Director Corey Lee stages a moving reunion with his infamous but distant father in Legend of a Warrior. As a martial arts grandmaster and lauded trainer famed for ushering former pupil Billy Chau to a kickboxing world championship, Frank Lee spent his son’s formative years in gyms, training surrogate children while Corey went largely unattended. Now his son is trying to reconnect, relocating to the elder Lee’s Edmonton gym for a rigorous five-month training program that will submerge him in his charismatic father’s world while taking him away from his own young children. What follows is both an observational record of that process and a subtle father-son melodrama, punctuated by animated interludes that turn Frank’s early days in Canada and youth in Hong Kong into a comic-strip biography.
An archival camcorder video from the 80s is revealing: Frank tells his students to think of him as their sifu – something between a teacher, father, and half-brother, the person who ensures their development after they’ve left the nest. That message is absorbed by his son’s film, which covers the same ground in asking what teachers and fathers owe to their protégées, and vice versa. At times the younger Lee’s voiceover feels intrusive, but as his training progresses and as Frank becomes more forthcoming about his past, the film becomes a rich portrait of two men dealing with a complicated generational crisis. As the director tells his own son, who is reluctantly learning to speak Cantonese in the doc’s early moments, his Chinese culture is being “whittled away” the more distanced he becomes from both the place and the practices of his ancestry. While his insistence on coercing Frank to travel back to Hong Kong with him late in their training seems a bit indulgent at first – a self-help lesson about exploring one’s origins at another person’s cost – it results in a deeply affecting conversation about the trade-offs of uprooting oneself and building up a family legacy, or failing to, in another country. ***/****