Without a doubt, Bruce Lee is a martial arts icon. He’s a cinematic fixture in pop culture and in the new documentary Be Water premiering at Sundance on January 25, filmmaker Bao Nguyen touches on his role as martial artists, but he goes beyond that and paints a picture of Lee’s impact in Hollywood during the ’60s, his trailblazing role as Asian advocate and an American institution.
Prior to Be Water, Nguyen directed the 2019 docuseries We Gon’ Be Alright based on Jeff Chang’s book of the same name and the docu feature Live From New York!, which detailed the history of the late-night sketch show. He said that doing the film sparked an interest in doing another project about American cultural institutions. With Live From New York!, he looked at SNL through a different lens and he wanted to do the same thing — this time with Bruce Lee.
“As an Asian American, just his image and his name resonated with me,” Nguyen tells Deadline. “At the same time, I realized I didn’t know much about his personal story. Also during that time, and obviously now, the ideas and topics of representation and diversity are part of the zeitgeist.”
He continued, “It’s hard enough being an actor or actress of color today [but] how did someone like Bruce Lee excel in this in America in the 1960s when the country was just starting a war in Vietnam, they had fought a war in Korea and had a war in Japan? So, [In America] the idea of the enemy at the time very much looked like an Asian person.”
That said, Bruce Lee, along with a handful of other Asian actors like Nancy Kwan and George Takei were trying to breakthrough in the industry at a time when Asians weren’t exactly welcomed in Hollywood let alone the rest of the country. Bruce Lee made movies and played Kato in the Green Hornet TV series, but after that he was offered certain roles that he saw as demeaning to Asian people and he didn’t take that even though he was trying to raise a family — in a time when that wasn’t a luxury. Nguyen said he persevered and believed in himself, even after all these rejections. “The tragedy is that he didn’t really get successful until after he passed away,” he said.
Be Water is an ESPN 30 for 30 Film and Bruce Lee is not your typical sports figure even though martial arts is a sport — and he used it to assimilate into America. Taking the title from a famous quote said by the icon, Nguyen naturally wanted to explore his life through his films and advocacy, but more than that, he needed a point of view. “I think for me the best type of films I gravitate to are films that feel personal and that have a stamp of the director and what they’re trying to say,” he said. “That’s how I approached this film.”
It was important for Nguyen to make a film that no one else could have made. “I think the best documentaries do not have bias… it’s about being personal and authentic at the same time,” he said. “I think honesty is important. I think the only way to ground yourself in honesty is to do it from a perspective that you can relate to and that’s why I kind of emphasize him as an Asian American story because it is an Asian American story.”
Similar to Asif Kapadia’s Amy, Nguyen decided to do away with talking heads. Instead, there are voiceovers that accompany footage from Lee’s life. This was a creative choice that Nguyen wanted from the beginning. “This film is very much set in the time of Bruce Lee and it’s supposed to feel like when we’re hearing these stories it’s in the present tense,” he explains. “I think talking heads in films work when it’s something that’s more contemporary in that you can kind of relate the immediate emotion of what’s being said and what’s being seen. But at the same time when you see a talking head, you’re thrown immediately into the present and it totally takes you out of the story.”
He adds, “That was important for me and, in a way, I wanted the film to flow like water.”
He said there are great films with talking heads but with Be Water he wanted to make the audience feel like they were walking in the shoes of Bruce Lee and the people who are talking about him. This includes his wife Linda Lee Cadwell, his daughter Shannon Lee as well as his brother Robert Lee. In addition, we hear from others who were close to Lee including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dan Inosanto and Andre Morgan. Outside of those in his personal life, he talked to film critic Sam Ho as well as cultural critic Jeff Chang.
“I didn’t want it to be about the legacy of Bruce Lee,” he said. “Again, it’s about what he achieved personally at that time and what his struggles, his vulnerabilities were.”
Shannon Lee is very much protective of her father’s estate as everyone wants a piece of it and, there are times when people will exploit it. Nguyen admitted that she let him make the film that he wanted to make but it took a long time for him to form a relationship and a trust — as it should be.
“It’s her father; it’s her family; it’s their history; it’s her life — and sometimes we forget that,” he said. “Sometimes it’s transactional when it shouldn’t be. It’s about building relationships and building trust. And over the years, I built that trust with Shannon and also her mom, Linda — they weren’t involved in the actual editing of the film at all. They provided the archival footage that we needed — and that’s not easy. They knew the story that I wanted to tell about Bruce and it wasn’t the typical story. Again, because it was personal. They knew only I could make this film in the way that I made it.”
He showed Shannon Lee a cut of the film and asked her if there is anything she wanted him to cut to which she answered, “Bao, this is your film, this is not my film.”
“I think that’s the kind of the level of respect that I wanted to extend to her, knowing that she’s carrying on the legacy of Bruce Lee,” he said. “I always knew even if we didn’t necessarily get their total participation or cooperation that I wanted to make a respectful film because their family has gone through a lot with Brandon’s death and then the death of her father.”
That said, Nguyen said that it was during the editing when Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood premiered. Shannon Lee had strong opinions about how her father was portrayed in the film. When it came out, people were messaging him about the film — but he didn’t feel the need to include it in the documentary.
“I knew I didn’t want to include it because again, it’s very much about what happened in the present time of Bruce, his life —not our present time,” he explained.
While making the film, Nguyen made it with the intention of learning about Bruce Lee with the audience. It evolved as he made it because he learned from the people who knew Bruce Lee intimately. “There’s stuff that you can’t just read from a book or an article or from anywhere else,” he said. “I was doing from a perspective that I felt like hadn’t been said about Bruce Lee before.”
He used existing documentaries, films and books as a basis of research, but he was looking at Bruce Lee’s struggles as an Asian American, which, in turn, made him dive deep into the complex history of Asians and Asian Americans. “That’s what guided me into the conversations that I had with people who knew him,” said Nguyen. “I came in having done some research but also being open to learning more and using that to sculpt what the film ultimately became.”
“There’s this poet, Ocean Vuong, who talks about the idea of a coming of history; about having to know your past in order to create something today,” explains Nguyen. “How does a chair designer design a chair without knowing what the human form is like? So how do we come to the point of knowing what Bruce Lee became without knowing all the stereotypes of the Asian and all the troubled histories and policies that have affected what America thinks of the Asian and why America as a television viewing audience wasn’t ready for Bruce Lee as an Asian American male? And I think it’s important even today for younger generation to understand about Yellow Peril and the Chinese Exclusion Act and what the model minority myth means because all of that plays into what society sees us as Asians.”
Be Water premieres at The MARC Theater at Sundance January 25