Bruce Lee, My Brother -- Film Review

Biopic of young Bruce Lee looks splendid but pulls all the punches

HONG KONG — The great martial arts star gets upstaged by studio sets in "Bruce Lee, My Brother," a biopic on Lee’s life until the age of 18 co-directed by Manfred Wong and Raymond Yip. Anyone raised or interested in Hong Kong won’t want to pull their eyes off the production design, which captures the city from ‘40s to ‘60s with exquisite flair. But period atmospherics and a pageant of who’s who in ‘60s Cantonese cinema are hollow stand-ins for true insight into how Lee’s childhood impacted his character formation and lifelong quests in martial arts and filmmaking.

Buyers from over 10 territories reportedly scooped up the title at AFM before its November release in China and Hong Kong – a sign that worldwide fascination with the star hasn’t subsided since he passed away in 1970. So the likelihood of a sequel is high, even if the direction and writing are the least exciting among of slew of homage films made to commemorate Lee’s 70th birthday. At least, viewers can enjoy the dynamic presence of Aarif Rahman (Echoes of the Rainbow), who is arguably the most charismatic impersonator of the star to date. The rest of the cast is also excellent.

The film is narrated by Lee’s brother Robert, on whose book the film is largely based. Robert also appears in an introduction with elder sister, Phoebe. Bothstress that unlike previous biopics that portray Lee as a legend, this is a more personal account that also preserves their family’s history. Maybe that’s why the recalled events have scant entertainment value, even though theirs is surely no ordinary family.

Lee’s father, Hoi Chuen (Tony Leung Ka Fai), is a renowned opera star married to Grace (Christy Chung), a Eurasian from a wealthy family. She gave birth to Bruce in San Francisco while Hoi Chuen was on a performing tour in 1940. In 1941, the Lees move back to his ancestral mansion in Hong Kong just before the Japanese occupation.

The resplendently lit and decorated interiors overflowing with authentic looking period props help one visualize Bruce Lee’s childhood spent in the company of a traditional Chinese household of 30 members. However, neither his naughty pranks as a boy nor his penchant for street fights as a rebellious teenager are depicted with enough verve. His two smartass sidekicks are unlikeable at best, a plain nuisance at worst. His love problems with the daughters of two famous actors are even more lackluster.

Lee’s experience as a child star might have provided a key to understanding his aspirations in the film industry. But instead of exploring how he coped with celebrity status from a tender age, the directors are content to recreate a few scenes from his classic films like The Kid and The Orphan (albeit done in stylish, authentic-looking black-and-white).

More realistic representation of slapdash filmmaking conditions in ‘50s and ‘60s Hong Kong would have provided a more solid background to his upbringing.  In fact, child stars were notoriously abused, notably his co-star Bo Bo Fung (a Hong Kong equivalent of Shirley Temple), who makes a fleeting appearance. It would be fascinating to know if he suffered a similar plight.

Likewise, instead of probing what the period’s top actors and directors taught him about acting, filmmaking or life, particularly how his father’s opera and film background influenced him, all one gets is an Altmanesque presentation (without his wit) of  cameos of screen luminaries impersonated by veteran actors – like a dash through the Hall of Fame of early Cantonese cinema, which means very little to the uninitiated.

What really makes Lee’s fans wring their fists in fury is the episode when he becomes the disciple of Wing Chun master Ip Man. This could have been the dramatic turning point when he discovers martial arts. One learns from that Lee was highly theoretical, philosophical and iconoclastic in his approach to martial arts, so did he challenge what he was taught? Frustratingly, one never sees that process; one doesn’t even see Ip Man’s face, just his silhouette.

The last 40 minutes see a sudden spring into action, first with Lee facing off the police superintendent’s son Charlie Owen in an intercollegiate boxing match, then with clash against gangsters to rescue his best friend Kong from drug addiction.

Rahman gets Lee’s mannerisms to a T, but the scenes, with its overt nationalism that’s almost a prerequisite of period action films meant for the mainland Chinese market, look like excerpts from the Ip Man series without their better fleshed-out plot and characters to build to an emotionally engaging climax. The finale features a chase scene over tiled rooftops but, again, the spectacularly wrought set completely covered in scaffolding eclipses the actual action.

Opened: Nov. 25 Hong Kong, Singapore
Sales: Media Asia Films
Production: Media Asia Films, Beijing Antaeus Film, Shanghai TV Media, Beijing Meng Ze Culture & Media, J’Star Group present Masterpiece Films Production
Cast: Aarif Rahman, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Christy Chung, Jennifer Tse, MC Jin
Directors: Manfred Wong, Raymond Yip
Screenwriter-producer: Manfred Wong
Based on the book by Robert Lee
Executive producers: John Chong, Zhang Baoquan, Li Ruigang, Jia Bin, John Cheung
Director of photography: Jason Kwan
Production designer: Silver Cheung
Costume designer: Stanley Cheung
Music: Chan Kwong Wing
Editors: Azrael Chung, Shirley Yip
No rating, 130minutes