If you are alive in this world, then you probably know who Bruce Lee is. Chances are you either know a bit about his movies, have seen all of them and have obsessed over his life story, or you have at least done a bad imitation of him at some point in your lifetime. For someone who only lived for 32 years, Bruce Lee impacted the world in such a profound way.
I’ve watched a few documentaries about his life and most of them tend to focus on his life from his time in the US to his big break back in Hong Kong with The Big Boss to his major Hollywood feature film, Enter the Dragon, and finally to his untimely death in 1973. And, even though they mention his life before coming to the US, they always brush passed it. Very few films that I have seen delve into his teenage years. That’s where Bruce Lee, My Brother comes in. This 2010 Hong Kong film aims to fill in the gap of Bruce’s younger life, told by his real life younger brother Robert Lee ( who also produced the film).
The movie starts off with a brief prologue by Robert Lee and sister Phoebe Lee, talking about their brother Bruce and how important he was to their family. We are then shown Bruce being born in a hospital in California. Even as a baby, he was used in small Chinese film productions in the US. His mother and father move back to Hong Kong with little Bruce to stay with their family, where his grandmother names him Sai-fon (small Phoenix), a female name in order to trick demons. Since his father was a rather prolific stage actor, it was quite easy for Bruce to start out as a child actor. He was given the name Xiaolong, Little Dragon, as a screen name. Here, we see young Bruce as a rather rambunctious kid, always getting into fights and causing trouble.
We jump to his teenage years where he is shown as rather easy going and eager to have a good time. Practicing the Cha-Cha with his friends, he seemed to have a knack for dance. But, he still seemed to have the fire to fight, as seen when he challenges a British boxer after him and his friends try to throw their weight around at their hangout. This instant rivalry plays out later in the film when they face each other both in the ring of a tournament as well as a one-on-one rematch later on.
We also get a bit of a love triangle going on between Bruce, Margaret (an old childhood friend), and Pearl, a woman from the UK who Bruce has a crush on. Well, I guess its a love square since Pearl is dating one of his friends, Lau Lin-kong. It kind of goes as you expect it to, but this part of the story puts Bruce in a light that many probably wouldn’t know of, a shy person who doesn’t find it too easy to talk to women. It was pretty interesting to see this side of him. Most of us have the image of him being invincible, intelligent, and confident. Seeing him freeze up when talking to a woman he likes kind of grounds him as quite the normal person, at least before his rise to fame.
I must mention that the movie has the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong as well as the British settlement and shows the hardships that the family had to endure because of it. Though not always in the forefront of the movie’s plot, it does contextualize the period of time the film takes place and drives a few of the major plot points. One of them being the search for his friend Lau Lin-kong, who disappears after finding out that Bruce liked Pearl. But, I’ll get to how he is found in a bit.
This would be a good time to discuss one of the flaws of the movie, which is its plot. Now, the plot itself isn’t bad. I actually rather enjoyed it. It was just that since it covers a wide period of time in Bruce’s life, the plot had to make rather swift jumps from point to point in order to keep the movie going at a certain pace. Though granted, the first half of the movie seems to move at a much slower pace than the second half. At some places, this works just fine, but in others the left turns are just to sharp. The main one being the transition from him competing in the Cha-Cha tournament to competing in the Boxing tournament.
Bruce teams up with his younger brother Robert since he got into a bit of an argument with Margaret and Pearl was partnered with Lau. This creates tension between all of them and we see Lau leave suddenly, not wanting to be the third wheel once he found out about Bruce’s feelings for Pearl. We also see Pearl return to the UK after Lau goes missing. So this leaves Bruce to focus on the Boxing tournament which was eluded to earlier on after his brief fight with the British boxer. We then see a short training montage where he trains in Wing Chun under Ip Man’s school (the same Ip Man portrayed by Donnie Yen in the recent movies of the same name), though we see him train with another teacher. This training montage is supposed to be over a 2 month period, but we see Bruce change from the shy cha-cha dancer to basically the Bruce Lee that we all know in a matter of minutes. He moves like the Bruce we know, he screams and grimaces like the Bruce we know. He even poses like the Bruce we know. But, its just such a quick transition that it becomes rather unbelievable of a change. Bruce Lee studied for years honing his craft. Even though he was a rather quick learner, it wouldn’t take only 2 months to become the Legend he turned out to be.
I understand that this is for the sake of the film. Everyone, including me, watched this movie anticipating the iconic fighting style and characteristics that can only be associated with Bruce Lee. And, they delivered in that part. It just felt rather rushed seeing as it all happens in the 3rd act. We even get homages to the infamous Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris fight in the one-on-one fight between Bruce and the British boxer in the warehouse, right down to the cat meowing to start the match and Bruce telling the Brit to not get up after being knocked down repeatedly. I mean, it was an interesting little bit for fans and who’s to say that the fight in Way of the Dragon wasn’t influenced by this occurrence, seeing as Bruce directed that film. So, its totally possible, it just seemed a little tacked on just to justify it being a movie about Bruce Lee. If the transition was handled a bit more smoothly, it would all feel more legit.
Well, the film ends with the Brit informing of the whereabouts of Lau, who has become a drug junkie and secluded in the Triad slums. Bruce and his friends go in to save him which leads to a rooftop chase. Lau appears at the last minute to save Bruce by knocking the drug lord, along with himself, off of the building to their death. Inadvertently foiling the Triad’s operation, Bruce’s father forces him to move back to the States in order to escape being found, and is set off with only $102 to his name and the determination to come back a better man.
Despite some of the reviews I had seen for the movie, I actually quite enjoyed the movie. Of course some parts of the movie were dramatized for cinema, but I thought that it shed some interesting light on Bruce’s earlier life. The actor who played the role of Bruce, Aarif Rahman, seemed to be the perfect choice for the role. He definitely had the look down and he got some of the mannerisms down pact, though they were a bit underplayed, I’m guessing to signify that he hadn’t quite established his persona at that stage of his life. But even outside of that, I thought that Aarif was a good actor in general. He conveyed a lot of the emotions effectively and definitely added a bit of his own to it. It’s isn’t easy portraying someone as well known as Bruce Lee, but seeing as this the “untold story” of his life, he had a bit of leeway to interpret how to play the role. It’s especially not easy to pull off the fighting style of Bruce Lee. And, even though he didn’t seem to be a practicing martial artist like Jet Li or Donnie Yen in their renditions of Fist of Fury, again, he got a bit of leeway seeing as this was before Bruce had mastered his craft. This can be seen as a bit disappointing to some, but the way I see it, they could have gotten someone who was skilled in martial arts and could imitate Bruce’s movements fairly accurately, but chances are that he wouldn’t be able to act like Bruce outside of that. So, I guess it was a price to pay for the grand scheme of the film, but he did an great job nonetheless.
This film was also peppered with portrayals of various big actors from the time period. Sadly, seeing as I am more familiar with the big actors during and after Bruce’s time, a lot of the appearances sort of went over my head. But, I’m sure that to the average Hong Kong viewer and to those that are a lot more hardcore about Hong Kong cinema than I am at this point, those cameos probably added a lot to the atmosphere of the film. One person that I did know of but didn’t realize till I did a bit of research into the film was Unicorn Chan, one of Bruce’s best friends. He appeared in two of Bruce’s movies, Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon. That definitely added to the legitimacy of the film and was interesting to see.
One thing that the film did exceptionally well, in my opinion, was the cinematography. This film was shot very well, with intricate sets and great camera work. Color saturation changed based on the mood of the scene, during the happy-go-lucky times of Bruce’s youth, lots of color is shown and displayed brightly, while being washed out during a lot of the scenes involving oppression from the Japanese or the Brits. They were also washed out during the 2 fight scenes near the end, giving it a bit of a dramatic feel to it. These aspects, though common, definitely lent itself well to the flow of the story and enhanced the mood of the film. It is definitely a beautiful movie to look at.
Whether you are a big fan of Bruce Lee (and I mean, come on, who isn’t?), or just interested to see what he was like before his big break, Bruce Lee, My Brother is definitely a movie to check out. Only his family really knows how accurate this is to real life, and seeing as his siblings were very close to this project, I’m choosing to believe that its pretty damn close. Either way, its nice to see this side of the Legend, and gives an interesting foundation for his forever-fascinating life story.