Without any doubt Bruce Lee is one of the most revered and influential martial artists of all time. In movies his iconic look and fast, fluid fighting style have made his films much-watch classics of the martial arts genre, and did much to popularise them in the West.
However it was his training of non-Chinese students in the martial arts that caused disapproval among the Chinese community and, according to Lee, them issuing an ultimatum that he stop teaching. When he refused he was challenged to a no-holds-barred combat match with Wong Jack Man – a master in Xingyiquan, Northern Shaolin, and T’ai chi ch’uan – with the stipulation that should Lee lose he would close his school, but should he win he would be free to train whomever he chose.
Wong himself later disputed this account, stating that Lee had boasted during a martial arts demonstration at a San Francisco Chinatown theatre that he would be able to defeat anyone in the city, which led to the challenge. He’s also on record as saying he had asked for a serious bout, but one with rules that would avoid serious injury to either party. Whatever the actual story, the two did meet for a private bout in 1964.
There are conflicting accounts on the beginning, course and outcome of the fight, with each respective masters, their students, and other individuals who attended the fight, recounting the events very differently indeed. Lee himself stated that the fight lasted only three minutes and resulted in a decisive victory for himself, while Wong said the fight lasted over 20 minutes, in which he refrained from hurting Lee too badly, and ended when Lee became too tired to continue. Still another recounts that the fight was called off with neither man the victor, as Lee was apparently becoming “too heated”.
A few weeks following the bout Lee stated in an interview that he had defeated an “unknown challenger”, which Wong took as a reference to himself and disputed. He also issued an invitation to a public rematch should Lee desire to challenge Wong’s account. Lee did not, despite having a reputation for responding aggressively to provocation.
It’s a fascinating story, but what’s the point of this brief history lesson? Well WWE Studios, not known for subtle and introspective filmmaking, thought they’d be the right people to attempt capturing this epic encounter in their upcoming inspired-by-true-events movie, Birth of the Dragon.
Philip Ng (Wild City, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai) stars as the brash and confrontational Lee, while Yu Xia (The Painted Veil) takes the role of the calm and reserved Wong.
Let’s take a look:
Practically everything about this trailer screams “NO!” to me. If this movie told a different story I’d probably judge it differently, because it would be fine as a standard martial arts movie that you sit back and watch while chewing some popcorn. But that’s not what it is – it’s trying to capture a unique moment in time that involved a pair of iconic people.
I do think the fighting looks good, both Ng and Wong certainly look the part, and they’ve nailed the imitation of Lee’s iconic sound effects. It’s everything else where it falls apart for me. The story looks like a ham-fisted mess of clunky tropes and stereotypes with zero subtlety or any real meaning behind it. And don’t even get me started on what I’ll generously call a soundtrack that sounds wildly out of place.
What do you think?
Birth of the Dragon is due for release in the US on 25 August. Directed by George Nolfi, it stars Philip Ng, Yu Xia, Terry Chen and Ron Yuan.
Last Updated: July 14, 2017