In his very personal film, Legend of a Warrior, director Corey Lee uses the process of making a documentary about his father as a means to achieving a closer relationship with him. It mostly works. Lee is estranged from his dad, Frank Lee, a martial artist who runs a training gym in Edmonton. Sifu Frank, as he is known by his students (sifu is the Cantonese word for master / teacher / father) spent much of Corey’s childhood in Asia, training his most talented fighters, giving them the attention that Corey wished he had received. Frank wasn’t just some martial arts guy who ran a gym. He was a well-respected grandmaster who introduced White Crane Kung Fu and Muay-Thai kickboxing to Canada back in the ’60s and ’70s, and has been training champion fighters ever since.
The film opens with Corey and his own son (an adorable toddler) having a Cantonese language lesson. When his son questions why he has to learn Cantonese, Corey patiently explains that he himself is half Chinese, and his son only a quarter Chinese, and that he doesn’t want them to lose their connection to that part of themselves and their heritage.
In an attempt to get closer to his dad, Corey decides to spend a few weeks training with him in his Edmonton gym, and filming the experience. The result is mostly successful. The two men do share some tender moments during the process, though it takes a while for the elder Lee to open up.
There’s a lot in Legend of a Warrior that will feel familiar to anyone who grew up in a family that straddles cultures — a very common experience in Canada. Watching Corey try to maintain a connection to his past and the Chinese part of his heritage through his relationship with his father feels familiar and is easy to relate to, and this ultimately gives the film a bit of the kind of context required for it to work as more than just the director’s own self-help therapy.
It’s touching to see the stoic Frank and the sensitive Corey find a middle ground that allows one to open up more while the other toughens up. The story is small and intimate enough that at times Corey Lee’s narration feels a bit like reading someone’s diary, but that gives it a lot of its emotional power.
Legend of a Warrior screens on Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 1:30 pm at and Friday, May 4, 2012 at 4:00 pm as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. Check the festival website for more info.
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