Bao Nguyen’s documentary doesn’t lack bite—there are moments when the talking heads (none of whom are seen until the end credits) speak of the “preferred minority” racism Lee faced while forging a career in Hollywood and a life in America. But far too often “Be Water” remains strictly in fan-pleasing territory. I have been a huge fan of Bruce Lee since I first saw “Enter the Dragon” on a double feature with Jim Kelly’s “Hot Potato” back in 1976. So, I was completely susceptible to every moment of fan service presented here, and was interested in every word Lee had to say about his own life and his philosophy. He is why I went into martial arts as a young man, and as such I have much affection for him. Viewed solely through that lens, this is a successful documentary, an introduction to Lee that cherishes him and provides enough clips to satiate those who love his films.
But, as Nguyen navigates through Lee’s life, sometimes aided by his daughter’s reading of his letters, we sense how much richer the arc of this man’s life was, and we want to know the details more intimately. Here was a man who was born into American citizenship in San Francisco, whisked back to Hong Kong where he became a child acting star and a self-proclaimed hoodlum, then sent back to San Francisco where he started schools of martial arts while trying to break into movies in Hollywood. He then returned to Hong Kong where a legend was born with several films, including one he directed, “The Way of the Dragon,” where he fought a young Chuck Norris. If that weren’t enough, he returned to a Hollywood that rejected him to star in his last film, the success of which he never got to see due to his untimely death in 1973.
This is a life that doesn’t need embellishment nor extra drama. It’s also imperfect, as all lives are, filled with trials and tribulations. “Be Water” never fully interrogates these lest the viewer see the full human underneath or is forced to deal with the more unsavory elements of being Asian and in Hollywood. These ideas are touched upon, to be sure, but it always feels like the film pulls away just when things are about to get complicated. For example, the then-head of Warner Bros. discusses why “Kung Fu,” the series Lee created that would eventually star David Carradine, didn’t star Lee. We’re told that America “wasn’t ready” for a Asian lead, even after Lee achieved some fame as sidekick Kato on the television show, “The Green Hornet.” The WB exec is allowed to just kind of let this travesty go unchecked without further inspection, as if he were saying “Que sera sera” about casting a White actor in the lead.