Every superhero needs an origin story, and Bruce Lee’s came in 1964 when, as a 24-year-old martial arts instructor in Oakland, California, he accepted a challenge to fight a rival sifu, Wong Jack Man. Lee had just opened his second Wing Chun school, but according to legend, Wong and the other local masters were offended that he taught the ancient Chinese arts to non-Chinese. Wong is said to have delivered Lee a scroll, signed by the top dogs of the San Francisco martial arts community, demanding that if he lost the fight, he must close his school and stop teaching Caucasians.
In the 2012 documentary I Am Bruce Lee, Linda Lee Caldwell (Lee’s widow and one of the fight’s few witnesses) remembers that “these elders arrived from San Francisco led by Wong Jack Man” at Lee’s school. She claims that Wong spent most of the fight running around the room to escape his opponent, and “it took three minutes for Bruce to get him down on the ground and say, ‘Do you give up? Do you give up?’” After the find, Caldwell found her husband sitting on the steps outside his studio, head in hands, lamenting that the fight took so long. That was the moment that Lee moved away from the “rehearsed routines” of classical martial arts and began developing Jeet Kun Do—a more fluid style often cited as a precursor to Mixed Martial Arts.
This is a great story, because it encapsulates everything that makes Lee an icon: his skill, his self-confidence, his iconoclastic approach to martial arts, his impossible perfectionism, his transcendence of national and racial barriers. It’s also one of those famous stories that begins to fall apart if you think about it for even half a second. Would Lee really have bet his livelihood on a fight? How many martial arts instructors in Chinatown would actually sign such an ultimatum? How much moral or legal authority would they have had? Was Lee really the only person teaching martial arts to non-Asians in San Francisco? Were the martial arts really such closely-guarded secrets in 1964? If the fight only took three minutes, why did it so deeply rattle Lee? For his part, Wong Jack Man (retired from teaching and still alive) claims that Lee simply offered an open challenge at a Chinatown movie theatre, and Wong decided to take him up on the offer. He also claims that he won the fight—or, if not “won,” then at least kept Lee going for 20 or 25 minutes.
Nevertheless, this famous story has become a central pillar in the Bruce Lee myth. It appears in Universal’s 1993 biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (which depicts “Johnny Sun” inflicting a debilitating back injury on Lee after the fight is declared over, leading to Lee creating Jeet Kun Do in his recovery period), the 2008 Chinese miniseries The Legend of Bruce Lee (which creates the fictional character of “Master Wang, the president of the Chinese Martial Arts Association in California,” who orders the fight), and the string of Bruce Lee biopics churned out in Hong Kong in the ’70s. It will be reprised in Ip Man 4, the latest in a series of Chinese action movies loosely inspired by Lee’s real-life teacher, which “will see Ip Man travelling to the US Chinatown after Bruce Lee upset the local people by setting up his own fight school and teaching Westerners martial arts.”
And it is the subject of Birth of the Dragon, a downmarket Bruceploitation movie “inspired by a true event” that’s currently in wide release. This movie depicts Wong Jack Man as a Shaolin Temple monk exiled to San Francisco to seek penance after nearly killing an opponent. He also seeks to observe an arrogant young instructor named Bruce Lee, whose extraordinary skill and insistence on teaching westerners has made waves all the way to China. Though Lee fears Wong has come to destroy his burgeoning career, Wong admits that “he is the future—he will bring martial arts to the world,” and hopes only to teach Lee the spiritual side of kung-fu. After their fight—a draw, with Lee humbled—the two men team up to fight Chinatown gangsters and free an indentured servant from a life of prostitution. Much of this is seen from the perspective of “Steve McKee,” a bland white protagonist loosely modelled on Lee’s real-life student Steve McQueen, who finds himself stuck between two masters. A lot of this, shall we say, departs from the historic record.
To its credit, the movie is not pure hagiography, and has incorporated the major ideas from its credited source, Michael Dorgan’s article “Bruce Lee’s Toughest Fight.” It entertains the possibilities that the fight lasted longer than three minutes, that Lee did not win, and that Lee’s victory was a “print the legend” contrivance with Wong as the Tom Doniphon to Lee’s Ransom Stoddard. Not confusable with a conventional biopic, it is a piece of fan-fiction—or, if you want to be very generous, “a meditation”—on the competing impulses (showboat and disciplinarian, braggart and philosopher) that drove most famous martial artist of all time.
Birth of the Dragon is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First: Lee’s enduring presence in the cultural imagination belies his scant filmography. If we discount the many dramatic films in which Lee appeared as a child actor in Hong Kong, his role as Kato on the ill-fated Green Hornet TV show, and a few bit-parts and supporting roles in films and TV shows, Bruce Lee’s legacy rests on four-and-a-half movies: The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), Way of the Dragon (1973), Enter the Dragon (1973), and the uncompleted The Game of Death. Add together all the good scenes from those movies and you might have two or two-and-a-half good movies. Lee’s fan following depends as much on his off-screen exploits—the fight with Wong Jack Man; the prejudice he faced in Hollywood; his years as a kung-fu-instructor-to-the-stars; his creation of Jeet Kun Do; his apocryphal duels with people who challenged him; his mysterious death—as his modest film oeuvre. Birth of the Dragon imagines Lee as 1) a 20th century myth like Samson or Jesus whose adventures could be embellished for a knowing audience, and 2) a franchise property like Superman or Batman, bound to an origin story and certain inviolable “rules,” but otherwise open to interpretation and reinvention. (Fun fact: two separate CGI Bruce Lee projects, one of them to be directed by Rob Cohen, were planned in the mid-2000s). That some of the key stories from Lee’s own life are unverifiable and exaggerated only adds to his appeal.
Second: Lee’s iconic status is extraordinarily flexible, adapting easily to whatever social and political winds have blown in the 44 years since his death. As an Asian-American who taught Caucasians, married a white woman, and became an international superstar, he was an ideal subject for major-studio biopic released in the “colourblind” Clinton era. As a movie star who introduced a new and basically positive Chinese archetype to American screens, he is ripe for reclamation in the identity politics age. In I Am Bruce Lee, interviewees from the then-burgeoning MMA and b-boy worlds discuss how Lee’s ideas about movement influenced their own spheres. His Chinese nationalist from Fist of Fury has been a source of inspiration for movies like Ip Man and Legend of the Fist in China’s jingoistic modern film industry, but has also served as a surrogate for disenfranchised audiences around the world. Some cultural icons remain strictly frozen in their moment, but Lee’s presence and ideas have been simple, distinctive, and evocative enough to fit whatever cultural context they’ve found themselves in. Lee’s famous description of Jeet Kun Do could also be applied to his own legacy: “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”