Be Water: a dull and over-long biography of global pop culture icon Bruce Lee

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..

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team) – how athletes become fodder for nationalism in team events

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 6: Building a World-Class Gymnastics Team)” (2020)

The final installment in this fascinating and informative documentary series follows MyKayla Skinner as she aims to do what very few other US gymnasts before her have done: leave the US national team to concentrate on collegiate gymnastics which helps her regain her original love of the sport and then attempt to break back into the elite level and win a place on the US Olympics team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Previously Skinner had been an alternate for the team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro: she still had to practise and work on all her routines for those Games in case she had to replace a team member; unfortunately for her, no-one on the team got sick or injured enough that she was needed. After years of hard work and struggle, and periods when her motivation was flagging, Skinner retreated into collegiate gymnastics (which makes different demands on gymnasts) and rediscovered the joy and her childhood dreams. Moving back into the elite however demanded more exacting standards from her so, with the help and advice of her coach, Skinner changed and upgraded her routines, began the strenuous conditioning and practice again … and somehow, in 2019, got engaged and married to her boyfriend.

The episode explores the politics and sometimes powerful nationalism underlying the team event in major women’s gymnastics competitions like the Olympic Games and the world championships, and how geopolitical events and issues can have a deep influence on the young women competing for Team USA in gymnastics. The boycotts that affected the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, both political in nature, had a huge impact on the team and individual competitions in both men’s and women’s gymnastics: the Los Angeles competitions will always be seen as lesser compared to the 1984 Friendship Games gymnastics competitions organised by the Communist nations in eastern Europe. The example of the team competition during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, in which US team member Kerri Strug famously performed her second vault with a badly injured ankle and collapsed after hitting a perfect vault with no hops and saluting the judges, is described in considerable detail by fellow team member Amanda Borden with archival video film to illustrate her words. Borden also talks about her self-doubts even after making the 1996 Olympic team and the psychological uplift she got when all the other girls on the team voted to make her team captain.

Other gymnasts like Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, Dominique Moceanu, Samantha Peszek and Betty Okino describe their experiences as US Olympic team members and how at some point in their careers they mentally switched from performing for themselves and their families to performing for the other members of their teams and ultimately for their country at team competitions. Svetlana Boginskaya remembers her time as a member of the Unified Team (formerly the Soviet Union team) for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as bittersweet, as she and other team members won their gold team medals and then went home to new individual nations, never to perform as one team again.

While much screen time is devoted to how changes in team competition rules and scoring affects coaches’ strategies in selecting particular gymnasts for national teams, very little is said about how nationalism might have a pernicious effect on gymnasts’ psychologies and add extra pressure on the girls to perform to the expectations of not only their coaches and team officials but also of the news media in their countries, the corporations that sponsor them and the general public who follow the girls’ progress. Competing at the Olympics, especially if held in a country the gymnasts are unlikely ever to visit again, should be a fun experience where they meet new people and come in contact with new cultures and different ways of thinking and seeing things; instead it becomes an experience often filled with dread, anxiety, even fear and pain, or a reinforcement of ugly chauvinist attitudes and stereotypes about other people and countries.

As the last episode in the series, this installment might have gone out on a high note with various gymnasts and ex-gymnasts interviewed for the series saying what they believe gymnastics has done for them: has it improved their lives, given them opportunities to discover what talents and strengths they have, led them on career paths they might never have had otherwise? What do girls like Skinner, Jade Carey, Sunisa Lee, Morgan Hurd and Jordan Chiles think on their present journeys through the sport – what do they believe will open up to them in their future careers by gymnastics when they finally hang up their hand-grips and leotards for good? Apart from this, the series has been an interesting if perhaps very US-oriented exploration of the recent history and culture of the sport.

Since this series was completed, Skinner succeeded in her dream to represent the United States at the delayed 202o Tokyo Olympic Games but as one of two non-team individual gymnasts, the other being Jade Carey. Consequently Skinner did not compete in the team competition but performed as an all-round competitor in the qualification rounds. She did not qualify to compete in the all-round final but did compete in the vault final after fellow US gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of that competition; Skinner ended up winning a silver medal for vault.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 5: Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics) – how a toxic culture obsessed with success enabled sexual predation on minors

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 5: Abuse and Healing in Women’s Gymnastics)” (2020)

A major theme of “Defying Gravity …” has been the dysfunctional culture of the sport obsessed with success and winning medals at all costs to the detriment of the health and well-being of the athletes involved. The competitive and exacting nature of women’s gymnastics and the willingness of young female gymnasts to please their superiors has led to individual coaches, officials, judges and others to manipulate, shame and abuse young women. A toxic culture is created that further attracts manipulative, often sociopathic individuals who may have their own agendas with regard to the gymnasts – agendas that include the sexual abuse of under-age girls.

This episode explores the sexual abuse scandal that rocked US gymnastics in the 2010s when gymnasts and former gymnasts like Jamie Dantzscher, Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross, Dominique Moceanu and others exposed Larry Nassar, a sports doctor employed by Bela and Marta Karolyi at their gymnastics camp in Texas during summer holidays, as a sexual abuser. Dantzscher and Wieber describe the camp and the competitive, often abusive atmosphere created by the Karolyis which pitted girls against each other and made them afraid to complain to their parents or other significant adults. The Karolyis did not allow parents to attend the camp and this made for a cult-like ambience where girls were cut off from people who could have challenged the Karolyis and their treatment of the gymnasts. Moceanu points out the qualities that Nassar had that endeared him to Marta Karolyi in particular – among them, his eagerness to please her and flatter her – and how he was able to take advantage of her friendship towards him to assault the girls in his charge.

Unfortunately Nassar is not the only person in the gymnastics world to have abused numerous gymnasts: former US national women’s gymnastics coach Don Peters was also found guilty of sexually abusing gymnasts and many coaches in the US have been put on a banned list – although as sports journalist Blythe Lawrence observed, the criteria for banning a coach are not clear as so many coaches who should have been banned were not on the list. Former Soviet star Olga Korbut speaks bravely about the abuse her coach Renald Knysh inflicted on her and on other gymnasts he trained back in the 1970s. There is no mention of whether sexual abuse occurred in other countries’ gymnastics programs though the physical abuse Romanian coaches meted out to gymnasts (and of which Romanian gymnasts themselves have spoken to the press) is well known.

Driven by interviews with Dantzscher, Wieber and other gymnasts, the episode climaxes in trial hearings at which the gymnasts testify before judges and speak about their abuse. The court case against Nassar climaxes when he is sentenced to 175 years’ jail time. For this, the gymnasts are awarded the 2018 Arthur Ashe Award for bravery.

Ironically perhaps the very qualities instilled by their coaches into these young women – persistence, grit, grace under pressure – are the qualities that enable them to stand up to their abuse and their abusers and to speak out against a culture and organisation that for too long have condoned abuse and allowed abusers to prey on succeeding generations of young gymnasts. However, as long as gymnastics and other sports continue to prize a winner-takes-all attitude, and derive their values from a competitive and combative neoliberal capitalist ideology that winks at bullying and abuse, the potential for a sports culture that enables physical abuse, psychological manipulation and sexual predation on minors will always exist.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault) – not the most powerful episode in the series

Bess Krugman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 4: Unlocking Gymnastics’ Most Powerful Event: The Vault)” (September 2020)

Compared to previous episodes in this six-part series, this fourth installment is not nearly as fascinating and the human stories featured seem rather superficial. The vault, its history and development, its place in gymnastics as an exacting and often the riskiest and most dangerous apparatus for gymnasts, and the experiences of various gymnasts, past and present, with that apparatus dominate nearly the entire episode.

The gymnasts who are the primary focus here are Grace McCallum and Jade Carey (both of whom later competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games after the series was made): McCallum comes from a large family with limited resources and Carey is coached by her father. The episode could have made much more about these families’ involvement in their daughters’ training and gymnastics careers, including the sacrifices parents and other family members have had to make, and covering the social and economic contexts (even if in a very general way) in which families are often forced to make decisions to forgo things or experiences to put their children into private sports clubs to get the opportunities to develop their talents. What sort of neighbourhood or town do these families live in, that compels them to enroll their daughters in gymnastics and not any other sport? Why do some families support their daughters in pursuing gymnastics, knowing the sacrifices they have to make and the perils that might await their children in the sport, while other families with equally talented daughters do not? There could have been references to families pushing their daughters to continue training even when the girls have lost motivation or are in pain, and the pressure and guilt gymnasts may often feel knowing that their parents and siblings have given up or denied themselves opportunities so that the girls can continue with gymnastics. The issue of whether gymnastics and other popular sports other than team sports like football or baseball should be subsidised by state or federal governments or charities – so that Grace McCallum’s family would not have needed to pay private fees for her gymnastics and maybe one or more of her siblings could also have opportunities to excel in a sport or creative activity also supported by government or charity money – would become a theme underlying the episode.

As usual, the episode is driven by interviews with past and current gymnasts who often provide good, even penetrating insight into the sport and the often toxic and cult-like culture surrounding it. Kathy Johnson especially is an excellent commentator and critic of practices within the sport that have harmed gymnasts in the past. Unfortunately though there is not very much information given about reforms and changes in the sport with regard to safeguarding and improving young gymnasts’ self-esteem and general mental health.

There is brief mention of the tragic story of Julissa Gomez who suffered brain damage after botching a vault at a competition in Japan in which she hit her head and injured her neck, and was later starved of oxygen while being treated in hospital in Japan. This incident is passed over very quickly. There is no mention of the pressure Gomez was under to perform the type of vault that led to her catastrophic injury and later death.

I rate this episode as a lesser entry in what otherwise has been a fine series so far.

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 2: Uneven Bars – The Closest Thing to Flying) – not all smooth sailing in this episode about bars and bulimia

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 2: Uneven Bars – The Closest Thing to Flying)” (September 2020)

Of the four apparatus used in women’s artistic gymnastics, the uneven bars (also known as asymmetric bars) apparatus is the most spectacular but also perhaps the most punishing with regard to its demands on gymnasts’ hands, body types and limitations, and the consequences that arise and which can have devastating effects on the athletes’ psyches and overall health. Originating from the men’s parallel bars with the aim of demonstrating balance, poise and balletic or static moves, the apparatus has undergone tremendous and radical changes: starting in the 1960s, the emphasis quickly shifted from routines of linked static poses to exercises of near-continuous fluid moves based on kips, beats, wraps and release moves from one bar to the other. From the late 1960s on, uneven bars started being manufactured separately from the parallel bars and their design was changed with the addition of tension cables that allowed the bars to be adjusted for width, allowing them to be moved farther apart. Such a change enabled experimentation with new skills, especially release skills, and elements borrowed from the men’s high bar apparatus that stress continuous movement approaching flight (and which put pressure on gymnasts to maintain a particular body / weight ratio to remain light). Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut pioneered the Korbut flip, the first upper bar somersault release skill at the 1972 Munich Olympics and Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci followed suit at the 1976 Montreal Olympics with her famous forward somersault release from top bar to top bar and her dismount.

As in other episodes of this series, interviews with various US-based gymnasts and ex-gymnasts drive the episode’s themes which encompass not only the uneven bars’ evolution and the demands it makes on gymnasts’ bodies but also the issue of eating disorders in gymnasts and how the gymnastics culture has encouraged, at times even demanded unhealthy eating, with disastrous effects for individual gymnasts. Former gymnast Vanessa Atler’s personal story in battling her bulimia and personal hoodoo with the uneven bars, and the unsympathetic treatment she received from gymnastics coaches (not necessarily her own) and officials, is shocking; likewise Cathy Rigby, a former gymnast herself before becoming an actor, recounts her experiences with eating disorders. Kathy Johnson correctly identifies the toxic culture surrounding gymnastics as a leading if not the main contributor to gymnasts’ eating disorders though she could have gone further (she probably did but the harsher criticism might have been edited) in condemning international and national gymnastics organisations and their officials for doing very little about the issue and closing their eyes to individual girls’ suffering.

Curiously the tragic story of Christy Henrich, who died from anorexia nervosa at the age of 22 years in 1994, is not mentioned. One result of the publicity around her death was that Johnson, Rigby and others came out publicly about their struggles, TV stations in the US and outside stopped commenting on gymnasts’ weight and educational programs on proper eating and nutrition for gymnasts were launched. The episode also does not mention these changes which I consider quite a serious oversight.

The rest of the episode focuses on current US gymnasts Olivia Greaves and Riley McCusker on their personal journeys in the sport and their particular relationships with the uneven bars. Other famous athletes like Comaneci, her husband Bart Conner, Laurie Hernandez and Olga Korbut add their own insights and perspectives on uneven bars and the issue of eating disorders. As in the other episodes I have seen, there’s a lot to take in (the use of archival film footage to illustrate interviews helps) and directors Kargman and Walker do a good job of segueing smoothly from one topic to the next … almost like a bars routine!

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 1: How Gymnasts Find Their Voice on the Floor) – a riveting introduction to a world of intriguing personalities and human stories

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 1: How Gymnasts Find Their Voice on the Floor)” (September 2020)

As the first in a six-part documentary series on women’s artistic gymnastics, you’d think this episode would present an overview of the current state of the sport, its history and its most outstanding champions and personalities. Maybe the episode would have time to dig deeper into the sport, explore how the different apparatus used first developed (and what the original reasons for their development were) and their evolution into something far beyond what their creators had intended. The episode would introduce the major international and national bodies governing the sport and explain a bit about what the major competitions are, what they consist of and what gymnasts are required to do in their routines. The Code of Points used to judge and score routines would be explained somewhat so that viewers can see how controversial it has been in pushing women’s gymnastics in a particular direction that not everyone in the sport (and outside) agrees with.

Instead what we get is a series of interviews with well-known US and international gymnasts like Nadia Comaneci, Morgan Hurd, Olga Korbut, Katelyn Ohashi, Carly Patterson, Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez talking about why and how they fell in love with the sport, their experiences in competition including international competition, and the pressures that come with winning and becoming famous. Ohashi especially details her precocity as a talented young gymnast with the result that she burned out young and came to resent the sport and the pressure that others’ expectations and her own desire to please people put on her. Eventually back pain and a potentially serious spinal problem forced her to give up elite gymnastics – while also affording her the opportunity to rest and gain a new perspective on the sport that allowed her to return to it on her own terms. Comaneci, Hurd, Raisman and Hernandez speak of their respective introductions into the sport, what motivated them to push themselves to elite level, and the challenges, disappointments and (in Raisman’s case) the heartache they had to battle through.

While the episode supposedly focuses on the floor exercise, its demands as well as the opportunity for gymnasts to express their personalities and individual style in dance and acrobatics – there’s even a small part in the documentary about how the equipment for the floor changed over the years and the effect the changes (such as the addition of extra foam layers and the use of springs) had on increasing the acrobatic and technical aspects of the floor exercise – it’s even more about what gymnasts need to excel as all-round gymnasts on all four major apparatus and the prestige that is attached to being the all-round champion.

The coaches of some of these gymnasts and former choreographer Geza Pozsar (who worked with Comaneci’s coach Bela Karolyi) are interviewed as well if only briefly. Disappointingly perhaps the gymnasts’ parents are not interviewed – Aly Raisman’s mother Lynn, who declares after seeing Carly Patterson winning the all-round competition at the 2004 Olympic Games: “I’m so glad I’m never gonna have to experience that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch your kid compete at the Olympics” (and then later watches her daughter compete in the 2016 Olympic Games!) provides the episode’s funniest moments – and an opportunity to see how gymnasts’ families are affected by their daughters’ sport, and might feel pride or resentment in their daughters’ achievements, is lost.

By using interviews with gymnasts to explain what their sport is about and what it means to them, this episode ends up exploring women’s artistic gymnastics in much more depth than it would have done using a narrator churning through its history and reeling off a list of its champions and their achievements. It draws in viewers and immerses them in the finer, deeper points of the sport straight away. You almost live and breathe gymnastics the way these gymnasts do and have done. When the episode is over and done with, you just can’t wait to see the next five parts in the series.

Well done to Kargman and Walker for such a breath-taking introduction to a sport featuring very human individuals with intriguing histories and motivations, and a passion for what they do!

Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 3: The Aggressive Mentality of Balance Beam) – an insight into the psychology and history of gymnastics

Bess Kargman, Lucy Walker, “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics (Episode 3: The Aggressive Mentality of Balance Beam)” (September 2020)

In spite of the popularity of gymnastics and women’s gymnastics in particular with the general public (at least in Australia), there haven’t been very many documentaries made about the sport or the individuals involved so when a documentary series like “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics” comes by, my interest is piqued straight away. Even though this episode’s focus is on the balance beam – one of the four apparatuses used in the women’s sport – and the demands it makes on gymnasts and their coaches (and the consequences of those demands that arise), it ends up being as much about the individual stories of the gymnasts themselves as they relate to the balance beam itself.

The major individual stories featured in the episode are those of Sunisa Lee, a current member of the United States national team, and former US team member Kathy Johnson who competed for her country at the World Championships in 1978 and 1983, and the Olympic Games in 1984. Lee and Johnson talk about how they became attracted to the sport as young girls and Lee in particular tells of how she was encouraged by her father John to excel and compete in the sport. Old photographs and videos of Lee and Johnson as children and teenagers show their dedication and the quality of their work. The episode also portrays the difficulties and obstacles both Lee and Johnson had to overcome: Johnson’s career was affected by geopolitical events of the early 1980s that led to the US boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the USSR and various other Communist nations boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; and Lee’s father suffered a fall that paralysed him from the waist down in 2019 just before the US national championships. Both Lee and Johnson are visibly emotional as they bravely recount the turmoil they must have experienced and how they overcame their fear and upset, and achieved their childhood dreams of being the best in their sport.

Interviews with Lee, Johnson and other gymnasts in the US, including former world and Olympic champions like Svetlana Boginskaya, Nadia Comaneci, Phoebe Mills, Dominique Moceanu, Betty Okino and Jordyn Wieber not only demonstrate what mental qualities gymnasts need to succeed on the balance beam in spite of the often ridiculous pressures their coaches, the judges, the administration of the sport itself, the media and the public exert on them but also the psychological abuse they have had to endure from coaches like Bela and Marta Karolyi. Archival film footage illustrate how the Karolyis manipulated their pupils into intense competition against one another and their own psyches, to the point where the girls would train and compete even with major injuries and internal fractures, in what seems like an insane goal to turn them into super-athletes. Significantly, former choreographer Geza Pozsar (who worked with the Karolyis in Romania and then in the United States) refers to Bela Karolyi’s former training in sport as a hammer thrower.

Although the episode is 37 minutes, it goes very quickly: it’s full of interesting information about the balance beam, a bit of its history and how the equipment has evolved over the past 50 years, what is required of gymnasts competing on the apparatus and how gymnasts and their coaches mentally as well as physically approach and deal with it. Along the way viewers learn something of how the balance beam and its demands help mould a gymnast’s character and either strengthen or weaken her relationship with her coach / coaches, her parents and other significant people in her life. We get some insight into the psychology and strength of character the balance beam demands of gymnasts if they are to succeed on the beam and away from it.

This episode is a fine example of how sports documentaries should be made: they should be as much about the individuals (athletes, coaches, officials and those who support them – or maybe oppose them – and other significant people involved), the experiences and stories they bring, and perhaps also teach a lesson that can be carried over into other areas of endeavour, not just in gymnastics or even other sports.

Since the documentary was made, Sunisa Lee has become the all-round Olympic champion at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. A dream has been fulfilled – but at the same time, Lee and her family face new challenges, expectations and pressures.

Becoming Bond: an affable light comedy biography of one-time James Bond actor

Josh Greenbaum, “Becoming Bond” (2017)

Part-fictional comedy re-enactment, part-biography, this is a very affable review of Australian actor George Lazenby’s early life up to and including the period when he played James Bond in the film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, one of the most beloved and esteemed films in the entire James Bond series of spy movies. It takes the structure of an extended interview with Lazenby himself in which he talks about his childhood, his relationships with girlfriends from early in his adolescence onwards, and his early career as a car salesman, paralleled by re-enactments of significant moments of his life when opportunities out of the blue fall into his lap and he seizes them because they seem like fun and promise adventure. The film moves leisurely – perhaps a bit too leisurely, because the main reason I imagine people would watch this film is to find out how a former car salesman manages to land the movie role of the century with no acting experience or qualifications, and what qualities he must have had to land such a role – with an air of bemused bedazzlement which one imagines Lazenby carried with him during those heady days in the 1960s when he moved to London in pursuit of a girlfriend, took up modelling and through sheer accident met a movie agent who put him in contact with the producer and director of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.

Split into thirteen chapters, each one with a title that spoofs a James Bond film, the film rolls its way through Lazenby’s various escapades, all illustrated with Lazenby’s droll reminiscences which may be true or not. While the film doesn’t drill deep down into Lazenby’s psychology and motivations for doing the things he does, the impression that for Lazenby, life is a big adventure that you roll with is strong. Of course the big moment when Lazenby explains why he walked away from the Bond films after completing “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” eventually comes and Lazenby’s reason, which may be self-justification on his part, seems quite reasonable given the way his early life has unfolded so far: he’s a man who’ll try anything once but never more than once, a man who can’t and won’t be tied down to meeting others’ expectations. After a fitful acting career, Lazenby returns to Australia, becomes involved in real estate investment and goes through two marriages (the second of which was to famous US tennis player Pam Shriver) with two sets of children.

The hokey re-enactment of Lazenby’s early years in Australia and London, in which Australia in the 1940s-50s appears as romanticised kitsch and people in London drive cars with the steering wheel mounted on the left-hand side of the vehicle, is marred by awkward and inconsistent acting from Josh Lawson playing Lazenby. Jane Seymour as the movie agent is the stand-out of the cast in the re-enactment scenes.

The film might have worked better if the narrative were more streamlined and less meandering, at the cost perhaps of one of its themes: that of its protagonist’s life as a Great Australian Yarn of tall stories, opportunities that fall out of the sky into his lap and how, through all the adventures he has, he manages to remain a simple and basically well-meaning character with simple, down-to-earth values. Lazenby may not be particularly profound, his early ignorance can be jaw-dropping and his treatment of his girlfriends leaves much to be desired. Yet he appears to have intuited when people are trying to exploit him and own him, and to walk away from what could have been his ruin despite the fame and wealth that beckoned. Of course the reality was different: his agent convinced him that the Bond films had run their course and were becoming outdated.

The film works as light entertainment rather than as a straight biography or documentary and viewers must not expect to take it seriously.

Minamata: a solid film on the power of image as social activism

Andrew Levitas, “Minamata” (2020)

In these times when fake news and deliberate disinformation are the norm in mainstream news media, here comes a very welcome, solid film on environmental pollution and its lasting effects on two, even three generations of families, and on the power of image to convey this message and call for justice for the families made victims by the pollution. “Minamata” is based on events that took place in the early 1970s to bring the suffering of the victims of what was then known as Minamata disease – actually the effects of environmental mercury poisoning – to world attention. Johnny Depp plays US photojournalist W Eugene Smith, world-weary and with his life in tatters, who is approached by two Japanese fans of his work in 1971. The two fans, of whom one is Aileen (Minami), persuade him to follow them back to their home town of Minamata, a one-company town on Kyushu island, to document the injuries and deformities suffered by Minamata town residents. Smith grudgingly accepts and accompanies the two activists on what is supposedly a three-month assignment. Once there, Smith gradually becomes more involved in the lives of the Minamata families, befriending a teenage boy suffering from Minamata disease and teaching him photography; he himself eventually becomes an activist participating in and visually recording protests against the Chisso company which has been discharging mercury into local waters. The Chisso company discovers the American living in the Minamata community and, after failing to bribe Smith, ramps up the harassment and violence against the community and Smith himself. His studio is burned down and much of his work is destroyed, and the photojournalist realises he must try to persuade the Minamata community to work more closely with him and allow him to photograph affected family members if he is to get their message to the outside world.

While the film revolves around Depp’s performance, excellent as it is for most of the time he is on screen, he allows his fellow cast members including Minami as Aileen, Tadanobu Asano and Hiroyuki Sanada as activist leaders and Jun Kunimura as the Chisso company president their moments in the spotlight. Minami’s character is basically supportive but is upfront when it needs to be. Kunimura puts in a powerful performance as the president who tries to bribe Smith and is then later forced to admit the company’s culpability for the harm caused by his company to Minamata residents. Though Depp himself occasionally lapses into his kookly old Hunter S Thompson character from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” which he made back in 1998, his portrayal of Smith as initially gruff and cynical (this appearance hiding deep self-loathing, past trauma and lack of purpose in life) and then later turning into social crusader with a cause that consumes his life seems credible. The film does a good job detailing the menace that hired uniformed goons present to Smith and the Minamata residents, less so on how the issue of mercury poisoning divides the community, especially as so many people in Minamata depend on the company for employment.

The film’s cinematography highlights Minamata town’s charms as a rural seaside village, focusing at times on villagers’ activities such as drying fish or on children playing in the town park where Smith first meets the teenage boy. Over the course of the film the background settings become important in advancing the film’s narrative and message as historical film reels are mixed into the live-action scenes and some scenes are recreations of actual photographs taken by the real-life W Eugene Smith.

The action may be slow and the plot doesn’t rev up until quite late in the film but the slow pace allows viewers, like Smith himself, to fully immerse themselves into the life of Minamata as drawn by Levitas and his capable cast. By the end of the film audiences may well find themselves rooting for Smith, Aileen and her fellow activists. However the end title credits present a very sobering conclusion to their efforts: to date, the Minamata community has still not been fully compensated for its suffering by the Chisso company and the Japanese government.

Land: a film of two exiles from society finding friendship and healing

Robin Wright, “Land” (2021)

For her directorial debut, US actor Robin Wright chose to do a challenging character study of a bereaved woman, Edee (played by Wright herself), in shock after losing her husband and son, who isolates herself in a log cabin in the remote Rocky Mountains somewhere in Wyoming state. She intends to start her own vegetable garden and go hunting and fishing if need be. Her plan to go completely off-grid is apparent in the split-second scene where she ditches her cellphone into a rubbish bin, and is reinforced when she tells the man from whom she is buying his father’s log cabin that he can take away her rented car and haulage vehicle. Her attempts at living off the land however meet with failure upon failure and she doesn’t get far coming to terms with new neighbours like a pack of wolves and a huge bear that ransacks her log cabin during a severe winter. In the middle of a terrible blizzard, Edee curls up on the floor of her freezing log cabin, ready to die and be done with life.

In the nick of time arrive local hunter Miguel (Demian Bichir) and nurse Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) who find Edee only days away from starving and freezing to death, and who bring her back to life with medicines, soups and warm clothing. Alawa wants to get Edee down to town and into hospital straight away but Edee refuses. Miguel offers to care for Edee and, surprisingly, teach her how to survive on her own since she is adamant about staying in her log cabin. From then on, Miguel visits Edee frequently to show her how to chop wood, how to hunt, shoot and prepare deer, and cook venison. Hunting her own food and eating meat help to strengthen Edee so she can concentrate on teaching herself from books how to create her vegetable garden. Before long, Edee is doing well for herself and becomes close friends with Miguel. At this point in the film though, Miguel tells her he is going away and leaves his dog with her. Time passes and Edee soon realises something may have happened to Miguel, that he has been away from his own home for too long.

On the surface a film of survivalist self-exile and isolation, “Land” turns out to be a meditation on reconciliation, healing and being able to connect with other people. In his own way Miguel is a damaged human being who has suffered loss because of past irresponsible behaviour; by helping Edee and teaching her how to survive, he finds purpose in living and ultimately grace and redemption. From Miguel, Edee learns to reconnect with people and to reach out to others when she needs help. Eventually she is able to come to terms with her loss and to contact her sister-in-law as equals.

While Wright and Bichir give excellent performances as Edee and Miguel, the script does leave much to be desired: the sudden jump from Edee on her own being hopeless to Edee being capable and self-reliant under Miguel’s tutelage strains credibility, especially in before-Miguel and after-Miguel scenes of Edee chopping wood. While the landscape and the ever-changing seasons are significant to the film’s visual impact and as an important aspect of the plot, even the physical environment seems subordinated to the whims of the plot with the bad weather, the wolves and the bear bothering Edee before she meets Miguel and everything brightening up and the bad animals staying away after she meets Miguel. There is much in the script that seems forced and not a little hokey, especially when Edee meets Miguel for (spoiler alert) the final time and they both reveal to each other the reasons why they did what they believed they had to do, that brought them together in the first place.

Of course the physical environment of the Rockies is essential to making this very minimally styled and structured film work and to give the impression of the passage of time. The dialogue is very sparse which I consider detracts from the realism the film attempts to show: in real life, Edee would have been talking to herself a lot as she encounters one trial after another. Voice-over narration by Wright would have added another, perhaps deeper and thoughtful dimension to the film: Edee would be wondering why Miguel goes out of his way to help her and what he hopes to get out of helping and teaching her. A mystery and not a little frisson of tension could develop as to his intentions toward her. As it is, the film seems very circumscribed by its minimalist scope and the landscapes and cinematography are made to do the work of carrying the film.