BE WATER

BE WATER

(director: Bao Nguyan; cinematographer: Caleb Heller; editor: Graham Taylor; music: Ton That An, Goh Nakamura; cast: Linda Lee Cadwell, Robert Lee, Andre Morgan, Leroy Garcia, Paul Heller, Diana Inosanto, Nancy Kwan, Sylvia Lai, Tony Liu, Angela Mao, Doug Palmer, Barney Scollan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dan Inosanto, Shannon Lee; Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Julia Nottingham, Bao Nguyen; ESPN; 2020-in English & Chinese with English subtitles if needed-USA/UK)

“Yet another documentary on the Hong Kong superstar Bruce Lee.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Bao Nguyan (“Live From New York!”) is a Vietnamese American filmmaker who is based in Los Angeles and Vietnam. He’s an admitted fanboy of Hong Kong superstar Bruce Lee. His documentary makes it over twenty in the last few decades on Lee. This is a most curious one because it’s a slickly made humanistic bio on the Chinese legendary martial arts expert and Hollywood star, who fought against Asian racism and broke down stereotypes about his people. Lee is recognized as the most influential martial arts fighter of all time and also is known as being the founder of Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid martial arts philosophy combining different combat disciplines that’s credited with paving the way for the modern-day mixed martial arts.

The film refuses to point out Bruce’s weaknesses, as it’s reverential in tone and falsely gives the impression that Bruce never erred on his rapid climb to the top.

But it’s a good thing that Bao gets Lee’s family involved in this project, something they didn’t do collectively for the other documentaries. Here they give informative interviews, such as the ones with Lee‘s wife (Linda Lee Cadwell), daughter (Shannon Lee) and brother (Robert Lee), someone who has rarely spoken openly about his brother. It should be noted that Lee’s son Brandon was a 28-year-old actor, who was killed in an accident on the set of “The Crow” in 1993.

After Bruce Lee’s tragic death from a brain ailment at the young age of 32, in 1973, we can observe that his influence still impacts many lives throughout the world some forty years later. Through some rich archival footage, stills and film clips of his movies, fights and intimate interviews (no talking heads), we revisit his life and try to see what made him such a revered figure, especially in the Asian community.

We learn that Lee was born in 1940 in San Francisco (making him an American citizen by birthright) while his Hong Kong residing opera singer father was on tour in America, but was raised in Hong Kong. He was a child actor in HK, but at 18 he was sent back to America to live with his older sister in SF after too many street fights. He soon left her residence to attend the University of Washington. After graduation, he was in Hollywood, where he found work as a waiter and a martial arts instructor. When the ambitious Lee at 25 got the part of Kato in the Green Hornet, he was married with a kid. He returned to HK to direct and star in four Kung-Fu films such as The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972) and Golden Harvest’s Way of the Dragon (1972). His well-crafted Enter The Dragon (1973) was his first Hollywood-based Kung-Fu film.

Controversy was stirred up over an unflattering fictionalized (but sworn to be true) version of Lee that was depicted in Quentin Tarantino’s recent epic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where a white stunt man on the set of the Green Hornet kicks Lee’s ass after being bullied by him. Bao’s film corrects that version and does everything it can to preserve Lee’s image as an iconic revolutionary Hollywood figure in the’60s and ’70s. He’s depicted as someone heroic who left his mark on changing the way Asians were stereotyped in Hollywood films. Though limited in scope, the film could be a good introduction to Bruce Lee for a new audience. As for the origins of the title, Lee as a philosopher spoke of the strength of water and its ability to take the shape of its container.

REVIEWED ON 3/3/2020  GRADE: B-

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