The new film Birth of the Dragon addresses Wu De, “what we call Martial Virtue. Basically, you’re looking at why you practice martial arts,” says Sifu Scott Jensen, founder of 10000 Victories, a school for Kung Fu and Tai Chi based out of California. “What’s the purpose? Is it just fighting and being badass?”
Decidedly not! Directed by George Nolfi, the latest in a line of films dramatizing the life of martial arts legend Bruce Lee is only “inspired” by true events. The movie comes from an unlikely alliance between horror production company Blumhouse and the cinematic arm of wrestling promoters WWE. Still, Birth of The Dragon, which opens today without the benefit of a local press screening, may be more than just sensational revisionist history.
While the average biopic tries to condense a full human life into a two-hour film, this follows Lee (Philip Ng) at a specific point in his life. It fictionalizes a 1964 incident in which Lee had a fabled, closed door fight with Shaolin martial artist Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu). Because the fight had so few witnesses, the bout has become the stuff of legend. Nolfi, who previously directed the sci-fi romantic thriller The Adjustment Bureau, take liberties with the facts, but in other ways the production retracts the legend to print something closer to the truth.
That truth comes from Jensen, who studied under Wong Jack Man for 25 years and was lucky enough to see two different cuts of the new film, including an early edit that was panned after a Toronto screening. Despite mixed reviews, the movie may be more worthy than the trailers lead you to expect.
With disapproval, Jensen notes that while action films often feature characters that fight using various martial arts, their kung fu is an afterthought. Superheroes, spies, and mercenaries freely throw crazy kicks and cool punches without ever engaging with the history of the practice or its cultural connotations.
In contrast, as Jensen points out, more traditional kung fu films take the approach of a Hero’s Journey. In such films, a young man encounters violence at home, then leaves to undergo arduous training and returns home to face his enemy with renewed strength and understanding.