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Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)

November 25, 2010 4 comments

The camera moves slowly through the space, exploring the rooms as if it half remembers them. The furniture stands silently on a polished wooden floor. There are children’s toys. The tracking shot ends on the ancestors.

They give strength and a sense of permanence to the family. Through their hard work and perseverance, each new generation has grown and prospered. They watch over the living as they try to build on what has gone before.

This is a biopic. It therefore has to obey various rules. Whatever is seen on the screen must be explained by a voice over. Talking heads must appear. There must be captions to tell us when and where we are, to introduce us to characters we remember from history. And there must be actors who recreate the lives of these people through the years. There will be babies who become youngsters and then enter the dangerous years of their teens. Parents and grandparents will remind each other of filial duties, and hand down their culture to each new generation as it passes through the home. But make no mistake. This is not a biopic with the sensationalism of Hollywood behind it. This is a quietly confident “Chinese” film, respecting the lives of the people as shown on the screen — allowing them the chance to grow and tell their own stories.

Almost as soon as the camera has shown us the empty space and we have seen the birth of Bruce Lee in San Francisco (it’s good joke about the name — perhaps it’s true) everything that follows revolves around the home. It’s always full of people, the dark kitchen a hub of activity, the mahjong tiles clicking on the tables as the adults play. In this space, people are made and then tested when they go out into the world. Did the parents do the right things? Have the children learned how to survive?

Tony Leung Ka Fai and Aarif Rahman

The spirit of the era of transition from before the Japanese occupation to the end of the film when Bruce must leave Hong Kong, is beautifully caught through the role of the father. Here is a man who makes his living in traditional Chinese opera. At first his fame must force him into collaboration with the Japanese then, in the aftermath, he slowly spreads his time between theatre and screen, watching how younger people turn away from the old and begin sampling the novelty of rock n’ roll and the Western lifestyle it represents. Throughout, Tony Leung Ka Fai gives a beautifully nuanced performance, first as the young son in a house of women dominated by his mother, and then through his years as the head of the family. It’s as if he’s carrying the weight of duty and responsibility on his shoulders, but always willingly, never resentfully. At first, he persists in the tradition of opium but, when this exposes him to blackmail, he quits. All his sacrifices are for the good of the family. Christy Chung as his loving wife who gave up status to marry an “entertainer” is fiercely passionate when she needs to be, quietly loving the rest of the time. They are the bedrock of the new generation.

Christy Chung

When we reach Aarif Rahman as teenaged Bruce, we find someone going through his rite of passage into adulthood. This is the role that had to be right. You can’t have a biopic unless your stand-in can fill the shoes of the real man. Again, this is not a showy performance. There are moments of great stillness as you see him struggling, thinking about what kind of man he will become. He is fierce in defence of his friends, selfless to a fault, some might say. Yet even as a teen, the flame of ambition burns within him and, when finally harnessed in pursuit of real fighting skills, we see him become more grounded. There’s a telling moment when he explains why he wants to learn Wing Chun (from the Yip Man, no less). He is interested to see whether it offers practical skills. Working in the Hong Kong film industry, he has watched the early “kung fu” movies being made. He knows they are action dramas without substance. When he discovers Wing Chun is real, he learns physical responsibility.Aarif Rahman strikes a pose

The film is beautifully structured to build to a climax forcing Lee’s departure from Hong Kong. All the strands of early love, the friendship between boys growing up together, and the inherent dangers lurking just under the surface in Hong Kong in general and the New Territories in particular, are woven together to produce genuine drama. It may not be quite the history I thought I knew, but it’s terrific entertainment. Because the family stays calm no matter what is happening around it, potential script problems of melodrama and sentimentality have been avoided. There are some touching and tender moments and, at times, there’s an overlay of sadness. Children always disappoint their parents. Parents must always love their children, whatever they do. Perhaps it really is bad luck for a father to see his child leave the country. As must be the case, there is some fighting. But not as much as you might imagine. This is not about the Bruce Lee who strutted and fought his way across the screen through the 1970s. Here we see the seeds planted by his parents and nurtured by his family. They grow into a young man who fights for his own honour and for the soul of his friend.

This is a genuinely affecting family history. Whether this history is true does not matter. The people we see on the screen feel real and what they do matches our expectations. They live and it’s a pleasure to know them during our time together in the cinema. In every way, this is a perfect way to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Bruce Lee’s birth.

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

 

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