Martial arts legend Frank Lee could crush a coconut with the palm of his hand, break rebar with the hollow of his neck. As a young immigrant to Canada in the 1960s, he was the bouncer at an all-night Chinese restaurant, vanquishing troublemakers with his kung fu skills.
At the urging of Dixie, his girlfriend and later his wife, Frank began teaching others how to fight, working his way up from a martial arts pioneer to becoming a renowned grandmaster.
He opened the first kung fu studio in Canada in Edmonton and it eventually grew to a chain of 16. In May, he was inducted into the Canadian Black Belt Hall of Fame.
Building his career required long days at the gym, and sometimes five and six months at a time away from his wife and young family, travelling to places like Hong Kong to fight and train other fighters.
Superheroes are invincible in comic books and in movies, but in real life, they're as vulnerable as the rest of us to relationship problems. Frank didn't know that until Dixie shocked him by asking for a divorce. Corey, who was 18, moved with his mom and sister to Calgary, where he attended film school. The split left everyone in the family broken and led to an estrangement between Frank and his kids that lasted more than 20 years - and continues with daughter Kerry.
But Corey, now 42 and a Calgary filmmaker , decided to try to bridge the gap, after getting married and starting a family of his own, by training with his father for the first time in 25 years and making a documentary about the experience.
Legend of a Warrior, Lee's first documentary, premièred in May at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. Edmonton and Calgary screenings are expected this fall.
On the surface it looks like a martial arts film, Corey says, but it's really the story of a father and son.
"I don't know if I said, 'Dad, I want to make a film to help heal our relationship,' but I know I said I wanted to understand more," says Corey. He also wanted sons Grayden, 5, and Dexter, 3, to know their grandfather, and their Chinese heritage.
Filming started at Frank Lee's martial arts gym on 111th Avenue at 93rd Street in Edmonton in January 2011 and lasted six months.
"I have this love-hate thing with the gym," Corey says. "I love it, but it also took my dad away from us.
"As a boy, I was certainly aware of how much time he was dedicating to (fighters he was training), as well as promoting full-contact martial arts ... rather than being with my mom or with our family."
Father and son were like strangers in the beginning, but daily training sessions, and an emotional trip to Hong Kong, where Frank grew up in a ghetto and ran with a street gang, warmed up the relationship.
"My dad will always be a superhero to me," Corey says, "but the film allowed me to peel off the superhero mask and find out who Clark Kent really is."
On Father's Day, Corey will call his dad - they've talked every week since filming on the documentary wrapped up - and they'll chat about their common interests: fighting, boxing and the NFL.
"Right now, my life with Corey is bittersweet," says Frank, 71. "Corey is my buddy again."
But being around to help raise his eight-year-old daughter Katheryn, with second wife Fen, he knows what he missed with his older children, and it still haunts him.
Watching Frank with Katheryn "shows how much he's evolved and grown as a father," Corey says.
Frank points out that he never shut the door between himself and his only son. But he likely never would have made the first move toward reconciliation because it was Corey who had issues with him that he had to forgive.
"If you don't forgive, you're never going to break through the wall," Frank observes. "Everybody makes mistakes. Try to open up and forgive and you will be able to get together and have a good life together again."
Corey says he was surprised by how many people relate to his and his father's story.
They share their own stories after watching the documentary.
He hopes the film is successful and helps him to get his next project off the ground. "But already what it's done for our relationship, that's worth more than anything to me."
That’s because the utterly bizarre story made national news when it broke, has since provided much magazine fodder, and popped up only two years ago adapted into a dramatic feature. Now it receives the documentary treatment and, in the devilishly manipulative hands of director Bart Layton, what a treatment it is – the weirdness just gets weirder.
First, the Ripley-esque facts. Back in 1994, Nicholas Barclay – blonde, blue-eyed, only 13 – disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas. A long 28 months later, the family receives a phone call from a small town in distant Spain: The boy has turned up. In truth, he hasn’t. It’s a 23-year-old man, Frédéric Bourdin, posing as the boy and claiming to have been kidnapped into a sex ring. However, thinking Nicholas found, his sibling Carey flies to Spain, whereupon she actually identifies Bourdin as her brother – despite his brown eyes, dark stubble, French accent and failure to recognize family photos. In her view, his changed appearance and faded memory are just a function of his trauma.
On the strength of Carey’s identification, the U.S. embassy issues him a passport and the two fly back for the homecoming. There, Nicholas’s mother, Beverly, also embraces him as her own. Investigating the crime of the boy’s abduction, a local FBI agent interviews Bourdin, who pours out a lurid account of a military cabal engaged in torture, rape and prostitution. The agent swallows the yarn. Others do not. A psychologist rejects Bourdin’s claim, as does a private investigator hired by Hard Copy to get a scoop. A dogged fellow, he questions why the family members are so eager to accept this obvious imposter, and begins to wave a homicidal flag, wondering about their involvement in Nicholas’s disappearance. Then – wait for it – Bourdin starts to wonder too.
Okay, take a breath and ponder the obvious: In the annals of forged identity flicks, this is a towering Everest, dwarfing the deceivers in the likes of Catch Me If You Can and F for Fake. But, since others have beaten him to the tale, Layton faces the problem of how to spin it fresh. Well, he rises to the challenge and more, proving to be an adept forger himself – expertly deploying noirish re-enactments to set the mood, simulating the crackle of a bad telephone line, cross-cutting judiciously to generate suspense.
His most successful trope, though, is his most conventional: the talking head at the centre of the piece, the one that belongs to Bourdin. Looking darkly straight at the camera, he details how he pulled off the original scam in Spain, how he “washed the brain” of sister Carey, and how, ensconced as Nicholas in the Texas family, he “didn’t need to be Columbo to put the pieces together – they killed him.” To say the least, the guy is an unreliable narrator, but this much is clear: He’s reliably creepy.
But so are the family members, especially Beverly, who ain’t exactly June Cleaver. Domestic disturbances regularly put her home on the San Antonio police beat. Also, well after the boy’s disappearance, her older son Jason died of a drug overdose, and she admits to more than a passing acquaintance with illicit substances. Her face is drawn, her eyes glazed, her voice uninflected, her whole manner further ratchets up the creep-quotient. In the end, you leave this film in urgent need of a cleansing shower – Layton has done his job well.
Yet maybe too well, since the doc, so keen to envelop us in the narrative’s sheer unlikelihood, seems to forget what’s really at stake here. Almost lost in the tabloid’s tawdry twists is the lost boy himself. A 13-year-old child is gone, and his absence isn’t weird or lurid or stranger-than-fiction – it’s simply tragic.