To Be the Son of a Legend

May 11, 2012 Updated: May 15, 2012
Frank Lee (L) and Corey Lee at Frank Lee's Gym in Edmonton (Bonnie Thompson)

Legend of a Warrior documents filmmaker Corey Lee’s attempt to reconcile the broken relationship with his famous Kung Fu master father.

Old-generation, raised on the mean streets of Hong Kong, tough as nails—this is Frank Lee, a Grandmaster of White Crane Kung Fu who has developed his own unique fighting style. 

But as his martial arts career became the stuff of legend, his family life took the toll. 

“He is my father, but I don’t really know the man. I only know the legend,” Corey asserts early on in the film. 

Corey Lee’s documentary serves as a platform to explore family relationships and the path to reconciliation. 

In Frank Lee’s world, the best way to mend the mental and emotional bond is through training the physical, and this is how the story begins. Leaving his family behind in Calgary, Corey packs his bags and travels to Edmonton to train at his father’s world-famous martial arts school. 

The bulk of the film is interspersed with training footage and sit-downs between father and son, in which the younger Lee seeks to open up the relationship with his father and find common ground, something that clearly isn’t easy. 

In the beginning, the moments in which Corey attempts to communicate with his father are awkward and it’s clear how difficult it is for both to have an honest conversation about the past. Frank is stoic and unflinching, while Corey is looking for an emotional connection.

‘Frank Lee’s torture chamber’

In the ring Frank is a natural, coaching and training his son with the harsh discipline of his mixed fighting style. 

Pushing and punishing when putting his son through his rigorous training paces, the older Lee also shows moments of tenderness, expressing genuine encouragement to his middle-aged son.

Not for the faint of heart, Frank’s training methods are notorious for the gruelling toll they take on the body. In the early days, Frank’s school was dubbed “Frank Lee’s torture chamber.”

The climax of the film comes when father and son take a trip to Hong Kong to visit the streets where Frank was raised and hardened and first began his Martial Arts training.

The moment when Frank’s walls come down is caught on film and the pain the elder Lee feels about the shattered relationship with his family comes flooding out. This is a remarkable scene and a great reminder that even the toughest among us—of which Frank Lee is surely one—still need an emotional connection to family.

Legendary Kung Fu master Frank Lee (Corkscrew Media Inc. Photo taken from production)

 

Superhero

To help bring the legend of Frank Lee to life, the film is interspersed with short clips of animation, showing Frank in his younger, formidable years when fights would break out regularly in the Edmonton restaurant he worked. Inevitably Frank would be called in to “take out the trash.”

“I incorporated these little animated chapters of my dad’s life into the film to kind of tell the history,” Corey said in an interview with the Epoch Times. 

“I wasn’t sure how to approach these stories and how to really capture the idea that my dad was this superhero, because he really was. He didn’t necessarily wear a costume, but he could do all these incredible things, feats of superhuman strength and endurance.”

Not a film of impressive cinematography or visual spectacle, “Legend” is nonetheless a compelling tale of a father and son navigating a cultural and generational divide, something important to the younger Lee. 

“Obviously it’s not that I’m just trying to reconnect with my dad, it’s about reaching back and gathering information about that culture that is a part of me, too.”

“But for me the film is about family, more specifically it’s about fathers and sons. But I think that it’s also about parents and children, and it’s about those relationships that are key in our lives, whether or not we’re aware how they affect us.”

With Kung Fu providing the background for the film, life in the ring becomes a metaphor for life outside of it.

“In the ring you are alone. It’s a solo kind of a thing. It’s you against your competitor, but that competitor, maybe it’s another person, but maybe it’s all of your fears encapsulated in this opponent, or all of your hopes and dreams, or whatever it is that maybe you’re fighting for,” said Corey of his experience.

The ring was not a place where Corey necessarily felt at ease but it did serve to foster some of the transformation in the relationship with this father.

“There was a point at which in the film where I stepped outside of myself and stopped being this little kid in [the ring] and started just being a man—this grown man who just happens to be the son of this martial arts master, who is also my teacher.”

Passing on the Tradition

Enigmatic with a natural charisma and charm, Frank is at once unapologetic for his past and at the same time honest about his shortcomings as a father. True to his deep convictions in the value of Kung Fu, he seems to take the joy in passing on this tradition to his son. 

“I try to give him as much as I can give to him, and through the martial arts training he can understand me more, what kind of person I am, and what Chinese culture is about, what martial arts is all about, so he can pass to his sons.” said the elder Lee in an interview.

“I try to explain to him about the Chinese way and culture, why the martial arts are so important in life, because it takes discipline, willpower, and confidence to make everything successful.”


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