HONG KONG — Bruce Lee’s path to stardom and his early death is a familiar story. Less has been said about the early days of the young man who would grow into a global kung fu icon and model of Chinese ethnic pride.
A new $4.6 million Chinese-language production scheduled for release two days before what would have been Lee’s 70th birthday on Nov. 27 aims to fill the gap. Drawing from the memories of Lee’s siblings, "Bruce Lee, My Brother" traces the actor’s life growing up in Hong Kong before he left to study in the U.S.
"Many people know about his movies and his fighting philosophy after he became famous. But very few people know about his family, his parents, his first love, what he did on movie sets as a young actor," producer Manfred Wong told The Associated Press.
"This production offers a new perspective to understanding a person. We see someone who is real and fragile. The Bruce Lee we see in his films is deified," said Wong Yiu-keung, head of the Hong Kong Bruce Lee fan club and an adviser to the film.
Lee honed his craft as a martial arts instructor in the U.S. before making his debut in the short-lived TV series "The Green Hornet." Struggling to break into Hollywood, he returned to his hometown Hong Kong, where he catapulted to global fame with hits like "The Big Boss" and "Fist of Fury" before passing away in 1972 at age 32 from swelling of the brain.
"Bruce Lee, My Brother" tells the story of the years before that.
Audiences see Lee courting his first love interest, launching his entertainment career as a popular child actor and pained by a childhood friend’s drug addiction. He flashes his ballroom dance moves, starts training in the Chinese kung fu style of wing chun and takes part in an inter-school boxing competition.
Cast in the lead role is Hong Kong newcomer Aarif Lee, who is not related to the late actor. The sharp facial features of the 23-year-old singer-songwriter who hails from a family of mixed Chinese, Malaysian and Middle Eastern heritage make him a credible stand-in for Bruce Lee, whose mother was part German.
The shoot was partly a history lesson for the young actor, who was born some 15 years after the death of the character he portrays. He said he knew little about Lee before taking on the role except that he was an "amazing fighter," but he came away from the production admiring Lee’s "multifaceted" personality.
"He was a very charismatic young man when what most people know about him was his fighting. But actually there’s much more of Bruce Lee," Aarif Lee said.
The production was based on input from Lee’s younger brother Robert and his two older sisters. Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee and widow Linda Lee Cadwell, however, were not involved and there have been suggestions of interfamily controversy.
Shannon Lee didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment sent through the Bruce Lee Foundation, where she serves as president.