By ANGELA DAWSON
HOLLYWOOD—Bruce Lee, who helped introduce martial arts to Western culture, faced off against kung fu master Wong Jack Man in the 1964. Only a handful of people witnessed the event and their accounts of what happened vary, yet one outcome is clear—the matchup changed the course of martial arts history.
The showdown between the two highly skilled masters provides the backdrop for Hollywood filmmaker George Nolfi’s “Birth of the Dragon,” starring veteran Hong Kong action star Philip Ng as the charismatic martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, who defied Old World thinking by teaching non-Asians kung fu.
The 39-year-old actor, who also is an accomplished martial artist, director and choreographer grew up in his native Hong Kong not only worshipping the martial arts icon, but trained under the tutelage of those who also had worked with Lee, before his untimely death in 1973 at age of 32.
“Birth of the Dragon” has stirred up some controversy because the action film also stars Caucasian Billy Magnussen as a student of Lee’s who befriends visiting monk Wong Jack Man (played by Chinese actor Yu Xia), who is banished from a Chinese monastery to San Francisco to work as a dishwasher in penance for severely injuring an opponent in what was supposed to be an exhibition match. Lee, however, sees the arrival of the monk as a threat to his livelihood (teaching kung fu to white pupils and making martial arts action movies in America).
Hong Kong born Ng, who emigrated with his family to the U.S. when he was 7, spoke about taking on the role of portraying the iconic figure, working with director Nolfi (best known for helming 2011’s ““The Adjustment Bureau” and co-writing “The Bourne Ultimatum”) and legendary fight choreographer Corey Yuen (“X-Men,” the “Transporter” franchise) and his passion for practical moves.
Q: How exciting was it to play Bruce Lee?
Ng: When I got the role, I was like, “Yes! I got the role!” and then I was like (anxiously) “Oh my God, I got the role.” It was a lot of pressure. I’ve played historical figures before like (famed Hui Chinese martial artist Ma Yongzhen) in “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai.” You can watch it on Netflix. Plug. Master Ma was a historical figure but not very well documented so I had a lot of room to create that character and fill in the gaps. But Bruce Lee is so well-documented and so many people have an idea of who he is so there is a lot of pressure in (portraying him.)
The best way for me to approach it is to embody the person rather than imitate him, so when I rub my nose in the movie, I was pretending to be Bruce Lee. I didn’t need to BE Bruce Lee.
Q: What training did you do to portray him, particularly his distinctive martial arts movies?
Ng: Unwittingly, I’ve been preparing for this role my whole life. I trained with Bruce Lee’s elder kung fu brother. They were both classmates under Yip Man. But his main instructor was my Ceefu (trainer). A lot of (Lee’s) ideas that evolved into his martial arts development has their origin with my Ceefu. I also heard a lot of stories and anecdotes about Bruce outside of kung fu and movies that really humanized him.
Also, working in the Hong Kong movie business for the past 13 years making kung fu movies, I’ve befriended and worked with a lot of people that were very close to him and had a lot of stories about him, so I took all these stories and commonality of the traits that everyone agreed upon. Of course, there are discrepancies but people treat everyone different but there are certain things that are common. I’d try to embody those aspects of this person and any situation that the script puts me in, embellished or not, I’d react in a way that was most authentic to these traits.
Q: What feedback have you received about your depiction of Bruce Lee?
Ng: I’ve gotten a lot of comments that my portrayal is spiritually accurate because, in part, I’m not trying to imitate (Lee), I was trying to be him. I’m not saying that in a cocky manner because I’ve got to embody this person to make it authentic. All of my reactions have to be real. There has to be truth behind it.
Also, (I incorporated) little gestures. Everyone who does kung fu has, at one time in their life, imitated this guy. So, it’s almost ingrained in me. In terms of the physicality of the kung fu, that wasn’t really the difficult part. Making kung fu movies in Hong Kong is way different than here. Making them here, you get two weeks to rehearse, two weeks to train, what we film in one day there, we get two weeks to rehearse here. A lot of the times (in Hong Kong), we choreograph on the set. We train on set. And we film the same day. That training afforded me the ability to put more into the physicality because I was so familiar with the movement of making kung fu movies.
The challenging part was embodying this person and honoring him, not parodying him. There was a very fine line and George (Nolfi, the director) was integral in guiding me down that path.
Q: What was it like working with George Nolfi?
Ng: He really knows how to use action to tell a story. It’s always been my philosophy that every punch and kick is actually dialogue. Like the fight scene between me and Wong Jack Man, we didn’t say much but every punch, every kick was a piece of dialogue.
A fight scene is basically two people debating with their hands, and George fully understands that. I’ve made more than 40 television and movie projects in Hong Kong, and I’ve never filmed a fight (scene, like the one between myself and Wong Jack Man) like that, which was so story-driven and the visceral-ness overtakes the technique. I thought it was a clever way to do it. The final action sequence (set in the restaurant of a local mob boss) is more like the Hong Kong cinema that I’m used to.
In terms of acting and directing, I learned a lot from George. He’s an incredibly wise person. He really is the spirit of this film. He guided me through what he wanted to have onscreen. It’s a collaboration, of course, but he’s really the captain of the ship.
Q: One of the things this film delves into is how much flak Bruce Lee got for training white people to do martial arts, so there’s multiple layers to the film.
Ng: On second or third viewing, you catch these things. George (Nolfi) had this specifically planned. Just watching the fight between me and Wong Jack Man, from the beginning of the fight to the end of the fight, in that seven minutes Bruce transforms into a completely different person—martial arts-wise and personally. He goes from cocky punk who has some revolutionary ideas about martial arts. He went against the grain so much that if he wasn’t at that level of confidence, he wouldn’t be able to deliver it. It was something very controversial but he believed in it.
Q: As a director and martial arts choreographer, how was it working with another director and choreographer—Corey Yuen—on this. Did you just put yourself in their hands?
Ng: I’ve worked with Corey before. He’s famous in America and Hong Kong. He’s one of the top choreographers and action directors in the world. We have a good rapport. He knows what I can do and he knows what I know and don’t know so it was easy to collaborate with him. Because I don’t have a language barrier, a lot of the time I was the liaison between him and George. We’d sit down together and discuss scenes. Of course, I respect everyone’s position. I’ll do what he says. Of course, I have my opinion based on my understanding of the character and my own understanding of my physicality.
I’m filming a TV series in China right now where I’m not the choreographer but I listen to what they say. If I think there’s a way we should do something, I’ll say it. I won’t be mean about it.
Q: What was it like working with Yu Xia?
Ng: About 10 years ago, I worked with him in a movie called “Dragon Squad,” where I was one of the action choreographers. So, when the time came (to do this film), we didn’t have to introduce ourselves. He’s amazing. He’s an actor, first and a martial artist, not really. Because of my training, I can watch a 30-beat fight and go on camera without rehearsing. That’s the nature of my training. But, for him, it’s different. He had to train very hard and remember those movements. Even though he had a few doubles, so every time they’d throw a punch, I had to throw five. But I did have to fight him. He had to step up his game for this and he did. I know he didn’t take his shirt off in this movie but he’s pretty buff.
Q: How long did it take to shoot your fight sequence in the warehouse with him?
Ng: It took a long time because George was very specific about what he wanted.
Q: Did you enjoy shooting that stylish, graceful scene with Yu Xia or the more cut-and-dried martial arts movie type scene with the bad guys at the end?
Ng: Apples and oranges. It’s just different aspects of telling the story. Both are things I have to do physically and I enjoy both. As long as it fits in with the storyline, I’m fine with it. I don’t like wirework because I think modern audiences are very savvy. They can see if it’s the actual person jumping or if he’s assisted by a wire. The physics are all wrong. People catch that with their eye.
Q: You did wirework from the platform onto the ground in the warehouse scene, though, right?
Ng: Of course, because otherwise I’d have broken legs. But that’s different. It was a story point that they had.
Q: You prefer practical moves, though?
Ng: Yeah. You have to stylistically embellish for a movie but all the stuff I’ve choreographed is plausible. It might be highly improbable but it’s plausible. That’s my style; that’s what I’m known for. It’s solid fighting because it’s what I enjoy most.
Q: Do you spend more time here or in Hong Kong?
Ng: All the time in Hong Kong. I have five movies coming out there this year. I’ve been working the past five months in China on the TV series. As soon as I’m done with that at the end of September I’ve got to go back to Hong Kong to film another one until January. It’s great. It’s work. My schedule’s kind of hectic. Here, I tell people about my schedule and how I had to fight with a broken arm, broken ribs and they think I’m asking for sympathy or lying to get sympathy but I’m like, “I wish I was lying.”
Q: What did you think when you saw Tom Cruise have that recent mishap on the set with a stunt?
Ng: I want to know who his wire team was. When I do wirework in Hong Kong, it’s very rare for that mistake to happen, especially with the lead on it. But Tom likes to do his own stunts. The point is you don’t get to see those visceral kinds of movies anymore. I remember watching “Captain America: Civil War,” and there’s a shot where Captain America falls off the building and it’s obviously a (computer-generated) move, but when you watch ’80s or ‘90s movies, you see some dude falling off the building. It’s not a joke; it’s an actual person. That visceral-ness, that realness, you can’t get from CGI, at least not now.
Q: What was the first Bruce Lee movie you saw?
Ng: I don’t remember which one it was because I’ve been watching them since I was pretty young. But I’ll tell you what my favorite Bruce Lee movie is: “The Way of the Dragon,” because he produced it, directed it and acted in it. You see a lot of Bruce’s personality in that movie. It’s the most entertaining out of all of them.
Q: What do you think of his legacy?
Ng: I think he will be remembered forever. He’s a cultural icon. He’s burned into the brain of social consciousness. He’s a pioneer of martial arts movies, and martial arts movies are the only movies that are universally socially accepted because everyone understands the physical language. He paved the way for all of us.