In the world of biopics, some subjects are so familiar that we have even seen multiple films for the same individual; I'm looking at you, Steve Jobs. However, despite the ubiquity of biographical films, we have only just received our first proper Bruce Lee story with the newly released Birth of the Dragon. I recently asked Philip Ng (who plays Lee in Birth) about why it has taken so long to bring the legend to the screen, and he explained that it all has to do with the daunting challenge of trying to accurately and respectfully portray the Enter the Dragon star, saying:
With Bruce Lee, he's so documented. Everyone knows what Bruce Lee looks like and what Bruce Lee is about, so it's a big chance that people will be against your interpretation of this character. But I was very lucky. I trained with Wong Shun Lau, a classmate of Bruce Lee and also his main instructor, so I heard a lot of stories about him outside of Kung Fu, outside of movies, about his personality from him. And having worked in the Hong Kong action cinema for the last 15 years, I've met a lot of people that worked with him too, so I was able to get these stories and kind of get a commonality of what everyone says about him and take those things as his character traits and try to embody him rather than imitate him. Because, you know, if I was in the movie and I was rubbing my nose every five seconds like he does it would be more like I'm pretending to be him. But rather here, I'm trying to be him.
Telling the Bruce Lee story is no easy feat, and the actual process of playing Bruce Lee is another matter altogether - particularly when we consider his rabid fanbase. He was not just an actor or a martial arts icon during his era; he was a cultural fixture, as well as one of the most recognizable figures in the world. Taking on this role is something that has never really been accomplished, but Philip Ng's background in martial arts (coupled with his career as an action movie star) has unwittingly researched this role for the better part of the last two decades. It's not about trying to capture all of the surface level qualities; it's about figuring out who Bruce Lee was as a man and embodying that on the big screen.
Of course, it also doesn't hurt that Philip Ng looks the part. Between the martial artist physique and his facial features, he is arguably a dead-ringer for the late, great Kung Fu master.
Birth of the Dragon chronicles the life of Bruce Lee before he rose to stardom with his breakout role in Green Hornet (no, not the 2011 reboot). Taking place in San Francisco on the 1960s, the film follows Lee and his rivalry with Shaolin master Wong Jack Man as they agree to a battle of fists and ideologies. The melee between these two Kung Fu legends has become one of the most widely talked about fights of the 20th century, and Birth of the Dragon offers Hollywood's first "real" look at how it may have gone down.