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Young Bruce Lee (2010,Hong Kong)

01/06/2011

Directors: Manfred Wong, Wai Man Yip   Starring: Tony Leung Ka Fai, Aarif Rahman, Christy Chung

As far as DVD labels go, there are few imprints as reliable as the excellent Cine Asia, purveyors of the finest action/adventure films from the Far East. While the quality of some of the titles is occasionally variable what you can always depend on is the quality of the discs. Beautiful transfers backed up with generally good extra features are the norm and the fact that their recent releases also seem to be appearing on Blu Ray is no bad thing either. Bearing all this in mind, imagine my excitement when I noticed Young Bruce Lee in the release schedules. Billed as an account of the early life of the martial arts legend, produced by the same studio that brought us the excellent Warlords and Infernal Affairs movies and with an action packed trailer (see below) my appetite was well and truly whetted.

Following the life of Bruce from his birth in San Francisco in 1940 to the moment he leaves Hong Kong for America in 1959 it deals with a period in his life that has hitherto been overlooked by most of the existing material I have seen about his life. Following his youthful exploits of chasing  girls and getting into scrapes with the brutal street gangs of Hong Kong it provides an insight into a different side of the martial artist. In fact, martial arts play a relatively minor role in the film, the story focusing on the personal, familial aspects of his life during this period rather than his early career as a young star of Hong Kong cinema or his obvious aptitude and accomplishment in the world of kung fu.

Given the way the film has been promoted (especially via the trailer), this absence of kung fu is a touch frustrating and colours an otherwise interesting and beautifully made film with a shade of disappointment. You have to wait over an hour before the young Bruce approaches Master Ip Man in his Hong Kong school for the training he needs in order to triumph over an arrogant Western boxer who has shown him up in a street fight. When the action comes it is a pretty cool sight. A Rocky style training montage shows his rapid progress in the Wing Chun style. His boxing match is a little reminiscent of Donnie Yen’s in Ip Man 2, although here it is handled more convincingly with less overblown theatrics but the highlight comes in the backstreet rematch where Lee gets to let rip without the constraints of rules and referees. Barring this though, the action is thin on the ground. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, just a bit of a let down after the implied kung fu fest promised by the trailer.

Once you get over the initial shock of a Bruce Lee movie with very little fighting in it there is much to love about the film though. Based on the book Bruce Lee, My Brother, written by his obviously adoring younger brother Robert, it is a touching and really quite interesting portrayal of the megastar’s early years. By avoiding too much dreary detail about his youthful movie career and focusing on his relationships with his friends and family you get a much more intimate view of a man who clearly valued family and friendship among his highest ideals. The details of his relationship with his little brother Robert are the ones that are the most touching although you have to question how much of this is happy nostalgia given the source material. The playing down of his penchant for street fighting which eventually led his father to send him to America would suggest a sort of Walk The Line style glossing of the less palatable details (this is dressed up with a noble motiviation in the film, the reality being far more likely the result of street punk arrogance than self sacrificing heroism).

The period Hong Kong setting is wonderfully realised and the cinematography is lovely, all the better for a typically attentive Cine Asia transfer. The performances are generally good and while Aarif Rahman might not have the look down a hundred percent he certainly has the mannerisms of Bruce down and thus manages a convincing portrayal of the kung fu superstar.

If you are looking for tales of street fighting, bravado and martial arts superstardom you would be better advised to check out Dragon: The Bruce Lee story or any of Lee’s feature films. If, like me, you are a fan of the legend and are looking for another perspective on his story then this is definitely worth a look. Especially if you check your expectations of kung fu mayhem at the door.

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