Martial-arts legend and movie star Bruce Lee lived a fascinating and eventful yet brief life. Many of his exploits before, during and after his international stardom are either shrouded in mystery or have been exaggerated into the stuff of legends by his friends, students and Lee himself. Among the most mythic is a supposed “private brawl” in 1964, wherein Lee was said to have defeated the (then) more respected “traditional” kung-fu master Wong Jack Man, in order to settle a dispute over Lee’s controversial teaching in San Francisco.
Accounts of the fight differ wildly, with some even questioning if it actually took place at all. In the upcoming film Birth of the Dragon, director George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) presents a heavily-fictionalized version of the story, as part of a high-profile U.S./China co-production.
Birth of the Dragon recasts Wong Jack Man as a full-fledged Northern Shaolin monk (rather than strictly a teacher of the style) and opts to tell the story from the perspective of one of Lee’s American students (loosely based on Hollywood actor Steve McQueen, who was indeed an early student of Lee’s at the time) who becomes a central part of arranging the so-called “private brawl” and finds himself torn between admiration for the skills and philosophies of the two rival teachers. While produced in the U.S. and targeting an international release, the primary investment and production-enthusiasm has come from China’s Kylin Pictures – something Nolfi told Deadline he considers part of a positive trend for Hollywood productions:
“So I’m watching this and thinking that if, in the next 10 years of our business, there are Chinese companies willing to support movies like this, made in the Hollywood format and style, with a Hollywood director given creative controls, that’s very good for our business. You enter with a certain degree of cautious optimism but the result has been everything I’d hoped for. When you do business with a foreign company, with a different language, you have learn their customs. But they let me make exactly the movie I wanted to, with zero interference. If this is the future of movies for the next five, 10 years than you can just say unequivocally that this is a godsend to Hollywood because it’s very hard for studios to make movies that aren’t sequels or branded material now.”
Lee was under scrutiny from other kung-fu teachers during the period of time depicted in Birth of the Dragon, both for his colorful public persona and (by some accounts) his willingness to teach Chinese martial arts to Americans. The tensions supposedly led Wong Jack Man (a master of Tai chi, Xing Yi Quan and Northern Shaolin styles) to agree to fight Lee in private over the matter. Lee won the fight, but his initial difficulty in countering Master Wong’s techniques with his predominant use of the Wing Chun style would later be cited as an early inspiration for Lee to develop his own signature Jeet Kune Do techniques – and later abandon rigid fighting-styles altogether.
Lee’s shocking sudden death shortly after the debut of Enter the Dragon makes it all the more difficult to distinguish between the true accounts of the master’s life and events blown up into pop-mythology – the fight with Wong Jack Man being one of the most infamous examples. It’s known that Lee openly feuded with the more traditional Chinese martial arts community in San Francisco, and that he issued public challenges to many masters including Wong Jack Man, but after that the story exists only as accounts from associates of both men.
Birth of the Dragon debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and has yet to land an official U.S. theatrical release date.