Sundance Review: BE WATER Captures A Multi-Faceted Bruce Lee

Sure, he was a legend, but he was also a human being.

It’s been a huge year for Bruce Lee.

Between his controversial portrayal in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, his ass-kicking portrayal in the action-packed Ip Man 4: The Finale, to this documentary, and even to the announced release of four of his films to The Criterion Collection… Bruce Lee just seems to be having a cultural moment. I won’t speculate as to exactly why that moment is occurring now, but I’d argue that there’s never been a time in my life when Bruce Lee wasn’t relevant-- never a time when he wasn’t hallowed and whispered about as an absolute legend. If Bruce Lee is on screen, then whatever is happening is electric.

Largely eschewing the legendary aspects of Bruce Lee's life and career, Be Water instead paints a very multi-faceted picture of Bruce Lee, the man. What’s fascinating is that, even some 40+ years after his death, Lee’s charisma, ambition, good looks, and potent philosophy still come bursting through the screen to almost work against Nguyen’s measured and humanizing approach. There were moments, interview clips, quotes, or fight scenes that simply caused my heart to skip a beat and revere the larger-than-life legend I was seeing up on the big screen. Bruce Lee can’t be contained!

Fortunately, even having passed away at the tragically young age of 32, his personal life was fascinating, accomplished, and worthy of the documentary treatment. Nguyen should be praised for trusting his instinct here and steering clear of any kind of hero worship or gossip fodder. Also noteworthy is that while many interviews are conducted, the “talking head” style so many docs slavishly adhere to is nowhere to be found. One keeps assuming the film will cut away to Shannon Lee, or Linda Lee Cadwell, or Kareem Abdul-Jabar. But instead we simply hear their voices (with an on screen identifier); visually we remain with whatever archival footage or stills are on screen. In the post-film Q&A, Nguyen addressed this as an intentional choice to put us in the time and place Bruce was in, and not pull us out into the modern day. This proves to be a very effective choice.

Exploring Bruce’s childhood, teenage years, married life, parenthood, and career… we’re treated to a broad yet thorough exploration of how his experiences and the historical contexts around him shaped and molded him. A few sequences stand out as particularly fascinating and underexplored when his legend is told. Bruce Lee was born in America and then starred in a number of Hong Kong films as a child actor. He was sent back to America at 18 to make his way on his own after a few too many Hong Kong street fights. Working as a waiter and a martial arts instructor, he largely worked his way up from nothing and was married with a kid by the time he was auditioning for Green Hornet at all of 25 years old. When American opportunities proved to be lacking, he quickly starred in (and even directed some) four Hong Kong kung fu films before triumphantly returning to America to star in (and have creative control of) Enter The Dragon. Somewhere in there he founded multiple martial arts schools, created Jeet Kune Do, wrote and studied, and trained and learned from a hodgepodge of Hollywood hoi polloi. Lee’s life was just a series of wonders that happened amidst a generation of political upheaval that informed and impacted him.

There’s no way to tell the definitive story of Bruce Lee. His life is too large to be pinned down by one documentary. Be Water displays wisdom in what it chooses to highlight and what new nuggets of Lee’s story are worth bringing to new audience. Meanwhile, it trusts in the primal charisma of its subject. While his son Brandon’s tragic accidental death and the wide array of conspiracies and disrespectful knock offs produced in the wake of Bruce’s death are largely avoided, Be Water nevertheless feels as intimate and expansive as a feature length doc probably ever could. Fans of Bruce Lee will almost certainly find much to enjoy here, and it seems inevitable that new fans will also be made.