Nearly 40 years after his death, Bruce Lee (李小龍) remains very much alive in the public’s imagination. While most people remember him as a kung fu legend in a yellow jumpsuit, Hong Kong directors Raymond Yip (葉偉民) and Manfred Wong (文雋) set out to shed new light on the star’s lesser known early life in Bruce Lee, My Brother (李小龍), a fictionalized biography of the star based on the memoir written by his younger brother, Robert Lee Jan-fai (李振輝).
Sadly, the production fails to capitalize on its admirable credentials. The script is unfocused, the subplots vary greatly in tone, and the choppy narrative fails to present a coherent or comprehensive look at the first 19 years of the action legend’s life before he left Hong Kong for the US.
The film begins with an introduction by the real Robert Lee, who stresses that the story, though dramatized, is based on the true story of his elder brother and their family, which sets the tone for a saga. New talent Aarif Rahman (李治廷) is cast as the teenage Bruce, who grows up in a bustling household surrounded by countless relatives, family friends and childhood pals. The references to Bruce’s earliest acting experiences as a child and teenage star, such as restaged scenes from The Kid (細路祥, 1950) and Thunderstorm (雷雨, 1957), are amusing to watch, and there are plenty of celebrity cameos embodying the luminaries and movie icons of 1950s Hong Kong cinema.
Much of the screen time is spent on examining Bruce’s experience with young love and his misadventures as a mischievous lad with a penchant for street fighting. On several occasions, the filmmakers pay tribute to the star’s kung fu classics in sequences where the young Bruce clinches his fist in anger when facing a sneering Chinese police officer (remember the Chinese villain in Fist of Fury (精武門)?) or takes on a loudmouthed British boxer (as in Way of the Dragon (猛龍過江)).
Bruce Lee, My Brother
Manfred Wong (文雋) and Raymond Yip (葉偉民)
Aarif Rahman (李治廷) as Bruce Lee, Tony Leung Ka-fai (梁家輝) as Lee Hoi-chuen, Christy Chung (鍾麗緹) as Grace Ho
Cantonese with CHINESE and English subtitles
Running time:130 minutes
At its most exaggerated moment, the film features drug dealers that Bruce has to rescue a junkie friend from, leading to a scaffold-climbing action sequence that resembles excerpts from the newest Chinese action blockbusters.
As a result, the purportedly biographical flick suffers greatly from a narrative that awkwardly oscillates between glamorized storytelling and references to actual events and historical context. The screen is filled with anecdotes and details that are diverting but formulaic. The film happily romps from one youthful episode to another, refusing to delve into how the kung fu legend’s childhood and adolescence shape his character and influence his martial arts and filmmaking later in life. Bruce Lee fans will be dismayed to see that the sequence in which the future legend becomes the disciple of wing chun (詠春) master Yip Man (葉問) — who is curiously shown only in silhouette — is downplayed as just part of Bruce’s training to fight the British boxer.
In a strange way, the film manages to stay true to its provenance — the faded childhood memory of Bruce Lee’s now gray-haired baby brother Robert Lee, who was understandably too young to understand the significance of the events that took place during the star’s formative years. From the get-go, Bruce Lee, My Brother was destined to become a cinematic pastiche of fragmented memories, family stories, the star’s onscreen image and the popular legends and myths that will forever surround the late martial arts master.