directed by Bao Nguyen
by Walter Chaw Bao Nguyen's Bruce Lee documentary Be Water is a moving hagiography of a legend immortalized by his sudden death at the beginning of his career. He reminds of James Dean in that respect, captured in amber as this eternally young punk icon for the disenfranchised, the alienated, the frustrated. He was a point of pride for Asian-Americans and became a peculiar rallying point for African-Americans, too. The pressure for me to write favourably about this film is crippling and depressing. It occurred to me not to review it at all. Bruce Lee's legacy is complicated. He was someone I lionized when I was a kid. Slight, wiry, he looked like me when I was little. That he could become something so huge in my imagination was to me extraordinary. If he, with his heavy accent and ferociously Chinese demeanour, could refuse to assimilate and yet rise, maybe this country meant what it said. You know what, though? It doesn't mean what it says.
The other part of the problem with all the Bruce Lee documentaries is that they've tended to further the sanctification of his legend without doing much to illuminate the fullness of the man. There's a part where his daughter, Shannon, says, "I'm sure he was at times a very challenging person," and that's really the extent of any depth granted Lee. Linda says at another point that the times during which they were struggling financially and getting shut out of Hollywood were good times in the sense that Bruce was around and able to spend time with his children. This implies that he was not around for them when his star was on the rise. Or maybe it doesn't. It's hard to read between the lines when there's only one line. Particularly unfortunate, I think, is the conversation around "Kung Fu", a show he developed but that wound up starring David Carradine, late of Kill Bill fame, instead of Bruce. Neither Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nor some producer can remember Carradine's name. As presented in the film, it suggests that Lee was replaced by a nobody whose name is no longer remembered today. It's cheap and unnecessary.
I loved the conversation about bias, but it's not a fulsome conversation. There's talk of how Lee may have underestimated the monster he was up against--a "bamboo wall" that has prevented not only Lee but also guys like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Chow Yun-Fat from breaking through into the American marketplace. But then there's a quick qualification that Lee, of course, was not naive about what remains an insurmountable barrier. I love a flash of playwright Frank Chin railing against the absolutely intractable, "mind-wrecked" tension of being Asian-American--but, again, he's undercut immediately by a voiceover platitude about centring and the lexical shift from the word "Oriental" to the term "Asian-American." The connection between this shift and Bruce Lee's legacy is tenuous at best when the film so desperately positions Lee as a cultural ambassador for his Chinese heritage. I think he wanted to showcase Chinese culture and have Americans accept it. I'm not hearing the greater discussion centred around Asian-American acceptance here.
The question that needs asking is why Bruce Lee's signature vocalizations are a favourite taunting strategy amongst schoolyard bullies. Did Lee help Asian-American men seem virile and dangerous? Or has his persona been marginalized as further proof of an alien "otherness" to be weaponized against Asian-Americans? Be Water takes great pains to imply that Lee, in his desperation to break into Hollywood, never accepted roles that were humiliating to Asians. And yet in Marlowe, a film mentioned in passing that starred Lee's friend James Garner, Lee's character is taunted into jumping off a building by the suggestion that he's gay. The powerful point could have been that even Bruce Lee had to pay the bills. More than powerful, the humanizing point: the grounding anecdote that could be practical for Asian-Americans struggling under the "model minority" myth. Alas, no. Like a character from his movies, he "felt the sting" of rejection. He was "hurt and disgusted" and turned those slights into his motivation--complete with dramatic music in Be Water--to return to Hong Kong and become, indeed, an international star. Why? Because he was recognized as Kato on short-lived "The Green Hornet" series, which the film has immediately prior referred to as something like a humiliating sidekick role.
Be Water is hamstrung by its unwillingness to take a hard look at Lee's actual, defining battle against racism in the U.S. and Hong Kong. In the film's epilogue, Shannon gets emotional as she remembers him helping her navigate being of mixed race, and that's the story I want to hear. Lee is our icon. He's ours. I don't care to hear more about his Asian mystical wisdom nor his superhuman training regimen and drive. I watched his movies obsessively to the point of fetishism. Judging by the wear on certain parts of the tapes I borrowed every week from the local video store, I wasn't the only one. The first suit I owned was modelled after the simple black one with the narrow fit he wore for his audition reel. Yet Lee's legacy is complex--complicated not just by how white culture has mutated and appropriated him, but, too, by how African-American culture ran with it, from blaxploitation through to the Wu-Tang Clan--and how the Hong Kong film industry seemingly overnight produced endless knock-offs from artists like "Bruce Li" and "Tiger Lee" in a subgenre of martial arts movies dubbed "Bruceploitation." Asian-American men are not in a substantively better place now because of Bruce Lee, so let's consider why that might be. The film touches on Hollywood's refusal to suffer Asian men kissing white women in Bruce's day. Until the last couple of years, that's held true. I think it's premature, in other words, to declare this fight won.
Bruce Lee's story is tragic in both the obvious sense and the sense that he still has not been accepted as a human being with faults that defeated him, with fears he could not overcome, and with ugly truths that his posthumous fame may have inflamed. It's analogous to the Obama presidency in that the worst are emboldened while the white ally has felt they've done enough because they have that Shepard Fairey/Enter the Dragon poster hanging in their guest bathroom. There's a good story to be told here concerning an exceptional human being who nevertheless couldn't change things for the better. Be Water isn't that story. Instead, it's more careful cultivation of Lee's cult of personality. The thing about Lee is that his legend is so huge it can withstand humanizing. There's a snippet herein of Muhammad Ali talking about his refusal to fight in Vietnam; why go there to kill other poor people when Americans, white Americans, won't even protect and respect him in his own country? It reminds that Ali, another towering figure, is remembered as much for being a great boxer as for being an outspoken champion of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Bruce spoke of the strength of water and its ability to take the shape of its container. Hidden dragon, ne c'est pas? But what do I do now that I want to come out of hiding? Programme: U.S. Documentary Competition