Take away the fact that “Bruce Lee, My Brother” is a Bruce Lee bio pic and is based on the memoirs of Robert Lee, little brother of Bruce, and you would be left with a (mostly) happy-go lucky story of a Chinese kid growing up in 1960s Hong Kong, with a segment here and there showing various moments of major historical significance that transpires parallel to our hero’s mostly unremarkable life. Of course, this is not a movie about any ol Chinese kid; it’s about Bruce Lee – arguably the most famous Chinese actor/man/martial artist in the 20th century. Unfortunately, if you went into the film expecting just that – the film about the legend – you will leave very disappointed. Bruce Lee does not even learn Wing Chun until nearly 75 minutes into the film, and he does not even fight anyone using his newfound skills until 90 minutes into the two-hour movie. Consider yourself properly warned.
But if you were to take “Bruce Lee” out of the title and just leave the “My Brother” part, then “Bruce Lee, My Brother” is a very agreeable film about a young man growing up in a house of actors, who then becomes involved in the burgeoning Hong Kong film industry, and finds love and heartache as he matures into a man. Cantonese pop star Aarif Lee stars as Bruce Lee, a cocky but all-around nice guy with dreams of one day becoming a worldwide sensation. Much of the film is simply about a young man with big dreams, who was born in San Francisco to an actor father (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and accidentally given the name Bruce by the attending nurse (his mother was trying to name him Push Lee). We see him grow up during the Japanese occupation of WWII, before finally thriving in the streets and cha-cha dance halls of Hong Kong during British colonial rule.
Despite boasting actual, first-person Lee family input (Robert Lee narrates much of the film in voiceover), “My Brother” clearly takes more than a few liberties with Bruce Lee’s life and times. I’m reasonably certain that there was no recurring villain in Lee’s life, here represented by a weaselly traitor who collaborates with the Japanese during WWII, the British during colonial rule, and then later, picks up the drug dealing trade for the sake of the trifecta. Other aspects of Lee’s life as portrayed in the movie seems more believable – his love of cha-cha dancing, his romantic entanglements, and his eventual training of Wing Chun under the legendary Ip Man, who is curiously only seen from behind for a split-second. Lee’s impetus to learn Wing Chun comes in the form of a generic British loudmouth boxer, who, along with Lee, accounts for the film’s two action scenes, first in a boxing ring and then later in a warehouse throwdown.
What “Bruce Lee, My Brother” lacks in the action department, it somewhat makes up for it in other areas. Co-written by director Manfred Wong and Raymond Yip, “My Brother” is more palatable as an easy-going coming-of-age drama, at least when it’s not masquerading as the true story of a famous person. The film boasts some impressive production values, and there is a very real sense of adoration for the film’s ’60s setting by the filmmakers. Aarif Lee, who at times looks incredibly like Bruce Lee (and other times look nothing like the man), makes for a convincing teenager on the crossroads of adulthood. Stalwart veterans Tony Leung Ka Fai is in fine form as Lee’s long-suffering father, whose opium addiction comes back to haunt the family, while Christy Chung, as Lee’s mother, is heartbreakingly effective. The rest of the cast is filled out with quality actors, including Michelle Ye as Bruce’s Aunt and Jennifer Tse as the childhood friend who grows up to crush on our hero.
While it certainly fails to live up to justified expectations involved in any movie with Bruce Lee in the title, the film does fill in some history on the man that was mostly unknown to me and, I would wager, many other people as well. For example, who knew Bruce’s local film industry output was so prolific? Apparently he acted in a slew of movies before he ever left Hong Kong during his childhood and teenage years, many of which I have never even heard of. The film also gives audiences some fascinating insights into the filmmaking process during the Hong Kong film industry’s early days. Fans of Hong Kong cinema or just filmmaking in general will get a kick out of seeing actors moving between movies, which at times are as simple as opening a door into the room where the other film is shooting simultaneously.
It’s unfortunate, but “Bruce Lee, My Brother” will disappoint many fans of the legendary martial artist. Of course, it doesn’t help that the film’s trailers and promotional stills have all been incredibly deceiving, focusing primarily on Lee’s martial arts life and fights (of which there are exactly two, both with the same “bad guy” who is less of a bad guy and mostly just a random, non-descript gweilo). However, if you could look past the name in the title, “My Brother” is a surprisingly affecting coming-of-age drama about growing up in Hong Kong during the ‘60s. I will grant you that “Bruce Lee, My Brother” is probably a heck of a lot more faithful to Lee’s life than, say, Rob Cohen’s “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”, but I’m not sure that’s what most viewers will be expecting, and therein lies the problem.
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