Whenever you hear the words, martial arts in America, the first person who instantaneously pops into your head is Bruce Lee. The man was a student of Ip Man, created the One-Inch Punch and expanded on Wing Chun, Judo and Western Boxing to create Jeet Kune Do, the precursor to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). He along with ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell are recognized as the Godfathers of MMA.
In Birth of the Dragon, BH Tilt and WWE Studios follow the tradition of Hong Kong film making with an American twist. Just like the Chinese films featuring Donnie Yen as Ip Man, where the movies are exaggerations or even complete re-imaginings of events that took place, Philip Ng is able to do the same with Bruce Lee State-side.
In this retelling of the legendary fight between Wong Jack Man (Xia Yu) and Bruce Lee (Philip Ng), we are shown that the battle is between tradition and modernity. It deals with the struggles of an ever changing world and how much of the past needs to be retained in order to keep a sense of our identity while still moving forward.
“This movie is not biopic, it’s fun Kung Fu movie akin to those movies like Ip Man and Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, that fans sing the praises of, it’s very similia. My sifu is Shun-Leung and Ip Man, who’s my sigung, I know all the stories about him, I didn’t complain when I saw the movies because I knew what I was watching,” said Ng in response to detractors that are upset about the setting changes without having seen the film.
Shot primarily on location in San Francisco, Birth of the Dragon, does stay true to The City and culture of the time. The movie even goes so far as referring to San Francisco State University as San Francisco State College as the film takes place in 1968 and SFSU did not become a full fledged university until 1972.
What makes this movie extra fun, is that it humanizes Bruce Lee and uses Wong Jack Man to break him free of the limitations he set upon himself forcing him to become the legend he was destined to be.
“There are a very particular crew of people that worship Bruce Lee as a god rather than seeing him as a human, which is completely counter to what Bruce Lee wanted to be remembered by. He always said, ‘I’m a human being first-and-foremost,’ and his whole martial arts philosophy is based on the that he’s a human being,” said Ng, who holds a masters degree in education.
Bringing in Xia Yu as Wong Jack Man was an incredible choice for the role, as he is a well known actor in China, but not a martial arts practitioner. It was Ng, who choreographed the fight scene between Yu and Wang Xi’an, who portrayed the Tai Chi Master in Birth of the Dragon, making Yu look more than proficient in the art of Wing Chun.
“I worked with him (Xia Yu) on a film called, Dragon Squad, where I was one of the action choreographers and I played a small roll in it, so we were already acquaintances. He was amazing, he’s an actor first, he’s not a martial artist but he had to portray a character that would give Bruce (Lee) a run for his money and it’s a big challenge. You think playing Bruce Lee is a challenge, playing someone that can potentially beat him up is even more of a challenge and to make that believable, especially since he doesn’t really know martial arts. He’s an actor’s actor, but because he has to carry the movie in that way a lot, so having him that role really helped,” said Ng, praising his co-star who trained extremely hard to bring Wong Jack Man to life.
Birth of the Dragon is a fun, energetic, action packed Kung Fu movie designed for a western audience. There is humor, a forbidden romance between two side characters and some homage to the various films Bruce Lee made through his short, yet impactful career.
Birth of the Dragon hits theaters on Friday, August 25, 2017.