youngster Bruce (1947) and teenager Bruce (1957). You need gaps about that size in biographical films. It lets you change the actors without too much fuss. Throughout he lives with his huge family in Hong Kong and maintains a group of close friends. It’s their exploits that the film follows, including a love triangle between Lee, his friend Kong and Kong’s girlfriend. He can get away with a lot, because he’s been a local film star since an early age, but he values his friendships more than anything else.
It’s remarkable how Americanised their lives were. They listen to Elvis, dance the ‘Cha-Cha’, watch Rebel Without a Cause and dress accordingly. It’s American Graffiti with a Chinese cast. Hong Kong was a portal to the West in these times, but their domestic film product had not yet broken through to the international market. This is what Lee wishes to achieve.
You wouldn’t really know it, though. People wonder through the narrative with no definitive goals, and thus few obstacles that could create dramatic tension. There are flashes in the love triangle, and in Lee’s feud with an American boxing champion, but they phase in and out with little or no build. Apart from the ending scenes, there isn’t anything particularly special about the film’s story. If Lee weren’t its subject, Young Bruce Lee could be accused of being about very ordinary affairs.
Thankfully, there’s a lot of joy to be had with Lee. It shows what an enduring pop culture figure he is. The yelps! I could listen to them all day. The film occasionally treats you to one with a zoom-in close-up. Shit’s old school. It has a lot of heart, too. There’s a big emphasis on Lee’s family, and their warmth to each other comes across very well.
It does have an odd, recurring stylistic device though, where there will be slow motion close-ups of quite mundane actions (a foot stepping forward, a hand being placed on a chair). It’s not like they’re contextually meaningless actions, just that slow motion should be used sparingly. It makes it all a bit melodramatic. The film could have probably shaved off about 10 minutes if they played them at normal speed.
For a film that introduces itself as the “untold Bruce Lee story”, by his brother and sister, you wouldn’t expect it to be so stylised. There’s the aforementioned flogging of the slow-mo close-up, a barely believable ‘Cha-Cha’ competition and quite a few stagey fight scenes. It makes you want to take the film like a Tequila slammer (with a pinch of salt and lots of alcohol). But then, just before the end credits, a series of actual photographs are shown alongside stills from the film. There’s Bruce Lee dressed in a dapper black suit and tie, triumphant with his younger brother after winning a ‘Cha-Cha’ competition. It’s a bit of a slap in the face, but it isn’t your fault for harbouring such cynicism – it’s the film’s. Why should it feel the need for melodrama and exaggeration when its source text is so rich? All it needs is a bit of toning down.
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