Corey Lee has daddy issues.
Sure. Who doesn’t? But while most people repress their emotions or work it out in therapy, Corey decided to make his debut documentary about it. This local filmmaker packed his emotional baggage, took a three-hour trip north to Edmonton and worked through the touchy points of his relationship with his father, while a camera was rolling. That’s bold.
“I don’t believe it was likely my first choice,” Corey says. “I’ve been trying to deal with a lot of the angst regarding my relationship with my dad through my work in dramatic filmmaking…. And I probably haven’t been that successful.”
Let’s rewind. Corey spent his youth growing up in the shadow of his father, martial arts legend Frank Lee. Check that — for someone to cast a shadow they have to be around. Sure, Corey clocked a lot of hours at the gym learning from the grand master of White Crane kung fu, but Frank was often off in Hong Kong building his name or managing his protégé, Billy Chau.
After his parents divorced, Corey abandoned the relationship. That estrangement manifested in Corey’s work, becoming a screenplay for a sprawling Chinese crime drama in the style of Goodfellas. Knowing he’d never get the money to make it properly, his friend and producer Sue Bristow suggested a different take.
“It was really her that was the catalyst for saying maybe you need to look at this another way and maybe the best way is for you to really talk to your dad and say, ‘Would you be open to exploring this on film?’”
So, four-and-a-half years ago, Corey’s micro crew of three embedded themselves in Frank’s gym. Corey resumed his martial arts training and the camera rolled as the men tried to reconnect. The two men spent more time together in the first weekend than they had in the previous 20 years.
There’s a certain irony to the film’s premise that makes Legend of a Warrior psychologically delicious. In order to alleviate the tension between the two men, Corey puts himself into a position where he is literally fighting with his dad six days a week. Corey concedes that the setup offers a great hook for audiences, but admits there was really no other way to tackle the story.
“When your dad is who my dad is, it’s kind of a given,” he says.
The other irony, also not lost on Corey, has to do with the fact that he spent almost half a year away from his wife and kids shooting the film.
“It didn’t take long till I kind of went, ‘Wow, I am basically putting myself in the situation that my dad put himself into, whether he was in Hong Kong with Billy or his career taking him away from his kids,’” says Corey. “I was doing the same thing.”
The good news for Corey is that it paid off. As writer, director and principal cast member, Corey’s take on the father-son dynamic isn’t self-involved in the least. In fact, he works hard to stay out of the way as a filmmaker.
“I didn’t know any other way to do it,” he says. “I think the smartest thing for me to do is just let the cameras roll. You have an idea of the direction you want to go in, but just let (Frank) tell his story the best he could and have me relate to it, and capture it and try to present it as honestly as I could.”
Legend of a Warrior is at once universal and intimate. Like the best kung fu, its power comes from its simplicity. Even if the film hadn’t been well received at the Hot Docs festival earlier this year, it would still be a success in Corey’s eyes.
“I don’t know about my career, but on some level (this film) repaired my relationship with my father and we are now able to accept each other as men,” he says.
“Even if we don’t spend every Christmas together or maybe we don’t talk every week like we have been in the last couple years, we’re still a long ways away from where we were when I decided to make this film.”