Review: 'Birth of the Dragon' is misleading and actually focuses on Bruce Lee's student

Marcus Goh
PHOTO: Cathay-Keris Films

The whole problem with “Birth of the Dragon” is that the dragon, Bruce Lee, is already an established martial artist in the film. You’d expect a film with such a title and subject to showcase the origins of Bruce Lee, but what this martial arts film does is something completely different. It’s more like “The Dragon and Friends” rather than showcasing a “birth” element.

PHOTO: Cathay-Keris Films

The film is ostensibly about Bruce Lee (Philip Ng)’s controversial and private fight with Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu), but it’s really about the love life of Bruce Lee’s (fictional) student, Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen). It’s an annoying bait-and-switch, since you enter the cinema to watch a martial arts film but end up sitting through many long scenes of a lousy white martial arts student attempting to save his Asian girlfriend, who teaches English and is otherwise forgettable.

PHOTO: Cathay-Keris Films

There’s nothing wrong with such a story, but it doesn’t belong in a film that’s titled “Birth of the Dragon”. How could the eponymous dragon (Bruce Lee) not be the main character in a film that’s explicitly named for him? The problem is that this misleading premise is only discovered midway through the film, when you realise that Bruce Lee’s character growth is minuscule compared to the other characters in the film.

Granted, his characterisation is pretty interesting, being the cocky fighter who oozes showmanship, rather than the traditional, sagely martial arts master. That niche is filled by Wong Jack Man instead, who ironically has a bigger character arc than Bruce Lee himself. In fact, “Birth of Wong Jack Man” would also be a more apt title than “Birth of the Dragon”, simply because you actually see a more significant change in Bruce Lee’s opponent than the supposed title character himself. But of course, the lion’s share of the screen time goes to the character played by the white guy.

PHOTO: Cathay-Keris Films

Whitewashing isn’t the right term to use here, since Asian actors play Asian characters in the film. It’s the fact that the white characters are presented as the targets of racism that makes it so ingratiating. While it’s a slightly unique reversal of racial discrimination, it’s also a silly and unrelatable way to artificially create empathy for the true main character — Steve McKee. It doesn’t help that he’s completely useless, and relies instead on the two martial arts masters to resolve his problems.

Language is also an issue here, since there are no subtitles. A select few Mandarin phrases are translated in the film itself, but the myriad of different accents and mangled dialogue (sadly, not all the Asian actors can deliver clear audible English lines) will present a problem to audiences who are not versed in American and Chinese accents. Also, Bruce Lee trots out random high-level English vocabulary (like “navel-gazing”) when it doesn’t fit the style of the rest of his dialogue. However, the mix of Western and Asian accents means that Chinese Singaporeans are probably the most adept audiences at understanding what’s being said, since we’re exposed to both accents regularly.

PHOTO: Cathay-Keris Films

The lines also come off as cheesy, cliched translations of martial arts “truisms”. Perhaps they would have sounded beautifully lyrical in Mandarin or Cantonese, but as most Chinese-English bilingual audiences would know, what sounds good in one language may sound corny in another. That’s what happens in “Birth of the Dragon”.

However, the epic battle between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man is highly entertaining, and contains almost all the elements of the various reported accounts of the fight. Unfortunately, that’s the only exciting fight, since they are the two most powerful characters in the film. No other fighters can hold a candle to them, which means that there’s never really a sense of tension in their other fights. Would you honestly believe a nameless mook could take down Bruce Lee?

“Birth of the Dragon” could have been so much better without its not-that-token white guy. Sadly, the film’s running time would probably have been cut in half without Steve McKee’s scenes, so you really have to slog through some awful interracial romance scenes before you can get to some good parts.

Should you watch this if it’s free? Yes.

Should you watch this at weekday movie ticket prices? No.

Score: 2.75/5

Secret ending? No.

Running time: 96 minutes (~1.5 hours)

“Birth of the Dragon” is an American martial arts film that’s based on the 1980 article “Bruce Lee’s toughest fight” by Michael Dorgan.

“Birth of the Dragon” is directed by George Nolfi and written by Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele. It stars Philip Ng (Bruce Lee), Xia Yu (Wong Jack Man), Billy Magnussen (Steve McKee), Jingjing Qu (Xiulan), and Jin Xing (Auntie Blossom). It is rated PG.

“Birth of the Dragon” opens in cinemas:
– 7 December, 2017 (Singapore)

Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter, having written for “Lion Mums”, “Crimewatch”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.

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