'Be Water': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Heroism meets hagiography with an undeniably magnetic subject.

Bao Nguyen's reverent documentary for ESPN details the struggle of martial arts legend Bruce Lee to reshape representations of Asian men onscreen and the racial bias that held him back in Hollywood.

As a dignifying corrective to the demeaning portrayal of Bruce Lee on the Green Hornet set in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which let's face it, basically made him the butt of a white he-man joke, Be Water has value. But as a survey of the life and legacy of the hugely influential martial arts game-changer, Bao Nguyen's slickly packaged, engrossing bio-documentary for ESPN feels less than definitive. The film's strengths are its stimulating archive-rich historical content and its thoughtful examination of the systemic racism that blocked Lee's path in Hollywood until he had proved himself a commercial powerhouse in Hong Kong.

Drawing on voiceover commentary from family, friends, former students and fellow actors, as well as the eloquent letters and philosophical writings of the subject himself, this is a warm, very much authorized appreciation of an iconic figure who assumed mythical proportions in death, assembled entirely out of first-rate archive material. But it doesn't gain much access to his interior life as a man; Be Water never quite enters the dragon.

Instead, the doc rehashes much that's already known about the enduring cult of Bruce Lee while largely glossing over any potentially less flattering aspects. Those include indirect hints of conflict between his career ambitions and his presence as a family man, or — perhaps out of respect for his widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, who provides insightful personal commentary — speculation over a possible extramarital relationship at the time of his unexpected death at 32 in Hong Kong.

Director Nguyen (who did the 2015 Saturday Night Live doc, Live From New York!) and editor Graham Taylor even skim somewhat hastily over the cause of Lee's death, from a cerebral edema, showing more interest in the admittedly massive cultural reverberations and on the devastating impact on his family. The shock waves of Lee's death are captured in moving footage of crowds thronging the streets for his funeral in Hong Kong, with Cadwell folding protective arms around the couple's two children, Brandon and Shannon, looking shaken and confused.

Shannon, who was 4 at the time of her father's death, contributes extensive commentary and reads from his writings, while Brandon's accidental death 20 years later on the set of The Crow is mentioned only as a brief footnote amid the resonating tragedy.

His daughter believes Bruce Lee failed to recognize the extent of the racial barriers standing between him and success in America, though Nguyen's choice of interview clips sends mixed signals, as he makes excuses for Hollywood studios after being repeatedly undervalued, claiming that the reluctance to cast him was understandable given the economic scale of the projects. This has a slight air of disingenuousness after the egregious snub of the ABC series Kung Fu, which Lee allegedly had conceived as a starring vehicle for himself before being told American audiences weren't ready for a Chinese lead with an accent.

The role eventually went to David Carradine, following in the "yellowface" casting tradition of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror or Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's — still perhaps an all-time low in terms of cringe-inducing ethnic stereotyping.

Nguyen builds a compelling account of how Lee, who was born in America but raised in Hong Kong, experienced life as a Chinese minority in a majority white country after his father sent the unruly youth back at 18 to carve out an independent life. Cadwell, whom he met soon after at college in Seattle, says Lee tried to fit in by studying the physical mannerisms and language of the working-class, racially diverse American friends he taught in his first martial arts studio.

The film sketches in the structures of anti-Asian racism firmly entrenched in America at that time — the Japanese remained targets of lingering animosity from World War II; the Vietnamese were Communists, and therefore considered bad; the Chinese were initially tolerated as cheap labor but then shut out in the Chinese Exclusion Act once the California job market declined in the late 1800s, all of which led to generations of division.

Those factors and more contributed to "otherize" Asians in America. Into this climate, in which Asian male representations onscreen tended to veer between diabolical fiends and servile lackeys, came Bruce Lee. He was handsome, personable, self-assured. The suave movie-star charisma is evident in his black and white screen test for producer William Dozier, in which a nervous-looking suit is amusingly ushered on to serve as the "opponent" for Bruce to demonstrate some martial arts moves. Having grown up on movie sets or backstage at the Chinese Opera in Hong Kong, he was a natural.

That led to his casting in 1966 as Kato, the formidable sidekick of the title character on ABC's short-lived series The Green Hornet. Around this time, as the civil rights movement was making an impact, African Americans were becoming a more vocal political force, and the patronizing view emerged alongside them of Asian Americans as the quiet, compliant "model minority." Lee chipped away at that reductive image by insisting that Kato become more of an active partner than a mute follower. He fought for every bit of screen time and dialogue, even if his place on the pay scale reflected the institutionalized discrimination he was up against.

When ABC canceled the show after its first season due to poor ratings, Lee was reduced to booking infrequent acting roles or stunt coordinator jobs, despite making powerful friends in Hollywood with actors who took his classes to learn physical expression through movement, among them Steve McQueen, James Coburn and James Garner.

Lee's blend of martial arts had evolved by this time to incorporate influences from boxing to basketball (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is among friends supplying commentary), and the mix of balletic movement with quick jabs and kicks remains mesmerizing to watch in the terrific clips assembled. ("He's not an action man like Eastwood or Bronson," notes one Brit movie fan at a premiere. "I suppose he's more like a Nureyev.") Nguyen takes his title from Lee's famous theories about tailoring his fight style to mirror the properties of water — soft, fluid, adaptable to his opponent and yet strong enough to penetrate the hardest rock.

After the disappointment of Kung Fu, Lee retreated to Hong Kong in defeat, yet he went on to make four features over the next two years that would secure his place in the action-star firmament. The surprise success of 1971's The Big Boss led to upgraded production values on Fist of Fury the following year. Lee's overnight-superstar clout made his producers at Golden Harvest take his ideas seriously about how fight sequences should be choreographed and how Chinese leading men should present themselves, subverting the perceptions of the West.

Lee's transition to directing on The Way of the Dragon is given less attention than his push to take the movie outside Hong Kong, shooting part of it in Italy, and his insistence on making the Chuck Norris character a respectful karate fighter, not a cartoon villain.

When Hollywood started paying attention, and Warner Bros. negotiated to have Lee star in Enter the Dragon, Nguyen's doc posits that his experience in film production, plus his strong feelings about shaping more nuanced role models, made him more exacting about how the script was developed — delaying the shoot until his character was given more substance. There's poignancy in the evidence that his instincts were right, given that the movie opened to blockbuster business just 10 days after Lee's death. It went on to gross $91 million, equivalent to $521 million today.

All this is endlessly absorbing even if Lee's humanity, the one aspect the doc maintains he longed to carve out more scope for onscreen, remains somewhat opaque. The film also falls short in context, neglecting to position Lee in relation to other action stars who emerged out of China onto the international scene in his wake, like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. What's perhaps most frustrating is Nguyen's reluctance to point up how far Hollywood still has to go, even in the post-Crazy Rich Asians era. Ask pretty much any Asian American actor who's not John Cho and they'll tell you there's a lot of talent out there and still limited opportunities for leading men.

Production companies: ESPN Films, in association with Dorothy St. Pictures, East Films
Director: Bao Nguyen
Producers: Julia Nottingham, Bao Nguyen
Director of photography: Caleb Heller
Music: Ton That An, Goh Nakamura
Editor: Graham Taylor
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

104 minutes