Bao Nguyen, “Be Water” (2020)
A stolid documentary, Bao Nguyen’s visual biography of global pop culture icon Bruce Lee is a conventional retelling of his life, starting with his birth in San Francisco in 1940 and his early years in Hong Kong as a child actor and his introduction to martial arts as a young teenager. Through the use of archived films and photographs, and interviews with people who knew Lee, “Be Water” follows Lee’s journey between two very different worlds that he was part of, and yet not part of, as his family sends him away to SF and then to Seattle for further education after the teenager gets involved in fighting other kids and runs afoul of Hong Kong police. Lee completes high school in Seattle in 1960 and later travels to Oakland to continue his martial arts training and to teach others, Chinese and non-Chinese alike. He is criticised by people in the SF Chinese community for teaching martial arts to non-Chinese students. He participates in martial arts exhibitions and comes to the attention of Hollywood producer William Dozier in 1964 who sees potential in Lee as an actor. This leads to a role as Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet” which lasted one season from September 1966 to March 1967. During this period Lee meets and marries Linda Lee Cadwell and they have two children, Brandon and Shannon.
From then on, Lee continues to develop his particular style of martial arts, which he called Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid art drawing from different martial arts and combat sports including boxing and fencing. In this, he was influenced by the examples of Muhammad Ali and other rising boxers of Ali’s generation, many of whom were African-American. He also appeared in other TV shows and worked as a stuntman and martial arts instructor to actors who sought him out. After being turned down for the lead role of the television series “Kung Fu” – the role went to David Carradine – Lee returns to Hong Kong on the advice of a Hollywood producer to make a film there that he could later show to Hollywood studio execs. Lee discovers that he is a huge star in HK where “The Green Hornet” was broadcast. Signing contracts with Golden Harvest and later forming his own production company, Lee makes three films “The Big Boss”, “Fist of Fury” and “Way of the Dragon” in which he is the lead actor: these films rocketed him to stardom across Asia.
The documentary can be very long and quite dull in its chronological layout, and for an in-depth work it does contain some inaccuracies about details of Lee’s life and some of the work he did. The concept for the “Kung Fu” television series was developed independently by three script-writers and Lee had been invited to audition for the show: Lee had independently developed his idea for a similar TV series “The Warrior” based around a martial arts practitioner but, contrary to what the documentary says, the “Kung Fu” series was not based on “The Warrior” though the two shows shared similar ideas. Despite the documentary’s heavy reliance on interviewees like Lee’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell and their surviving child Shannon, and others close to Lee, the information about Lee’s philosophy that underpins Jeet Kune Do and its heterodox approach seems to have been cherry-picked and shoehorned into fitting the film’s agenda about Lee himself trying to find an identity in two societies and cultures that initially reject and then accept him. Lee’s own emphasis on being inclusive and how his adaptability and open-mindedness led him to become an innovator as a martial artist, actor, film-maker (director and script-writer) and philosopher are given short shrift. I have the impression that Lee himself regarded his path as a continuous work in progress, the “identity” of which would not and would never be complete until death, yet the film insists on imposing its own notions of what Lee was carving out for himself within the framework of identity politics.
While there is interesting information about past discrimination against Asian-Americans in US society and in Hollywood in particular, and how Asian-American people have been patronised by American culture as well-behaved and subservient minority American citizens (implying that African-American citizens are bad because they dare to protest at the discrimination they suffer), at the same time there is not enough information about Lee’s own impact on US popular culture and how his example and work influenced Hollywood beyond his death in 1973. How his work influenced his children – and many others – to follow in his foot-steps as actors and martial artists themselves is not discussed. In the wake of other film documentaries and other material about Bruce Lee’s life, this recent documentary adds very little that is new apart from pigeon-holing him as an Asian-American attempting to “bridge” two cultures..