BE WATER (DISNEY+) (2020)
SYNOPSIS: "Be Water" is a documentary chronicling the life of legendary actor and martial arts master, Bruce Lee. The film takes a look at Lee's early life in San Francisco and Hong Kong and adulthood in Seattle while teaching Kung Fu. Lee would return to Hong Kong and become an international superstar. Interviews and archival film illustrate Lee's charisma, passion, philosophy and dedication to his art.
There will never be enough documentaries, books and discussion on the late martial-arts superstar Bruce Lee for he will always remained a legend, an enigma after passing at the young age of 32.
Directed by acclaimed Vietnamese American filmmaker Bao Nguyen, Be Water is the latest documentary on the iconic actor. Mostly narrated by Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce and his wife, Linda Cadwell, the documentary takes viewers on a somewhat subtle, nuanced journey recounting the life of the short-lived man who thinks of himself as just a plain human being.
Bruce Lee Jun-fan was born in 1940, San Francisco but spent most of his growing years in Hong Kong before being sent back to the States by his father to further his studies. Lee was once a famous child actor and very much a troublemaker but his time in the States slowly turned him into a young, sought after martial-arts master in the Bay area while slowly finding his way into Hollywood.
According to the long list of interviewees including his students, Dan Inosanto, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, producer Andre Morgan, film critic Jeff Chang and his younger brother Robert, Lee was a man with a purpose, a man of principle all his life. His aim was to penetrate into Hollywood bringing along with him the rich vast Chinese culture. He frequently turned down roles that demeans Asians and he was strongly against racism.
In an ironic turn, nothing much has changed in the Hollywood system decades after his unfortunate passing. Most of the time, you still see a white actor or actress playing an Asian-oriented role. Remember Scarlett Johansson in the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell? If Lee is still alive today, he probably will be the first to stand up for this sort of unfair treatment. The final straw which led him to his eventual return to his native land came when Warner Bros refused to cast him in the leading role of Kung Fu (which subsequently went to the late David Carradine), a story idea that was initially conceived by him.
Beside discussion on racism, the documentary also touches ground on Lee’s philosophies which of course covers his famous Be Water analogy and his approach to martial-arts in general and his very own Jeet Kune Do. Despite Bao’s well-intention, the documentary seems more like a brief introduction and best-of compilation of the charismatic actor and martial-artist. Meaning to say, for long-time fans of Bruce Lee, they will not find anything new or exceptional right here while for those who are curious after watching Quentin Tarantino’s unflattering portrayal of Lee in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood will likely be surprised by the unfolding facts.
Perhaps hamstrung by the running time or out of respect for his love ones, Bao notably left out the discussion on actress Betty Ting, the actress who played quite a role on Lee’s last day on earth, We also got a fleeting glimpse at his son, Brandon who also tragically lost his life at the age of 28. Even the boss of Golden Harvest, the late Raymond Chow never received much running time even though he was the man that gave Lee his big break in Hong Kong.
Nevertheless, Be Water is a serviceable if not respectful documentary on Bruce Lee, a man whose legacy is cut short by his untimely passing in 1973. For more on Bruce Lee, we suggest you check out: Matthew Polly’s Bruce Lee: A Life.
Review by Linus Tee