When watching this Bao Nguyen documentary about Bruce Lee, it’s hard not to get knocked over by the ambition and endurance of Be Water‘s subject. Born in Hong Kong and growing up in San Francisco, Be Water examines Bruce Lee’s rise into stardom, the struggles he was forced to face as a Chinese man in Hollywood, and his tragic and sudden end, leaving behind a monumental legacy that endures ’til this day.
I don’t have to talk about the wonder and strength of Bruce Lee’s martial-arts talent, that’s something we all know about. Within the span of just a few years, Lee became infamous on the international stage and later in the United States for films like The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and The Way of the Dragon, not to mention his posthumous films, the iconic Enter the Dragon and Game of Death. Martial-arts aficionados the world over have been obsessed with Lee since his arrival to the mainstream.
It’s not his physical prowess that drew me to Be Water. It’s the story that hit me on a personal level. As a Chinese American, learning of Lee’s struggles with identity in both Hong Kong and America was relatable. Of course, he has the same struggles as me. Lee may have forever changed the landscape of Asians in media, but of course, this towering figure in pop culture suffered the same discrimination and disillusionment that so many Asian Americans feel.
It was difficult not to feel rage watching Hollywood turn away a person of Lee’s talent, and impossible not to feel triumphant when he returned to Hong Kong and promptly became a superstar there. That’s the quiet victory of Be Water, Lee’s adaptability in the face of adversity. It’s in the very quote that gives this documentary its name, “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water.”
For those who only know Lee through his reputation and his legacy, the footage of him training in his backyard, being with his family, and performing for a screen test all unearth a different side to the actor. He was charisma personified. Good looking, good-humored, prolifically talented, and eager to prove himself. Was he arrogant? Was he ambitious? Was he proud? Yes, he had every right to be.
Be Water is more than just a documentary on Bruce Lee, indeed it picks and chooses aspects of Lee’s life to highlight — as all documentaries do. Instead, it’s an homage to this man’s journey in Hollywood and his meteoric rise. Although it’s hard to say for sure where Lee’s legacy would have lead him had he not died at the age of 32, it seems unlikely that he would have gone anywhere but up. As a person who understood his impact, understood the stereotypes that surrounded Asians (the “model minorities”), and understood the necessity to break away from those stereotypes, he had the skill and the knowledge to propel himself forward. But as it stands, he will simply have to live in our memories forever as a legend.
Premiere: January 25th, 2020
Featuring: Linda Lee Cadwell, Shannon Lee, Robert Lee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dan Inosanto, Andre Morgan
Director: Bao Nguyen
Company: Dorthy Street Pictures
Category: U.S. Documentary Competition