This year marks the 70th anniversary of Bruce Lee's birth, and if he were alive today, I'm pretty sure the celebrations in the film world for one of Asia's pioneer international star will be monumental. Already there are films made which nod in his direction and influence, such as Gallants and the marketing of the Ip Man films which remind us who his earlier Wing Chun teacher was, and festivals have been running tribute retrospective screenings, such as the Hong Kong and Tokyo International Film Festival that concluded last month. I am a Bruce Lee fan, and naturally the bar is set fairly high to see how this film does justice to the legendary icon. Thankfully it does, and with any film, the dramatic license taken all seem to fit well into the story and provided insights into his character.
Based upon the book Bruce Lee, My Brother by Robert Lee, Bruce's youngest brother, directors Raymond Yip and Manfred Wong take us on a journey that's begging to be made about the life and times of the formative, growing up years of Lee Jun Fan / Lee Sai Feng (Phoenix). It doesn't need to encroach into the territory that Rob Cohen's Dragon had already touched on, the Hollywood film done some 17 years back with Jason Scott Lee (of no relations) in the leading role that begins from his teenage and adult years in the USA, Jeet Kune Do, Kato, Fist of Fury and all. Instead this film takes a more nostalgic look back from the 40s to 60s Hong Kong, focusing on the somewhat wayward youth and teen actor prior to being “exiled” by his dad to the US for his own protection, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I'm beginning to sense that nostalgia has crept into a number of Hong Kong films of late, and after all Hong Kong does boast exciting times from an era past filled with luminous stars and great productions, not to mention the sheer number of output coming from the British colony back then. Echoes of the Rainbow, which was a festival and commercial success, coincidentally also stars newcomer Aarif Lee (credited as Aarif Rahman in this film) whom I thought bore strong resemblance with the titular character at certain angles. It's no surprise to hear that he had snagged the role, and one can imagine the sheer pressure not only to live up to expectations, but to closely mimic some of Bruce Lee's film characters in the melodramas he made as a teenager. He passes the test convincingly in his portrayal which called for a balance in character sensitivity, as well as physicality.
In what would be something like a calling as an actor when his father the opera megastar (Tony Leung Kar Fai) assisted a director friend in need by volunteering his infant son in Golden Gate Girl, Bruce Lee's film forays was way before the kung fu movies launched him into super-stardom, starring in The Orphan and many others, and through this narrative angle, allowed the filmmakers to pay tribute and homage to famous screen actors who once were and the films they were in, the filmmaking mover and shakers behind them, and a commentary on the state of the industry at that time, with unions and hectic film schedules, actors often handling simultaneous projects that require flitting from one sound stage to another. No effort was spared in the attention to detail in sets and costumes, and I thoroughly enjoyed everything the filmmakers had in pulling out all the stops in recreating the mood, look and feel, plus the wonderful actors taking great pains to bring back the memories of acting veterans.
Acting career aside, Bruce Lee, My Brother also touches upon his family members as well, with scenes involving his siblings and parents, their upbringing and the value system instilled upon them. It shows the affluence of a traditional extended Chinese family living together, and not just under the same roof with kin, but that including the servants and their children too. Glimpses of stepping out of traditional boundaries are shown through his mom, played by Christy Chung in a comeback role, as deliberate attention was paid to her wearing the pants of the household when her husband's away, taking charge of delicate situations, including cursory mention of her fine family background. It is little nuggets of information like these that make this film a wonderful gem to sit through for trivia.
And of course, no story will be complete without friendship and romance thrown into the mix, especially when dealing with the pains of growing up. A tempestuous youth almost always never shying away from a fight, nevermind his semi-stardom, Bruce Lee is part of a group nicknamed the Kowloon Tigers, and it is this allegiance with his buddies that take centerstage, with a subplot running to the finale, involving loving the same girl as his best friend, and how he puts his loyalty with friends and family above everything else. They hang out mostly at dance parlours, and the hours he puts in explains his nimbleness and gracefulness that we'll see infused into his fighting prowess, not to mention being crowed a Cha-cha dance champion at one point as well.
The fights are widely touted in the trailer, and here's where chief credit must go to the filmmakers for conscientiously steering clear of too much Wing Chun, and avoiding the temptation to stage cliched big battles with the Japanese soldiers or British corrupt police. These have been touched upon too frequently of late, with the two Ip Man films, as well as the Andrew Lau's tribute to Bruce Lee with his Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. Meeting up with Ip Man himself is probably requisite for this film, but it placed it in proper context that Bruce was most of the time being trained by one of the pupils instead, and we do see some hints of Jeet Kune Do in his fights, which are never deadly, but friendlier in nature meant as a comparison of skills and fighting philosophies.
Bruce Lee, My Brother is a fitting tribute about the early life of Bruce Lee, hitting the mark on famous milestones in his life, and showing his character not as the superstar to be, but the down to earth and fiercely loyal friend, brother and son he was known to all those close to him. Dramatic license is of course heavily used especially when putting in subtle hints throughout the film that references the famous movies that he will make in the future (loved that makeshift nunchak using preserved sausages, as well as the banter with a certain Shek Kin). A definite must watch especially for fans who must stay put during the end credit roll for a photographic comparison of pictures taken in the film with the real thing. A film I enjoyed tremendously and goes into my books as a firm contender for the best this year has to offer!