Park City, Ut. | Filmmaker Bao Nguyen didn’t mince words when we sat down in a house not far from where his documentary about Bruce Lee, called “Be Water,” premiered at Sundance this week.
Nguyen idolized Lee as a young man because there were rather few Asian and Asian-American actors on U.S. television and in movies in those days. When Lee was trying to get his start in Hollywood, World War II was only a few decades in the rearview, the Korean War had happened only years earlier, and the situation in Vietnam was rapidly heating up.
“Bruce has always been one of my heroes [as] it’s been difficult for people of color in front of the camera and behind the camera,” Nguyen said. “Bruce persevered to make it in Hollywood to a point. I wanted to unpack that story of [Lee’s] struggles. And there’s never a bad time to make a Bruce Lee film.”
Nguyen’s parents escaped Vietnam during its lengthy conflict, and they were subsequently sent to a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was also Lee’s home, where he started out as a child actor before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was eighteen. Nguyen, who is based in Los Angeles and Vietnam, said he felt a particularly bi-continental connection to the late martial arts star.
“Very few documentaries I have seen have both Chinese and American voices,” he said, “and we were very cognizant that Bruce’s story isn’t just all about America or all about Hong Kong. He’s this trans-Pacific figure.”
Lee was in fact born in California to Chinese parents, making him an American citizen by birthright. The family moved back to Hong Kong, where Lee followed his father into showbiz but was on the path to delinquency in his teens. His parents sent him back to the Bay Area, where he washed dishes and took menial jobs before training others in martial arts—one of the few who would train non-Asians.
“I felt like I’ve always known the name ‘Bruce Lee’ and I’ve seen his films, [but] I knew very little about his life,” Nguyen said. “Unpacking that myth was important.”
Indeed, Lee’s short life is surrounded by myth and conspiracy theory given that he died suddenly of a brain ailment in 1973—only thirty-two years old—just as his first Western film, “Enter the Dragon,” was about to break wide—and which would have all but certainly established him in America as well as Asia.
Lee, who was born in 1940, would have turned eighty this year, and his living contemporaries are elderly—another reason Nguyen wanted to make the documentary. “Be Water” features interviews with Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, and Lee’s daughter, Shannon. (Lee’s son, Brandon, became an actor in his own right and was tragically killed in an accident on the set of “The Crow” in 1993. He was 28.)
“People are better older. People are forgetting the stories that made up who [Lee] was,” Nguyen said of his desire to get Cadwell, Shannon Lee and others to share their stories of Bruce now—even if they were initially hesitant.
“Be Water” opens with Lee seen in a black-and-white screen test in the late sixties. In a suit and tie he is made to turn this way and that, as if a prop. But his face comes alive when asked to demonstrate moves from Kung Fu, the style of martial arts he studied in Hong Kong. Lee comes within inches of striking a hapless white-haired exec, who flinches each time. Lee then breaks out in a huge grin and claps the man on the back as if to say “hey, man, I know you thought I might hit you.”
Producer Julia Nottingham, seated next to Nguyen, said that the film evolved from a straight-ahead biography into one that was more personal for Nguyen and his identity as an Asian American.
“I think that really comforted [the Lee family] and was something [they] were really encouraging of,” she said of getting Lee’s family on board for Nguyen to interview them.
“I [didn’t] grow up with enough people onscreen who [were] Asian [or] Asian American,” added Nguyen. “I think in film and TV, there’s such an opportunity to create new mythologies and new worlds that can put Asian people in the forefront.”
Lee certainly has his fanbase in the 21st century, and thus he continues to appear in popular culture in unexpected ways, such as in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Times…in Hollywood,” where Lee was portrayed by actor Mike Moh. In Tarantino’s film, Lee is tossed like a ragdoll by stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
“At the end of the day, filmmakers are allowed to make their own choices and [Tarantino] made that choice,” Nottingham said. “If you’ve seen ‘Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,’ you should definitely see our film [where] you will see the version of Bruce that we discovered through documentary filmmaking.”
The filmmakers have shown Lee’s family a cut of the doc, and say Linda Lee Cadwell and Shannon Lee were both pleased with the result.
“It took years of building trust and relationships to get to that point,” Nguyen said. “You can never make a definitive film about anyone, at least not in 105 minutes. But [Shannon] understood this was my vision, and she was there to help provide…archival [material] and [Bruce’s] writing to make it more rich and intimate.”
“Linda hadn’t done an interview for a very long time,” said Nottingham, adding that the widow’s participation was a gift to “Be Water.”
The Hong Kong of Lee’s lifetime has been replaced by the former British colony engulfed in seemingly endless protests against iron-hand rule from the Mainland. Protests have often turned violent, with Beijing-backed authorities coming down hard as the territory, which officially rejoined China in 1997, continues to walk the divide between East and West.
“I’m very concerned about it. I have a lot of friends there,” Nguen said. “Hong Kong’s history has always been one of wanting to be free and wanting to feel empowered in its own way.
“For us it was very important that the Hong Kong side of the story was presented. I think it does [sometimes] get lost.”
Bruce Lee was an American, even if he faced continual prejudice for being ethnically Chinese and speaking heavily accented English. Lee, Ngyuen said, was a great “immigrant” success, and it is this type of story that needs to be at the forefront as there continues to be a backlash against immigration in Washington.
“He’s this perfect example of an immigrant American who fulfilled his American dream in the end by telling his story in a way through his films,” Nguyen said.
“Bruce did have this universal sense of ‘belonging’ and the fact that we’re all” connected in some way, added Nottingham. “I really hope [‘Be Water’] will resonate far and wide, even if you’re not connected to Asian American history.”
Eric Althoff is in Park City, Ut., all week covering the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (@singerwriterEFA)