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Produced to coincide with the 70th anniversary of his birth, “Bruce Lee, My Brother” is a part-fictionalised biopic of the legendary star, based upon the memoirs of his younger brother Robert Lee, who was himself involved with the writing of the script. The film was directed by Manfred Wong (“The Storm Riders”) and Raymond Yip (“Anna in Kung Fu Land”), and endeavours to tell the story of Lee’s generally less well known early years. Charged with doing justice to the weighty role of one of the most popular and internationally recognisable stars of all time is Aarif Lee, who recently impressed with his award winning turn in “Echoes of the Rainbow”, with a supporting cast that includes Tony Leung Ka Fai, Christy Chung, and Jennifer Tse.
Beginning from the very beginning with his birth in San Francisco in 1940, the film follows Bruce Lee, or Phoenix (Aarif Lee) as he was then nicknamed, as he grows up in Hong Kong after his Cantonese opera performer father Lee Hoi Chuen (Tony Leung) decides to move his family back home. As well as his acting career, which kicked off at the age of just nine with “The Kid”, the film charts his wild teenage times with pals Little Unicorn (MC Jin), Ngun (Hanjin Tan), and Kwong (Zhang Yishan), as they enter dance contests and chase girls, including the lovely Man Yee (Jennifer Tse) and Man Lan (Gong Mi). Although good hearted, Lee gets into his fair share of troubles with both the police and the Triads, often landing his friends and family in hot water.
To get the most obvious point out of the way first, anyone expecting all out action, or a film anything much like any of Lee’s own works, may well be disappointed with “Bruce Lee, My Brother”. Certainly, the film is first and foremost a biopic, and one which follows the legendary star’s early years, focusing more on his relationships with friends and his gradual progress in his cinematic career rather than his training as a martial artist. This does give it something different to say, with Lee’s fascinating formative period being less familiar with casual viewers, and the film is (thankfully) a very different affair to the Hollywood effort “Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story. In this regard, the film again may not be what was expected, with more scenes of domestic drama, dancing and girl problems than fighting of any sort. However, this works very well, and the film is engaging throughout, not only for fans of Lee, but as a historical outing in general, and should also grab the attention of anyone interested in the Hong Kong film industry. Although, as can be guessed from the title and the involvement of Robert Lee, the film isn’t particularly critical or even handed (it does openly admit from the start to being somewhat fictionalised), it does make an effort to show some of the great man’s character flaws and youthful impetuousness, and goes some way to show how several bad decisions came to shape his future character and philosophy.
The film’s cast gives it a huge boost, with Aarif Lee managing to successfully pull off the inevitable task of portraying the legendary star, balancing his cockiness with an understated sense of depth in convincing fashion. Though in part his believability in the role is also down to his resemblance to Lee, his performance anchors the film and adds an all important charisma to its central role. The supporting cast are generally good, with Tony Leung Ka Fai on excellent form as his opium smoking, tough but fair father, whose personality plays a big part in the film and indeed in understanding Lee’s development.
There are a few flashes of action here and there, and Wong and Yip’s direction is pleasingly energetic, giving the film a fun and upbeat feel. Most of this comes in the form of Lee running from trouble rather than actually getting to show off his skills, with his encounters with Ip Man not featuring until the last act. Though the fight scenes are well handled and reasonably exciting, oddly enough they have the feel of having been added in or exaggerated in terms of importance in order to please the audience. Lee’s bouts with a cocky Western boxer are a prime example of this, as though by no means superfluous, they are a little too similar to sequences in countless other similarly themed films of late, including “Ip Man” and “True Legend” to name but two. The Japanese invasion theme, although true to life, are similarly a touch tired.
Such criticisms are pretty much par for the course when it comes to modern Chinese blockbusters, and they never really derail “Bruce Lee, My Brother” or undermine its effectiveness. Although its accuracy may be questionable in places, it still presents an entertaining portrait of the young man who would grow to be the biggest martial arts star of all time, and is solid enough to appeal even to non fans as a well told historical biopic.
Manfred Wong, Raymond Yip (director) / Manfred Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Aarif Lee … Bruce Lee
Tony Leung Ka Fai … Lee Hoi-chuen
Christy Chung … Grace Lee
Michelle Ye … Auntie Eight
Kristy Yang … Mui Yee
Kar Lok Chin … Shek Kin