'Bruce Lee, My Brother' Tracks Star's Early Life

Aarif Lee stars as Bruce Lee in "Bruce Lee, My Brother."

Hong Kong Star's Life Recalled in Siblings' Memories

HONG KONG – Authenticity is the heart and soul of the new biopic Bruce Lee, My Brother, the early life story of the man who put Hong Kong action films on the map, director Raymond Yip told The Hollywood Reporter.

As the film’s title declares, Bruce Lee, My Brother pieces together the superstar’s childhood -- Lee would have turned 70 on Sunday -- and young adulthood from his surviving siblings’ memories. Lee’s elder sisters Phoebe and Agnes, along with eldest brother Peter – who passed away in 2008 – served as consultants for the biopic, while his younger brother Robert was one of the film’s co-producers.

“It was a challenge for us to create authenticity in the film,” Yip said. “The project has been in development since 2006. The Lee family supplied us with all the details and the tidbits of their family life. So we took great care to be loyal to the truth and avoid anything that felt fake, which made it rather difficult for us in terms of creating the structure of the script. But the Lee family was very pleased with the result, especially with how close it was to what actually happened.”

The biopic took years to put on the screen, not least because of the obviously difficult task of finding a young actor to play the role of the iconic megastar. “We’ve been on the lookout for a possible candidate all over China since 2008, but no one could capture the Hong Kong spirit of the young Bruce Lee,” Yip explains. Thanks to the writer-director team of Alex Law and Mabel Cheung, who invited the film’s producer, writer and director Manfred Wong to a screening of their opus Echoes of the Rainbow, the search for a perfect match to play Bruce Lee was over.

Aarif Lee (no relation to the late actor), a 23-year-old singer-songwriter who made his acting debut (and stole the show) in Law and Cheung’s film, was locked in as the young Bruce Lee. “Including Lee’s brother Robert, we were quite amazed by how much Aarif resembles Bruce. No one can say for sure whether an actor really embodies Bruce’s spirit except for his family. So it was a go from then on,” Yip recalled. The film began pre-production in March to push for a November release, in time for what would have been the pop culture icon’s 70th birthday.

The Hong Kong-born Lee, of Malay-Arab-Chinese ancestry, will have to shoulder any potential sequels for the Bruce Lee life story said Yip, who doesn’t rule out further retelling of the later chapters in the martial arts master's, such as his time in Los Angeles and his return to Hong Kong to make the Golden Harvest films that made him a global screen legend.

“We certainly hope to continue telling Bruce Lee’s story, but it depends on how this one is received, especially on the public reception of Aarif as Bruce Lee. Lee was a legendary figure. Who plays him in the film is the biggest issue for us as filmmakers. But I have faith in Aarif,” Yip said. 

Produced by Hong Kong’s Media Asia, Beijing Antaeus Film, Shanghai TV Media, Beijing Meng Ze Culture and Media, and J’Star Group, the HK$36 million ($4.6 million) biopic has been snapped up at this month’s AFM by distributors in over 10 territories, including Japan for over $1 million.

Although the biopic tracks the early life of the kungfu master from the moment he was born in San Francisco, to his Chinese opera actor-father Lee Hoi-chuen (played by The Lover’s Tony Leung Ka-fai) and Eurasian mother Grace (played by Jan Dara’s Christy Chung), old Hong Kong plays a role as the film’s biggest co-star. The film shows Lee and his friends as fixtures in the mid-century Hong Kong film industry, a chance for the filmmakers to recreate the studios of the former colony's first golden era of Hong Kong cinema, reenacting scenes from famous films of the age. “Bruce Lee grew up on soundstages. But the films-within-a-film were also a way for us to recapture the collective memories of the Hong Kong people,” Yip said.

Bruce Lee, My Brother opens on November 25 in Hong Kong and China.