Little Box of Horrors: Birth of the Dragon
Birth of the Dragon is just like its white protagonist: not entirely honest, moderately competent at Kung Fu, and a little bland.
This go around, I’ll be picking from movies that my friends hated. If these movies got on their nerves, I’m sure I’ll be headed in the right direction. That direction being south, to the Biddeford, ME Walmart. I’ll treat you to their synopses of our contenders:
- Birth of the Dragon (2016): “Seriously, it’s about a white dude. I signed up for Bruce Lee and got Chad-Fu instead.”
- Mother! (2017): “They eat a baby. I don’t know if that means you are going to love it or hate it.” (My response: “Well, did they season it first?”)
- Brad’s Status (2017): “Do you want to watch a heartwarming comedy starring Ben Stiller? I didn’t either.”
Oooh, such glowing endorsements! Thank you all for being a friend, now let’s see which one gets to travel down the road and back again (with me).
Birth of the Dragon (2017)
9 years before Bruce Lee exploded onto the world stage with “Enter the Dragon”, he fought what some would call his toughest fight. The build-up to this throw-down is shown from the point of view of Steve McKee, a student of Lee’s who ended up befriending Lee’s opponent Wong Jack Man.
An Ancient Oriental Secret?
This film is “based on a true story”. My ass. This movie is as much a true story about Bruce Lee as Game of Thrones is a true story about medieval warfare. While Bruce Lee might have fought Shaolin Monk Wong Jack Man, Steve McKee is a wholesale fabrication. And since 75% of the story is about Steve, that means about 75% of Birth of the Dragon is bullshit.
I was pretty miffed about the choice to make this movie about some white Asian-Fetishist. This movie would have already been scandalous in its portrayal of Lee as an ambitious, arrogant, and fairly unlikeable dude. Making Lee’s growth as a martial artist and human being hinge around some White Knight with a serious case of yellow-fever was head-scratching.
Steve is just a walking, talking plot exposition. He constantly sets up the events that put Lee and Wong Jack Man on a collision course. If you can get over that story conceit, Birth of the Dragon is… alright.
Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting
At the time, Lee was a practitioner of Jun Fan, an aggressive, straight forward art that Lee modified to be useful in street combat. Wong Jack Man used Shaolin Quan, which employs flowing body work to deliver deceptive strikes and powerful kicks. The two styles look completely different, and that visual distinction drives a lot of the interesting elements of the Lee/Jack Man fight.
Lee attacks like a bulldozer full of angry hornets. To see it countered with an almost poetic elegance was visually pleasing. Both Phillip Ng (Lee) and Yu Xia (Jack Man) are highly skilled; Neil and I were impressed with the lightning fast hand speed of Ng. The choreography tries to throw some novelty as well, with touches of wire-work, slow-motion cinematography, and scenes where an opponent’s next few moves flash in front of the other fighter’s eyes (similar to the first big fight in Jet Li’s “Hero”). I can’t say Birth of the Dragon blew me away, but it was above average, and it was certainly trying.
Hack Away at the Unessential
I didn’t hate this movie, but I have great disdain for the pretext under which it exists. Both Lee and Jack Man are interesting in their own rights: Lee is confident and aggressive to a fault, Jack Man is stoic to the point of being cold. They are both flawed characters, and it would have been a compelling enough story that this fight was most likely born of a misunderstanding between the two. You didn’t need the white guy bouncing between the two, telling them how they were being selfish for not solving all his problems for him.
But writers Steven J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson made their choices; now I must render judgement. They shall both be condemned to the hell of being hit with anime-waifu hug pillows until they repent of their fetishizing of Asian culture. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch some respectful wushu. Neil! Where is our copy of The Last Dragon!?