In ‘Be Water’, Bao Nguyen looks at the giant shadow cast by Bruce Lee


Bao Nguyen loved to watch movies while he was growing up, but as a child of the 1980s, the options were not as robust as they are in 2020.

Nguyen remembers stumbling upon a film from a decade before he was born, the Bruce Lee martial arts classic “Enter the Dragon.” The movie made an immediate impression on Nguyen, but it wasn’t Lee’s high-flying kung fu moves that made the deepest impact on the preteen viewer.

“I was just blown away,” Nguyen said. “I’d never seen a lead actor who looked like me. I couldn’t get over the fact that he was the film’s hero. He wasn’t the villain. He wasn’t a sidekick. He was a confident leading man. Growing up in America, I was not used to seeing this type of depiction of Asian males.”

Nguyen would eventually become part of the film industry himself. Over a little more than a decade, he has directed 11 documentaries, from short films to features, and worked on several movies in other production roles. He still sees obstacles within the business for Asians, but Nguyen credits Lee for making the earliest inroads in opening those doors.

For Nguyen, there’s a fascination with how Lee was able to become an action movie star in the 1970s — a theme he explores throughout his latest documentary, “Be Water,” a 30 for 30 film that premieres on ESPN on June 7.

“I think sometimes it’s lost, with Bruce Lee being such a household name today,” Nguyen said. “But at the time he was trying to make it in America, it was a difficult period for Asian Americans.”

Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 while his parents were on a theater tour with his father’s Cantonese opera troupe. The family returned to Hong Kong when Bruce was 3 months old, and he lived there until he was 18, by which time his father had introduced him to the movie business and Lee had appeared in 20 films. He studied Wing Chun, a style of kung fu, and found himself in many street fights. As a result, in 1961 his parents sent Lee to San Francisco to live with his sister and stay out of trouble.

Upon his arrival, Lee faced discrimination built upon fears and stereotypes that were stoked as wars and conflicts positioned the United States opposite Japan, Korea, China and Vietnam.

“He arrived during an era of negative images of Asians,” Nguyen said. “Americans kind of lumped together what all Asians looked like. We wear our race on our face, right?

“It was easy to make all Asians out to be the villain,” Nguyen said.

Lee soon moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, and he began teaching martial arts on campus. He bucked Chinese tradition by teaching both Chinese and non-Chinese students. He welcomed anyone who was interested in learning. And as it turned out, Lee learned as much as he taught.

“He wanted to bring his culture here and show its beauty,” said Matthew Polly, author of “Bruce Lee: A Life” (2018, Simon & Schuster), whom Nguyen consulted with during the filmmaking process. “He was trying to establish kung fu in the United States, but a lot of his early students were street fighters with various backgrounds. Boxing. Judo. And they were bigger than he was. He quickly realized he had to modify the martial art that he had learned, so it would be effective not just against 5-foot-8 Chinese guys like him. That set him down the path of adapting, of being fluid.”

Like water.

The film’s title is drawn from a Lee quote that encompasses his philosophy about martial arts and life itself: “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless — like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Lee and his philosophies became an inspiration for millions of martial artists, including a generation of fighters who would embody the multifaceted approach to fighting that Lee embraced.

“He wasn’t rigid about fighting forms, instead mixing styles from his various influences,” Nguyen said. “For that, many fighters look up to him.”

Polly insists that if not for Lee, the sport of MMA would not even exist.

“If it hadn’t been for the explosion of interest that Bruce Lee generated, there would have been no martial arts community for the UFC to appeal to,” Polly said.

Before “Enter the Dragon” became a $90 million box-office sensation, according to Polly’s research, there were just a couple hundred martial arts studios spread across the United States. By the 1990s, there were 20 million kids taking martial arts classes. Those families represented a fertile breeding ground for a fan base when, in 1993, a family of jiu-jitsu masters from Brazil created the UFC.

“If the Gracies are the Jesus of mixed martial arts, Bruce Lee was the John the Baptist,” Polly said. “He was the one who pointed the way to what was coming. But he died before it came.”

Lee died of cerebral edema at the age 32 on July 20, 1973 — a month before the theatrical release of the film that made him a cultural icon, “Enter the Dragon.”

“Like Water” documents not just Lee’s rise to iconic stature but the difficulties he faced along the way. A martial arts demonstration by Lee in Southern California in the mid-’60s caught the attention of a television producer, and Lee was cast as Kato — the martial artist sidekick — in “The Green Hornet.” But the show lasted only one season. And when Lee later auditioned for the Shaolin monk lead role in a new series called “Kung Fu” — based on a concept that Lee’s widow insists he developed — he was passed over for non-Asian actor David Carradine.

A disillusioned Lee returned to Hong Kong to star in martial arts films, and it was the success of those movies that brought him back to Hollywood. By that time, Lee had enough sway to insist that his roles were authentic, steering away from old movie stereotypes of Asian characters as villainous or subservient.

Lee’s impact and influence extended well beyond his untimely death. His movies eventually reached Bao Nguyen, who was born to Vietnamese parents in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1983.

“As the child of refugees, there’s a particular burden we experience,” Nguyen said. “We’re expected to find a stable job, to make sure our parents’ journey was worth it.”

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