Director Bao Nguyen On His Beautiful Bruce Lee Documentary For ESPN, ‘Be Water’

Bao Nguyen has made a beautiful documantary about the life of Bruce Lee, Be Water. What’s pretty remarkable about Bruce Lee is that everyone knows who Bruce Lee is, but unlike some other larger-than-life American icons, his life story isn’t as widely known. (Or that people might not even realize Lee was born in San Francisco and even is an American icon.) The film airs on ESPN this Sunday night and, ahead, Nguyen takes us through why he wanted to make a film about Bruce Lee’s life and why it’s so important for people to understand Lee’s life and what he means to so many people.

Obviously there’s a lot going on right now, but I do hope people see this. And you’ve made movies dealing with racial injustice…

I think it’s more important than ever, really, for these types of films to come out. Because in the time of COVID, we’ve learned that media culture, film, TV, these are the things that we go to for comfort, right? And we’re not able to interact with people face to face. We’re not able to talk to people in society. And watching something on television is kind of our only interaction with society. That’s the society that we’re seeing. So when we’re talking about Asians and Asian-Americans, a lot of the conversation that’s happening right now is kind of anti-Asian, into things that are surrounding COVID and a lot of harassment. And actually some things that I’ve gone through personally: just walking around in the middle of the COVID pandemic, being Asian and just looking different.

So I think having this film about Bruce Lee, about Bruce Lee’s story, particularly Bruce Lee as an Asian-American and a positive portrayal as an Asian-American is so important because this is what people will see. And they will understand that the story of the Asian-American is multifaceted. I think, again, the power of media and film and TV is that we’re able to see ourselves on screen as an Asian-American, as a person of color. When I see Bruce Lee, I see myself being able to be a hero, but also it allows other people – white Americans, African-Americans, all other types of Americans and people – to also see an Asian-American can be a hero, right? That’s what I’m hoping people get out of it by watching it at this time.

I rewatched Enter the Dragon, which I had not seen since I was a little kid, and it’s so different to watch as an adult. I was mesmerized by Bruce Lee’s screen presence and his line delivery. And it really made me sad what we lost when he passed. It’s hard not to imagine all the things he would have done.

Yeah, totally. I mean, I think one of the goals that he had when making Enter the Dragon was really breaking Hong Kong and Asian cinema to a wider audience in Hollywood. And because of his early death, that just kind of got stunted in a way – he wasn’t able to be that advocate for Asian representation on screen that he could’ve been. But the argument could be made the other way as well in terms of how he became a myth, icon, a symbol that lasts forever. And it’s cemented at his young age of 32. And he’s kind of become the James Dean, the Marilyn Monroe of Asian Americans. But, yeah, it’s hard. It’s sad not to know how much further could have representation at Hollywood gone if he was still alive and could have been that advocate?

But I mean, it’s funny, you mentioned watching Enter the Dragon now, because yeah, you witness his charisma: this is onscreen presence. Hollywood, with Green Hornet, they didn’t even see that they just saw him as an Asian guy. Or with Kung Fu. They couldn’t overcome his accent. When you have film and TV, such a visual medium, any execs should see him as something that’s extraordinary that appears on screen. And that’s kind of sad, too, that even with his charisma, that the racism in Hollywood is so systemic, so deeply rooted that they couldn’t see beyond that: being Asian, instead of him being extraordinary as a performer.

While quarantined, I’ve been watching a lot of Schwarzenegger movies, too. I’m not fully comparing the two, but they both do that that something special where you can’t take your eyes off of them.

Yeah, no, of course. And I mean, that’s what made me want to do this film. We’re having these same conversations about representation and inclusion and Bruce Lee – and that same conversation obviously was happening in the 1960s with Green Hornet and Kung Fu and all that. And you just see how charismatic and amazing Bruce Lee was. And you wonder: if he couldn’t make it with his onscreen presence, it fares very hard for any other person who doesn’t wear their race on their face. I don’t know many ways to make it in Hollywood. Because that’s the first thing that people see. It’s like this actor was telling me, in America for every job you can’t be judged by your appearance, the color of your skin. Except for in Hollywood, right?

You mentioned Kung Fu. Your film gets into how Bruce Lee was replaced with David Carradine. It’s weird thinking we could have had that entire series starring Bruce Lee.

Yeah. But I also think that because he wasn’t on Kung Fu, then he was able to make all those shows Hong Kong and then make Enter the Dragon. It’s hard to kind of think of all these hypotheticals…

Sure. But I couldn’t help but do it.

I’m with you, too. I mean I would like to have seen Bruce Lee in Kung Fu.

Another thing I didn’t realize that you get into is how he was treated in Hong Kong before he was famous. He’d go back and people weren’t always nice to him there, too. And I never realized that.

I mean, there was always this idea that he wasn’t treated cordially by everyone because he had European blood through his mother, but I wanted to kind of break it down to the people who knew him and kind of knew the story specifically, even like [Bruce Lee’s wife] Linda being treated poorly because she was a white American living in Hong Kong. And it just shows how much racial inequality is a part of all aspects of society, not just in America, but also in Hong Kong. And, yeah, I think that kind of informed the title of the film that Bruce Lee always kind of ran into these barriers, be it being Chinese in Hollywood or being American in Hong Kong, but he found a way to be like water and move around these obstacles.

And even the title of the film, you put that interview where he says that at the end of your film. I’ve noticed that something about Bruce Lee is he can say things that other people can’t. From other people, that might sound corny, but with him it’s like, oh, this guy knows what he’s talking about.

Oh, totally. I mean, I think he was one of a kind. There’s things Muhammad Ali can say, that Bruce Lee can say. And, yeah, it just comes with him being kind of sewn into the cultural fabric of global pop culture. His philosophy has become part of kind of everyday vernacular. And I think that was, again, that was one of the reasons I wanted to make this film, because I wanted to unpack all of that mythology of where did these quotes come from? What was his coming of age story? How did Bruce become Bruce Lee, in a way.

Bruce Lee was back in the zeitgeist last year with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Obviously Bruce Lee’s daughter did not like the portrayal. We know Tarantino loves Bruce Lee. I am curious what you thought of that?

I’m torn. As a filmmaker, I would never want to kind of tell another filmmaker what type of film they should make or self censor themselves in any way. My parents came from a communist regime in Vietnam where there’s still a lot of censorship in terms of film and culture. So yeah, I don’t judge on that. That’s obviously a fictionalized Tarantino version of Bruce Lee and ours is very different. It’s a documentary. It’s a more humanistic kind of a whole view of who Bruce Lee was as a person. And I think it’s part of the larger conversation that we need to have as artists on how we decide to depict, especially true to life characters, and what responsibilities we have.

Everyone has their own kind of set of responsibility, their understandings of what they need to bring to the ideas of representation. So I think knowing where it’s coming from – and again, as you said, Tarantino is a huge advocate for Asian cinema and Bruce Lee and I don’t think it came from a bad place. but I think sometimes we have to think about the responsibility of how we represent, especially characters of color on screen and film. If we think about kind of the larger context of cinema as a mainstream Hollywood film, that’s kind of a milestone of how an Asian American is portrayed in 2019 through kind of this sort of version of Bruce Lee. So, I think it’s all important to think about in context, but I never criticized his choice as a filmmaker, his artistic choice, but we have to delineate between what is the more honest and authentic story of who Bruce Lee was compared to a fictionalized version.

‘Be Water’ premieres Sunday, June 7th on ESPN at 9pm EST. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.