Disappointing as a Bruce Lee biopic, but still leaves audiences with rare insights on kungfu, personal growth, and the benefits of defeat | DVD release: November 21
I went to watch Birth of the Dragon mainly to be completionist, since I’ve been doing a lot of research on Bruce Lee for my dissertation. Appraisals were lukewarm or negative all across the spectrum, from activists concerned about a message of cultural appropriation to general audiences who realized that half the film wasn’t even about Bruce Lee.
Still, Birth of the Dragon does try to innovate upon what we know of the period in Bruce Lee’s life and introduce different stances on the definition of kungfu. Partly because it deals with kungfu, themes such winning and losing, and finding oneself, are handled in a refreshingly different way than straight-up Hollywood films about sports; at the same time, because the setting is the modern US and Lee is a pop culture icon, it also differentiates itself from wuxia films that are ancient, arthouse-y, and enigmatic.
The first few sections are more like a conventional film review about how well the elements of the film come together; the last Thematic Analysis section is where I will give more of a social critique regarding how the messages in the film may impact society.
In the early 1960s Bruce Lee was teaching kungfu in Seattle and the Bay area, before developing Jeet Kune Do and before his television and film career. In 1964, Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee had a private match with only a few witnesses; because it was private, there are different accounts of what motivated the match and what happened. Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, claims that Wong Jack Man and other kungfu masters in San Francisco’s Chinatown didn’t approve of Lee’s decision to take students of all ethnicities (her account is in I Am Bruce Lee). Wong’s account states that Lee claimed in public he could defeat any kungfu master in the region, so Wong took him up on the challenge. In addition, while some witnesses claim that the match took 3 minutes and that Lee won decisively, others claim that it lasted for over 20 minutes, and the fight was broken up bystanders who didn’t want a death on their hands.
Motivations are unclear and historical details are vague, but its impact on Lee’s later career seemed important – which makes it a good juncture of Lee’s life to elaborate on. While his death was sensational and might make a good film in 50 years, precisely because it is sensational and scandalous, it does less justice to his legacy and also disrespects members of his family who are still alive. What seems to be true regarding the Lee vs Wong match is that Lee was unsatisfied with his own performance, as he believed that an effective fighter would have ended the fight sooner (discussed by Caldwell in the clip); it also seems to be the case that this idea lead to the development of Jeet Kune Do.
Characters and Plot
Birth of the Dragon added the entirely the fictional kungfu student, Steve McKee. In an early sparring scene, Lee consistently exploits his weaknesses, causing him to be more and more frustrated until he forgets his technique. Lee observe that he has anger / father issues. Steve sees from a newspaper that Wong is arriving and goes to meet him, hoping to learn from him also, but Wong observes that kungfu requires inner cultivation and a spiritual necessity, but Steve is directionless.
Steve finds something to fight for in Xiulan, an indentured waitress in Chinatown, working to pay back the Tong (Chinese mafia) who trafficked her to the US. The Tong forbids her and other indentured girls from learning English, as a means of ensuring their dependence. McKee thinks this is unfair and smuggles her an English textbook. Because the Tong catches her meeting with Steve and teaching English to other girls, they threaten to send her to the brothel and to punish the other girls. The Tong agree to free her on the condition that Steve can arrange a match between Lee and Wong; by running bets on the match, they could earn the money they would lose with freeing Xiulan.
Steve’s story is how the filmmakers elaborate on the murky motivations for the Lee vs Wong match. His function is to bring Lee and Wong together, and to provide an audience-insert character who is in awe of two martial arts masters, and to whom the masters can explain themselves. Another function is that it provides some romance to a plot that is otherwise about fighting (more in the next section about how well this worked). Unfortunately, Billy Magnussen plays Steve McKee’s part in a way that combines hammy and wooden. I’ve only seen him briefly in The People v. OJ Simpson and Into the Woods, and it seems that he does better as characters who are kind of hammy or full of themselves, as opposed to an impulsive but genuine kid that I think Steve McKee was supposed to be.
Unlike Steve, Bruce Lee was performed better, and I could tell (as someone who has tried to watch as much Bruce Lee interview footage as I could find) that Philip Ng studied up on the role. Birth of the Dragon included a segment where Lee attends a regional competition / demonstration where he demonstrates to the public his famous one-inch punch. This actual demonstration didn’t take place til a few years later and was in Long Beach, but footage of it exists; in addition, there is Lee’s audition footage for The Green Hornet, where he demonstrates the efficiency of kungfu. Philip Ng’s performance clearly draws from Lee’s showmanship in these kinds of footage.
The drawback, however, is that Lee in Birth of the Dragon always came across like a celebrity who knew he was being filmed, and his lines were declarative, like someone giving an interview, rather than conversational. Granted, Lee was larger than life and was attentive to his image, but in rare fictional portrayal of him early in his career as a local instructor, I would expect that there would be some more vulnerability and intimacy to his character.
That said, why don’t we see him as anything other than a kungfu instructor? Especially since Steve’s subplot has to do with interethnic romance, it would be nice to see Linda Lee in the film (more on this later). It would make his character more three-dimensional if audiences could see how he behaved in a wider range of contexts – though there is a segment where Chinatown filmmakers help Lee shoot a demo reel, and he expresses his aspirations to make films.
Finally, the general problem with using Steve and his romance subplot to motivate the match is that Lee is reduced to reactive character who gets pulled into the situation that Steve and the Tong set up. The one time that Lee is active – challenging Wong to a match when Wong wanders into the regional competition – Wong declines and walks away. This makes sense for the kind of character that Wong is, but deflates Lee. Even before delving into how the film fails to represent his philosophical journey to Jeet Kune Do, relegating him to a passive role fails to do justice to the enormously active and proactive life that Lee actually lead.
Wong Jack Man
Historically, Wong Jack Man seemed to have arrived in the US shortly before the match, but stayed in the US and taught kungfu in the Bay area until his death (source), making him an American national. In the film, Wong was portrayed as a Chinese national who returned to China soon after the match. In addition, while historically Wong was Cantonese / Southern Chinese who practiced the Northern Shaolin style, the film made him actually a monk of Shaolin. The point of this seems to have been to accentuate the character as a guardian of traditional practice, associated with the old country, whereas Lee is forging the future of kungfu in America.
The film actually starts with Wong; we see him in Shaolin beginning a demonstration match with a visiting taichi master and his pupils. The taichi master gains the upper hand, but Wong retaliates with a lethal kick that was disallowed. The film cuts away to Bruce Lee and Steve at this point. Next we see Wong having exchanged monks’ robes for a fedora and a suit, alighting alone and unrecognized at the pier in San Francisco. Steve only read a snippet about his arrival in a Chinese newspaper and had goes to greet him, but is surprised that a kungfu master arrived with so little fanfare. Since no one else has come to pick Wong up, Steve offers him a lift to Chinatown. Steve later finds out that he came to San Francisco to work as a restaurant dishwasher, which mystifies him.
When Steve tells Lee about his arrival, Lee is convinced that the dishwashing job is a cover and that Wong really came to shut down his school. Wong keeps explaining that this isn’t true, and that his objective is to humble himself after his error. Even when Lee preemptively challenges him after his public demonstration / competition, he just repeats the same explanation and leaves the arena.
Personally, I find Wong the best-acted character in the film. Yu Xia, the actor, is a Chinese national. I had seen him a few years ago in Mandarin-language television and film where his roles tended to be optimistic, pure, and righteous young men. He brings a serenity and restraint to Wong that works well for the character, and also provides a foil for the flashiness and of Ng’s Bruce Lee.
Minor character threads
Other than Steve, the film also focuses on another student of Lee’s, Vinnie Wei, whose family runs a laundromat. It is through his family business that we see the brutality of the Tong, as they trash the place and beat him up, since he has gambling debts and can’t pay their protection fee. He also provides some comic relief. The blandness of Steve McKee, though, makes me wonder if the film would have worked better with Vinnie and Steve’s characters combined.
Xiulan is represented with warmth and purity, which fulfils the character’s function. She is a fairly bland character as well, but still more multi-faceted than Steve and even Lee – we see her as a restaurant worker, as a partner to Steve, and as a ringleader for the rest of the indentured girls who genuinely cares about their well-being – when Steve asks her to run away she refuses to leave them behind, the implication being that they might be punished on her behalf. She also seems to be observant and cool-headed, which comes through when the Tong mistress, Auntie Blossom, threatens to send her to the brothel. Xiulan coolly reminds Auntie Blossom that she was likewise trafficked and is now in a guilded cage and doesn’t have true freedom either.
From the look on Auntie Blossom’s face, you can tell that Xiulan is right. Speaking of Auntie Blossom – I haven’t seen the actress before but she put on a formidable yet nuanced performance. She combines the standard brothel madam type with a keeness and commanding presence that strongly suggests a back story of have toughened up while climbing to the top of a man’s world (or underworld). Although their characters are slightly different, I was reminded of Cheng Peipei’s performance of Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: clip here, with spoilers.
Ethnicity and interethnic love
I have heard some complaints that Steve’s character is unnecessary, either because he distracts from Bruce Lee, who is supposed to be the main character, or because he repeats the White saviour trope. I suppose that he needed to be non-Asian to further the theme that cross-cultural exchange is a good thing – if there’s a debate around whether cultural practices need gatekeepers, there’s no debate that the human traffickers are even more wrong for denying indentured servants access to cultural knowledge that would help them survive in the US.
Unfortunately, the love-at-first-sight trope is too worn be convincing, especially when it multitasks as a love-transcends-cultural-barriers trope. It’s not that this trope is inherently offensive, it’s that the film would need to focus on relationship development for audiences to see more evidence of love. Unfortunately, because the relationship is meant to provide the reason for the Lee vs. Wong match, the relationship subplot has no time to develop specifics and remains a trope.
It’s also not helped by Bruce Lee stating that his wife is a White American, but then we never see Linda Lee at all. Bruce and Linda Lee would have been a story of interethnic love that has the details to be convincing. I remember reading that their personalities complemented each other (In The Tao of Bruce Lee, the author mentions that filmmaker George Tan joked that Bruce and Linda Lee were like Popeye and Olive Oyl), and Linda saying that they’d run home right after kungfu class to catch their favourite TV shows. They also faced opposition from Linda’s parents but managed to convince them. If it was a problem of representing Linda Lee, who is still alive (though I don’t see why it would), even some more reminiscence from Lee about her would have helped.
(Bruce Lee’s) personal and professional growth
Overall, I understand the arc that the film was trying to establish for Bruce Lee – someone who is rather self-centred and arrogant to begin with, but due to the match with Wong, is able to see flaws to his character and his practice. By some accounts, while Bruce Lee was charismatic, he was not necessarily nice; I remember reading an account by Danny Inosanto who said that once Lee surprised him with a punch as a way of saying “happy birthday.” I understand that Bruce Lee’s daughter and manager of his legacy, Shannon Lee, criticized the film for not reflecting her father’s life and philosophies, and is making another film (source). Her appraisal is true, but I also don’t necessarily wish to see a film that sanitizes and deifies him either. His legacy and fandom already does that. A film would be an opportunity to show him from the point of view of those close to him, which would show him as human.
In addition to limited view of Lee as an instructor, the film didn’t even flesh this role out very well. It’s hard even to tell what he thinks about using his kungfu to help Steve and Xiulan. At first, Lee believes it is not his fight, and mentions that the Tong don’t collect a bogus protection fee from his establishment because he reached a deal where they steer clear of each other. However, the film seemed to be trying to get at some personal or philosophical reason, because the deal would still be in effect after fighting Wong, but Lee changed his mind anyways. Perhaps the film was trying to say that the match with Wong made him less self-absorbed, and he does make a statement to this effect, but it’s still not clear how the match with Wong taught him this lesson specifically, and how it could have come out of Wong’s philosophy.
Finally, it is true that the film’s events in no way logically lead to him developing Jeet Kune Do. Bruce Lee diverged from other kungfu masters in that he repudiated the mysticism that went into kungfu. Jeet Kune literally means “intercepting fist,” which describes the objective point of self-defense, not something abstract and philosophical like “eternal spring” (Wing Chun). In the match with Wong, there is a scene where Wong floats down from a 2-story height based on powers from cultivating his chi. This was meant to be a point where Bruce recognized the limitations of his own practice, but due to willpower (or something), he also floats down to join Wong. Instead of further pushing him to develop a new practical style, the scene seems to show that Lee was convinced that mysticism was right, which isn’t true to his later philosophies.
The nature of kungfu
Cultural appropriation of kungfu by non-Chinese ended up being a red herring. The film actually takes both Wong and Lee’s historical accounts into account, which is quite an achievement since they directly contradict each other. In the film, Wong is true to his word and does not challenge Lee’s right to teach non-Chinese, but he also doesn’t let the matter slide. Steve asks why anyone would want to guard the knowledge of kungfu, and Wong replies, “Would you give away your nuclear codes?” Steve is taken aback.
Wong has two main misgivings about Lee’s practice, the first of which is that Lee’s kungfu has little spirituality involved. From Wong’s perspective as a monk of Shaolin, kungfu has a deeply spiritual element that cannot be reduced to technique. Steve is initially a kungfu practitioner who doesn’t seem to have any cause for learning kungfu in particular, and doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing with his life; Bruce Lee teaches people simply to deliver the maximum amount of pain in the minimum amount of time.
The second misgiving is that and Lee teaches whoever wants to pay for his instruction, as long as they are interested. This is very different than a master and disciple relationship, where in theory the master assesses the student’s need to learn, and after taking on a student, teaches the discipline comprehensively regardless of whether the student pays or not (Wong doesn’t actually say this, but since he’s from Shaolin, I’m speculating this is what he would have in mind). Wong specifically asks Lee if he’s aware of his similarity to the Tong, who do not see a sanctity in human beings and traffic them for profit. This comparison and the nuclear weapons one seem out of proportion, but we also need to keep in mind that in the contemporary moment, most martial arts practice is devoid of spirituality and instruction has become a service in the market economy.
When Lee challenges Wong at the regional competition / demonstration, one of his parting shots is “I am the future of kungfu.” Later, Wong meditates that Lee is right, but also believes that he should make clear to Lee that Lee’s technique and perspective on kungfu has shortcomings. Yet how to convince Lee of this remains a problem – knowing Lee’s personality, beating him would humiliate and anger him, which may actually prevent him from seeing his limits. And so onto the final theme.
Victory and defeat
In the last section I covered the film like an imdb summary that doesn’t give away the ending, but a discussion of this theme requires knowing how the film ends.
When I went into the theatre, I did not actually know that some witnesses had reported that the match ended in a draw, and it was a surprise that the film showed the match in this way. The last scene of the match shows Wong and Lee facing one another and positioned like how the match started, both exhausted, but seem to have reached some kind of unspoken agreement about what the match meant.
The second surprise was that the match wasn’t the end of the film. The Tong want their money, and without a clear winner the bets they ran mean nothing. They put extra pressure on Steve to convince both masters, since he would have vested interest in Xiulan’s freedom. In separate conversations with Steve, both Wong and Lee express an aversion to saying they themselves lost, but they are also uncomfortable with releasing an independent statement that the other lost. Frustrated, Steve goes to the restaurant to try and rescue Xiulan by himself, which results him being beaten up and thrown out.
Lee and Wong decide to team up to save him since their it was partially their indecision that led to this predicament, and they both feel some obligation to Steve as their student. They prop Steve up in the alley and fight their way up through the restaurant building to the Tong’s offices (most likely referencing the pagoda in Game of Death). Having just had most of their muscle decimated, the Tong agree to strike a new deal with Lee and Wong, which is that in return for a winner and loser, all the trafficked women in Chinatown go free. Under these circumstances, Wong tells the Tong that he lost and Lee says that he is satisfied with this statement.
This caps off every character trajectory. Xiulan is free and she and Steve are reunited, and all the other girls are free. Steve witnesses and understands what kungfu can truly do and what is at stake. Vinnie, the other student with gambling debts, earns it back from betting on Lee. As for Lee, he tells Steve that at one point during the match, Wong had him in a headlock, during which Wong actually asked him a question: “Do you understand?” The technique where Wong floated from a 2-storey height, the effort it took Lee during the match, and using kungfu to help Steve has made Lee understand that he still has a lot of room to grow and a lot to think about regarding what kungfu means.
The significance of the (essentially fabricated) match results is the most interesting for Wong though. Since he knows that defeating Lee would teach Lee nothing, and a draw puts other lives at stake, the only choice is to lose. It is not spelled out in so many words in the film, but actually physically losing the match would also not teach Lee anything about his limits, since victory would confirm that he was the best. Thus, the only option is for the match to end in a draw, and for Wong to say that he lost. The generosity of this gesture would be an added bonus to demonstrate to Lee that the discipline of kungfu is about inner character and not just technique. Finally, saying that he lost also rounds off Wong’s mission of humbling himself. In the beginning of the film, Wong’s desire to win outweighed his respect for his opponent and for the rules of the match, but by the end he is able to put his ego aside and prioritize contributing to the future of kungfu and saving the women from exploitation.
The film portraying the match between Lee and Wong as a draw, and how the two characters handle this, makes it very unique and different from Hollywood sports films. I can’t think of a feature film where a draw or losing is productive and desirable. The closest would be war films where soldiers sacrifice themselves for fellow soldiers, but the thematic point of that is teamwork between people on the same side, which doesn’t apply here.
Here I’ll get political – I think the film’s message is important for American audiences to understand. First, as numerous commentators and media personalities have observed, both sides of the political spectrum try to vilify the other and shout them down. This approach may not convince the other side of their shortcomings, but only makes them more trenchant in their beliefs. Birth of the Dragon suggests that by having some humility, or making concessions on some personal matters, we may be more convincing in others. Second, Wong takes Lee’s pride into account when he is pondering a means to change Lee’s mind. This demonstrates something I mentioned in a previous post: when trying to create change, progressives often insist conservatives should know better, without actually taking ignorance and human foibles into account when strategizing. Wong is someone who adopts both humility and strategic thinking, which is lacking in current approaches to social change.
Regarding interethnic romance, there’s still the question of if not Bruce and Linda Lee, whether it could have been another Chinese man and another White woman. After all, it’s not only women who are trafficked and in need of help. While I was distracted instead of offended by the representation of Steve and Xiulan, and I understand other reasons that the filmmakers decided Steve to be White, it certainly does nothing to refute charges that the US is still uncomfortable with seeing men of colour with White women, and overuses White audience-insert characters because it assumes that the audience is White and needs / wants to see themselves.
Finally, even though cultural appropriation didn’t end up being a source of conflict in the film, it still presents a good opportunity to consider how Wong’s perspective fits into this argument. Wong’s lines indicate that the main issue is that he has high and very specific standards for kungfu that he does not think Bruce Lee and his non-Chinese students are meeting. The issue of kungfu as a property of a specific community is secondary, and the nuclear armaments comment is the only thing Wong says about this.
To tackle the secondary issues first: Those who know the history of Shaolin would know that it has been attacked across history by bandits, warlords, and the government. The kungfu practiced in Shaolin is rooted in spiritual cultivation, and has been developed to defend a community’s way of life. If we accept for a moment that kungfu could allow practitioners to use their chi to accomplish superhuman feats such as levitation or kill in a single strike (which Wong of the film could do), then it is not much different from superior technology rooted in scientific cultivation used to defend communities at the scale of a nation-state.
Seeing it in these terms also helps to unpack the primary issue of standards. When it comes to cultural or artistic matters, because standards are often immeasurable and subjective, appealing to standards can seem to be a means of evading objective mass deliberation and thus hoarding the power to assign value. This is not always false. However, if we accept for a moment that spiritual cultivation adds a unique component to cultural practices, the lack of spirituality would result in an incomplete art. Although Wong does not explain it in these terms, if kungfu becomes simply a set of physical techniques that can be bought and sold, there are less checks on the kind of people practitioners are, consequently kungfu could more likely be used to hurt others. Going further with his nuclear power comparison, no scientist in their right minds would think of teaching nuclear science without teaching how to safely use it. Kungfu, like any other system, needs to have an internally coherent set of checks and balances.
Wong is a master of kungfu who has devoted his life to it, and his concerns for the future of his life practice cannot be reduced to a fear of cultural appropriation. However, cultural boundaries may play a part in his misgivings, and an explanation of why they can be legitimate would also clear up criteria in cultural appropriation in general. From Wong’s perspective as a Chinese person in the 1960s (either the real Wong Jack Man or the character), how would non-Chinese access the spiritual dimensions of kungfu if most Chinese masters can’t speak English, if non-Chinese students don’t read Chinese, if these materials have not been translated, and if they live an urban American life that is out of touch with Chinese philosophy and spirituality? In other words, if other social structures are not conducive to sharing the full meaning of a cultural practice, some may legitimately elect not to share it.
In addition, the historical context between the cultural in-group and out-group matters as well. I have already mentioned the history of Shaolin having an impact on what kungfu means to practitioners there. There are also events like the Boxer Rebellion, where allied Western powers decimated Chinese country folk who were trying to use kungfu to stave off an invasion. Not that the Boxers were interested in cultivating spirituality in the same way, but it makes sense that a few generations later, Chinese kungfu masters would still hesitate to teach foreigners. Thus the burden isn’t on these masters to share cultural practices, but on interested members of the out-group to demonstrate that they and their society have changed. These two examples of cultural boundaries also point to the implications in resistance to cultural appropriation – masters are not saying that cultural practices can never be shared, but that contemporary factors are not conducive for sharing to be genuine, or for what is genuine to be shared.
From the themes presented in the film to the discussions it generated, I think Birth of the Dragon is worth watching, even if it is incredibly uneven. DVD release is on November 21.