|Do you know why Bruce Lee is such a revered and awesome figure? Go ahead and submit your 800-word essay explaining why, because it’s bound to be more convincing than Bruce Lee, My Brother. Manfred Wong and Raymond Yip Wai-Man co-direct this glossy biopic, which is openly defined as “fictionalized” in the film’s prologue. That’s fine, as most film biographies aren’t rabid slaves to truth, though a successful one will explain why the biographical subject is interesting or relevant. Bruce Lee should be a no-brainer; he had an unassailable belief in himself, plus he possessed off-the-chart charisma and a stirring philosophy towards the martial arts that could easily be applied to life. Hell, writing a semi-interesting biography of Bruce Lee should be a cakewalk.
Strangely, the filmmakers fail at doing so here, though they manage to fill time with plenty else. Bruce Lee, My Brother references actual events in Bruce’s life, while also taking care to romanticize things. Most prominently, Bruce is given a pure, unrequited love in the form of Pearl (Jennifer “Sister of Nic” Tse), whose appearances are accompanied by Michael Bay-worthy slow motion and blinding lens flares. Not content with giving Bruce a fated love, the filmmakers also give him a fated foe; Wilfred Lau plays a corrupt Chinese cop who shows up throughout young Bruce's life, sneering evilly such that Bruce usually clenches his fists in anger. Those scenes recall the many films where Bruce Lee contained his rage until exploding and routing his foes with superior kung-fu.
Sadly, this Bruce Lee is not allowed to kick a roomful of ass because such displays of awesomeness just wouldn’t be realistic. Instead of asskicking, the filmmakers focus on his family, the historical context, and his pre-martial arts film career, though they do exaggerate things; the film features evil drug dealers who threaten Bruce’s friends, leading to a climactic action sequence where Bruce kicks a few people and climbs up some scaffolding to get away (Excitement!). Having Bruce get pissed off and go Chen Zhen on his foes (be they Japanese, British or drug pushers) wouldn’t be proper in a supposed biopic, but this glamorized storytelling isn’t necessarily more convincing. Even worse, the commercial plotting doesn't really tell us about the real Bruce Lee – that is, unless fighting drug dealers was really a key point in the ascension of the world's most famous martial arts star.
What does Bruce Lee My Brother get right? Well, it casts Aarif Lee as Bruce Lee. The Echoes of the Rainbow actor isn’t a true martial artist, but he’s a strong physical match for the young Bruce Lee plus he’s got fine screen presence. Aarif Lee makes Bruce Lee into a charismatic and empathetic figure, and seems so comfortable in the role that one might hope he returns in another stab at the Bruce Lee story. However, My Brother isn’t a very good start. The script is unfocused and fails at capitalizing on Bruce Lee’s legend. It seems initially about his family, but detours into Bruce’s teen misadventures and experiences with young love. The details are interesting but very formulaic; for a good while, My Brother plays like a pastiche of teen rebel films. The story lacks a strong narrative thread other than the fact that Bruce Lee is supposedly the film’s protagonist.
The lack of proper focus sometime renders the film choppy or even boring, but there are a few bright spots. Bruce’s stint as a local cha-cha champion is related in entertaining fashion, as are his degrees of separation from various Cantonese cinema luminaries. Sometimes the moments play like name-dropping, but the references to Bruce Lee’s non-action film career are fun, with restaged cinema footage from The Kid and Thunderstorm, among others, plus plenty of cameos from modern actors playing classic ones. Young Bruce meets up with Walter Tso Tat-Wah (played by Eddie Cheung), Shek Kin (played by Chin Kar-Lok), plus child actor Fung Bo-Bo, her father Fung Fung (played by Cheung Tat-Ming), plus more. These scenes winningly depict young Bruce’s enchantment with the movies, and feel the most relevant and vital in foreshadowing his future fame.
On the other hand, the scenes where young Bruce takes on British boxer Charlie Owen (Alex Yen) seem cribbed from the latest Chinese blockbusters. There's anti-Chinese sentiment afoot, first from the invading Japanese and then from the dastardly British. When crossed by the annoying Owen, Bruce demands a chance to reclaim his honor in the boxing ring. But before their duel, Bruce needs extra training, which he gets from a Wing Chun school run by that Ip Man guy, played here by an actor who doesn’t even show his face (thanks to Donnie Yen, you can't cast just anyone as Ip Man). The fight scenes are diverting, and the choreography (by Chin Kar-Lok) is decent for faked martial arts, but the surrounding narrative devices seem like yet another transparent attempt by Chinese filmmakers to get a rise out of their homegrown audience.
The film also does a poor job of capitalizing on its cred as a martial arts biopic. Bruce Lee goes to Ip Man's Wing Chun school to train for his fight with Charlie Owen, but there's no discussion of Wing Chun’s philosophies or its effect on young Bruce – the sequence is simply part of a training montage for Bruce to beat up the Brits. The only other real martial arts reference is Bruce practicing Tai Chi alongside his father, and those sequences also qualify as little more than montage. Bruce Lee wouldn't go on to develop his unique philosophies on martial arts until later in life, but some discussion of his dedication and discipline towards the martial arts would have been appropriate and even resonant. That's yet another wasted opportunity in My Brother, and one that may rankle more than a few fans.
The cast is filled with names, but performances vary. Some actors (like Michelle Ye) are wasted, while others (Christy Chung as Bruce’s mom) seem oddly cast. Tony Leung Ka-Fai tries valiantly during his scenes as Bruce's father Lee Hoi-Cheun, but his presence is uneven; Leung is given great focus and weight in the film’s first half before seemingly disappearing during the second half. Wilfred Lau is ridiculously evil in his villain role, while the younger actors are all over the map. As Bruce’s unrequited love, Jennifer Tse (a.k.a. sister of Nic) is easy on the eyes but isn't called upon to do that much. Bruce's other love interest (played by Cecilia Cheung lookalike Gong Mi) fares slightly better in that she gets to display more than two or three emotions, but even then she's handicapped by the simple script. Few characters in the film are really memorable, with many seemingly important figures among the undefined or undeveloped.
Bruce Lee, My Brother ends with Bruce leaving Hong Kong for America – a necessity since nearly every moment afterwards requires the approval of Bruce Lee’s widow Linda Lee Caldwell and Bruce Lee Enterprises. This early portion of his life was licensed from Robert Lee Jan-Fai, Bruce’s younger brother, who gets mucho screentime as a young boy played by Sun Delin. The real Robert Lee also introduces the film, and explains the story that the audience is about to see. That’s great, but what is that story? Is it the story of the actual family? Or the story of Bruce Lee’s formative years? Presumably the film tries to be both, but the filmmakers do an uneven job, providing us with only a perfunctory look at the family and an unconvincing exploration of the forces that would shape young Bruce Lee. Shockingly, the 1993 action-drama Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story may actually be a better film than Bruce Lee, My Brother. That isn’t just disappointing - it’s sad. (Kozo 2010)