09:00 - 9th September 2013, by Calum Waddell

Young Bruce Lee

Based on the novel, Bruce Lee, My Brother by Robert Lee, this episodic documentation of the first 19 years of the Enter of the Dragon star's life is likely to enthral and surprise in equal measures. Certainly, anyone expecting a feature in which the martial arts icon is purveyed as an ass-kicking badass ala his onscreen persona will be sorely disappointed. Instead, this is a gentle and gradual look at the Lee legacy - beginning with his birth to an actor family and his rise through adolescence into a local teen heartthrob with a lust for American culture. Perhaps the biggest curveball thrown by Young Bruce Lee is the fact that it works incredibly well as a history lesson: allowing us to take in such periods as the Japanese invasion of China, and - of course - their subsequent arrival in Hong Kong, as well as the growing influence of the United States in the '50s and '60s.

Directed by the team of Raymond Yip (The Warlords) and erstwhile producer and actor Manfred Wong, Young Bruce Lee also looks incredible: never defeating its various period settings and always providing a loving look back at the Hong Kong landscapes and cityscapes of yesteryear. Moreover, whoever opted to cast newcomer Aarif Rahman as Lee did a spot-on job. Utterly convincing, right down to Lee's trademark "battle cry", and at times bearing an uncanny look to the Dragon himself, the performer may even find it difficult to escape the stigma of inhabiting the legendary screen star to quite this extent of realism. Make no mistake: this is a career-defining performance and easily puts to rest the dubious ghost of actor Jason Scott Lee (no relation) as Bruce in 1993's Hollywood hack-job opus Dragon.

Even so, this is not to say that Young Bruce Lee is not without its share of problems.

As mentioned, no fault can be put with the tremendous production design, the excellent acting performances (which also include an all-too-briefly seen Tony Leung Ka Fai) and the attention to history. However, this is still - let's be honest - the story of the King of the kung-fu: the man who brought Fist of Fury, The Big Boss and Way of the Dragon to international cinema screens and immediately changed the face of pop culture. Whenever anyone decides to travel down the route of martial arts, the fact is they are evoking the spirit of Bruce Lee - the man who popularised the form around the globe. Consequently, watching the muscle-mad maverick as a love-starved teenager or as a pesky young child is, in a way, missing some of the point...

Yes, what Bey Logan - in his excellent audio commentary - calls "a heart-warming film" is always entertaining and quite bittersweet. However, any Bruce Lee biopic with this little in the way of action is asking for trouble. Perhaps Logan puts it best in comparing this opus to such classics as West Side Story and Days of Being Wild: both meditations of growing up and teenage tomfoolery. But do we want this from our celluloid heroes? That is a question that Young Bruce Lee will put to any perspective viewer.

Naturally, the battles finally do arrive - if in a remarkably restrained manner. First of all, we see the 19-year-old Lee go up against an ignorant English boxer, initially in a ring in front of a paying audience and then, finally, in a makeshift old wooden shed. A final escape from British authority also provides a bout of belated fun, even if it ends in tragedy rather than, as one might expect, a cathartic face-off with curmudgeonly colonialists.

Moreover, despite Robert Lee's arguments that Dragon did not best represent his brother - due largely to the superhero persona that it put on the actor - there are still some moments of exaggeration here. Certainly, one finds it hard to believe that Lee was quite the lady-killer (one line and she's his!) that is portrayed here, or that he was quite so able to withstand the brutalising he gets in the few fight sequences. Yet, for all that said, whatever faults Young Bruce Lee has, it is doubtful that anyone will leave the production without feeling that they have gotten to know one of the most mythic of all movie stars on a more personal, and even human, level.

In this light, it also successfully allows us to understand just how tragic it is that a personality so full of ambition and fun was taken from us at such a young age. See Young Bruce Lee and never forget.

Young Bruce Lee is perhaps not the biopic that the casual fan would expect - but for any die-hard's out there, this is an essential watch, buoyed by some excellent filmmaking.
SCORE: 3/5
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