05/02/2012 05:11 EDT | Updated 07/02/2012 05:12 EDT

'Legend of a Warrior:' Documentary shows father and son reunion in the ring

TORONTO - Forged in a harsh Hong Kong ghetto, Frank Lee came to Canada in 1960 and worked overnights at the rough-and-tumble Phoenix Cafe in Edmonton.

He was a waiter/busboy/bouncer and, as miscreants soon found out, a very talented martial artist. When trouble started, he ended it. Tough as nails, the five-foot-seven 155-pounder never lost a fight.

He went on to become a martial arts grandmaster out of the Edmonton gym dubbed Frank's Torture Chamber. And train champions half a world away in Thailand and Hong Kong.

Along the way, his family drifted apart.

So son Corey — a filmmaker — set about to reconnect. In 2011, he started training under his father, returning to the martial arts he had abandoned more than two decades before.

"He is my father. But I don't really know the man. I only know the legend," Corey says early on in "Legend of a Warrior," which had its world premiere at the Hot Docs festival this week.

Cameras captured their time together over some seven months.

"I was hoping for some level of healing and some level of understanding," Corey, now 42, said in an interview this week.

He got that and more in an emotional journey that is lovingly captured in the 78-minute documentary.

The National Film Board project starts as a guarded father-son reunion in the ring at Frank's gym. But emotional walls are torn down later in the film during a trip to Hong Kong, where Frank first studied martial arts after leaving China with his family at the age of nine.

Tears flow as Frank rereads a letter he sent Corey from Hong Kong in February 1983 on yet another training mission that had taken him from his family. The man who can bend rebar with his neck or break cinder blocks with his hands cries as he laments the breakup of his family — or "crystal ball" as he calls it.

It is heart-rending stuff and it's a safe bet that many more tears will be shed by those watching it.

In talking about the scene, Corey is clearly wearing two hats as filmmaker and son.

"I was thankful that we got it on film, for sure," he said. "And I think I was just incredibly humbled by my father's honesty with me ... I hoped after reading that letter that it would inspire him to open up to me in a way. But I wouldn't have imagined that it would have been like that."

For Corey, the project was doubly demanding in that not only was he directing the film, he was starring in it — and putting his body through some serious stress in the gym.

"Being away from my family was tough, because in some ways it mirrored what had happened with me and him (Frank) when I was a kid ... And I'm a 42-year-old guy. So yeah, I do a little yoga and I run and I do some weights, but going from that to doing what I was doing kind of six days a week, certainly the first month or two was a pretty big leap."

No such worries for Frank, closing in on 72 and still able to execute almost a perfect splits in dress pants.

At his gym, he continues to train fighters from Muay Thai to MMA (his stable includes the UFC's Nick Penner, Mitch Clarke and Ryan Jimmo).

Frank admits the film turned out to be far more emotional that he thought. He had imagined it more about martial arts and how tough it is to be a fighter.

"I didn't realize it would be so touching. Like wow, it was completely different," he said.

"It made us together. It's a real (emotional) feeling to me when I watch it. Maybe to somebody else, I don't know. But for me, oh boy. It really hits me."

"These few months not only did he get really close to me, he (Corey) really became like a buddy," he added. "Not only father and son or trainer to fighter."

It's the first documentary for Corey, who spent 10 years in the Canadian film industry as a grip and lighting technician before making his first feature film, "Defining Edward" in 2003.

He has also done short films and music videos.

"As a filmmaker in Canada, I hope the film is successful enough to help me make my next film," he said. "But really I hope it just resonates with audiences, because those family ties, those bonds are so important. And I think we take them for granted. And I did for a long, long time.

"And it was only when I had my own kids that it made me go 'Hey, take a step back.' Being parent is hard. You don't know everything. And when you're a kid, you don't know what your parents go through."

Corey's parents divorced when he was beginning high school. Corey stayed in Edmonton but eventually moved to Calgary to go to college and father and son grew apart.

The seed for the film was planted back in 2008 when Corey spent 2 1/2 days trailing Frank with a camera as he was prepping some Muay Thai fighters for a tournament.

"Those 2 1/2 days were the most time we had spent together in 20 years," Corey said.

As the film starts, Corey's family is attending Frank's 70th birthday party. They are clearly on the outside looking in as Frank is feted with martial arts and Chinese celebrations.

By the time the documentary ends, three generations of Lees are sharing a meal and a smiling Frank is holding the mitts in the ring as his tiny grandchildren and young daughter playfully punch and kick.

"I am finally starting to see my father with mine own eyes," Corey says in a voiceover. "I no longer feel like a boy in his world. In this new relationship, we are now both men.

"I will be a better son. Maybe that is the true gift my father has given to me. The power to heal old wounds, wounds that have been left untended for 25 years."

Corey hopes Hot Docs will help expose his film to a wider audience. A one-hour version has already been licensed by Rogers and, subtitled in Chinese, may be shown on the Omni multicultural TV channel.


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