Bruce Lee's epic fight immortalised in new film

Bruce Lee is known for acting in movies such as Fist Of Fury (1972) and Enter The Dragon (1973).
Bruce Lee is known for acting in movies such as Fist Of Fury (1972) and Enter The Dragon (1973).PHOTO: STAR CHINESE MOVIES

LOS ANGELES • On a crisp December evening in 1960s California, two men near the peak of their powers locked horns in a battle that would go down in the annals of gongfu mythology.

On one side was a scrawny 24-year-old monk, newly arrived from eastern China, who exuded reserve and modesty despite being one of the fabled Shaolin Temple's most skilled grand masters.

On the other: a brash, street- smart fighter of Chinese heritage and American birth - also 24 - who was about to announce himself as the most iconic proponent of unarmed combat in history.

Birth Of The Dragon, which hit American theatres last Friday, showcases that epic face-off between Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee, attempting to shine a light on a secretive and mysterious encounter that changed gongfu.

The handful of witnesses have never agreed on exactly what went down at Lee's gym in Oakland that night - not the length of the confrontation, nor exactly how many people saw it, nor even who won.

What is undisputed is that the encounter transformed Lee's approach to gongfu, setting him on the path to becoming The Dragon, a global superstar who introduced the until-then obscure martial art to the world.

"My father owns a martial arts school and he has a friend who was one of the witnesses," said Chinese- American action star Philip Ng, 39, who plays Lee and believes it was he who triumphed.

"I heard his story and it contradicts some of the stuff that I read. I have my beliefs and my hypothesis about what happened in the fight, but one thing that is definite is the fact that after this fight, Bruce Lee evolved his fighting methodology."

Set against the backdrop of 1964 San Francisco, Birth Of The Dragon takes its inspiration from the classic movies Lee is known for, such as Fist Of Fury (1972) and the posthumously released Enter The Dragon (1973).

Shaolin monk Wong (Xia Yu) arrives in San Francisco to observe the state of gongfu in the United States and is immediately seen as a threat by Lee, who challenges him to the legendary duel.

Ng decided Lee was too well known for a straight-up impersonation to work and instead created his own version, anchored on the fighter's distinctive Hong Kong and "1960s San Francisco hippy slang" accent.

The actor was born after Lee's mysterious death from cerebral oedema at the age of 32, but believes he has been preparing, mostly unwittingly, to play the master his entire life.

Ng became proficient in Lee's wing chun style in his native Hong Kong under Wong Shun Leung, the man who trained under Ip Man and who was credited with training Lee.

"He told me a lot of stories about Bruce Lee growing up, outside of gongfu and movies - things you can't read in books," said Ng.

"And working in Hong Kong for the past 15 years in action movies, I've met a lot of people over the years who were close to Bruce."

Lee was noted for his generosity and sense of fairness, but George Nolfi's movie evokes an arrogant yet gifted upstart who annoyed the Chinese masters with his insistence on teaching gongfu to Westerners and disrespecting its traditions.

"He was definitely confident, but you have to be confident to the point of cockiness, because the ideas that he was talking about were revolutionary and controversial at the time within gongfu," said Ng.

Lee's big idea - that style does not matter, that it's all about winning - has been vindicated, added Ng, by the emergence of mixed martial arts as a lucrative spectator sport.

Despite being an expert in wing chun, a style that emphasises punches and is particularly devastating at close quarters, Ng says the central fight in Birth Of The Dragon was the toughest he had filmed.

"I've made about 40 movies and television shows altogether in Hong Kong, if you add up my resume. I've never filmed a fight like that. It's a 500-move fight - 500 moves. The most moves I've done is maybe 300," he said.

Lee's widow Linda, 72, describes in her 1975 book Bruce Lee: The Only Man I Knew, how the fight was far too close in her husband's opinion, causing him to abandon wing chun.

He went on to invent his own style, jeet kune do, a dazzlingly choreographed mix of many gongfu styles that made him a movie star.

Wong - who always insists the victory was his - later expressed regret for agreeing to fight Lee, putting his acquiescence down to youthful arrogance.

He went on to teach the Northern Shaolin style in San Francisco before retiring in 2005.

Thought to be 77, he lives in relative obscurity, the only man alive who knows for sure who won the fight that changed gongfu.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2017, with the headline 'Bruce Lee's epic fight immortalised in new film'. Print Edition | Subscribe