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Young Bruce Lee

Young Bruce Lee

By Arpad Lukacs • May 28th, 2011
Static Mass Rating: 3/5
Cine Asia 

Release date: May 30th 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 129 minutes

Original language: Cantonese with English subtitles
Country of origin: Hong Kong

Directors: Raymond Yip, Manfred Wong
Writer: Manfred Wong

Cast: Aarif Lee, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Christy Chung, Jennifer Tse

I think it’s fair to say that Bruce Lee might just be the closest thing we’ve ever had to an actual Superman. We marvel of all the things that he was effortlessly capable of doing – something as simple as hitting an opponent looks like it borders on the supernatural when Lee does it: by the time the human brain receives visual signal of the moving arm, Bruce Lee has long had retracted it and calmly awaits for the gasp of the audience.

Young Bruce Lee

In spite of having faced plenty of racism in the United States in his early days, he was a great humanist: he loved people unconditionally and defying the un-written rules of his own culture he shared his knowledge of martial arts with non-Asians. The only surviving television interview with Lee recorded in 1971 testifies to a man of formidable intellect, unshakable confidence and a deep spiritual understanding of martial arts.

The word ‘legend’ applied to a person has never been more justified. I can only imagine that the prospect of making a biographical film about Lee is probably very tempting and seriously intimidating all at once to a filmmaker.

Young Bruce Lee

Young Bruce Lee (aka My Brother, Bruce Lee) set out to show a lesser known period in Lee’s life: his journey to the United States where he was catapulted into stardom is well-known by many, but his life as a young man growing up in Hong Kong holds much for those who want to understand the legend he later became.

The story for the film is the brainchild of Lee’s younger brother, Robert Lee – so right away it looked like the perfect recipe for an accurate and respectable film that is a must for Bruce Lee fans.

Young Bruce Lee

Throughout the film, I could feel that Robert Lee had the right intentions and that he really wanted to tell the story, but I wasn’t sure why. Bruce Lee’s life is shown from his birth up to the point of him getting on a boat to San Francisco towards fame and success, but lacks focus on what it wants to say about the man.

It didn’t take me long to become somewhat suspicious about motives behind the film as the visuals struck me as quite gimmicky. At the start, I was impressed by the overall tone of subtle colours with just a slight hint of sepia to give the film an appropriately aged look. But this tasteful and well-controlled visual style is soon ruined by just one thing: a digitally induced Sun.


  • Deleted scenes
  • Production Diary
  • Memories of the Master

This CGI light effect is crammed into the frame whenever possible and even when it isn’t. The best example for this is a scene that filmmakers refer to as a shot reverse shot scene. This film technique is generally used to shoot two characters facing each other recorded with two cameras pointing in opposite directions. When the Sun is placed behind both characters in a shot reverse shot, we get the impression of two Suns being present in the same scene. But the effects team didn’t stop there: the same digital effect is also used indoors with artificial light sources – the mise en scène in Young Bruce Lee is dominated by this strange, glowingly pretty look that adds nothing to content and is frankly quite boring after five minutes.

Bruce Lee (Aarif Lee) as a character is also fairly superficial and underdeveloped. It felt like the casting producer just wanted to show a kind of Robert Pattinson instead of Bruce Lee – the character is way too nice and sympathetic, probably aimed at young female members of the audience.

Young Bruce Lee

While the real young Bruce Lee had a reputation for being a notorious trouble-maker, the writers made a very blatant attempt to portray him in an implausibly positive light.

Bruce Lee historian David Tadman tells of a Lee that would dress in traditional Chinese clothes in public only to confront and challenge anyone who gave him a funny look. I didn’t see much of this person in the film. Another thing that had a massive impact on Bruce Lee at this time of his life is the racism that he faced amongst his own people. His mother was half-German which meant that many of his peers thought that Lee was not eligible to study Chinese martial arts because he was not ‘pure’. The man who later went on to teach Americans like Steve McQueen could be further understood if this issue was addressed in the film in some way – but it isn’t.

Young Bruce Lee

Although Young Bruce Lee feels like a tremendous missed opportunity, it is still worth watching. There is still something to see beyond those overtly pretty pictures; we get a slight taste of Lee’s early film career as a child actor and his adolescence in a westernised culture that is influenced by films such as Rebel Without A Cause (1955).

Several scenes were re-created accurately based on existing photographs, amongst them perhaps the most famous: Lee posing for a picture with his martial arts teacher Yip Man. Bruce Lee fans will find it interesting to see Unicorn Chan (Jin-Au Yeung) in the film; the friend that later betrayed Lee when shooting his own low budget martial arts movie Unicorn Palm (1973).

Aarif Lee playing Lee is as good as he can be given the script; his mannerisms are sometimes uncanny and almost asking to play a more arrogant version of the character. Overall, Young Bruce Lee is an inadequate but interesting film that teases the audience with its potential only to eventually not live up to it.

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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