ESPN film puts Bruce Lee’s rise in cultural context
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water,” said Bruce Lee of a revelation that unlocked a deeper, more spiritual level of martial arts for him. “Now you put water in 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. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
The new ESPN “30-for-30” documentary by Bao Nguyen, “Be Water,” explores the changes Lee went through in the seemingly many lives he lived. Opening and closing with his triumphant return to Hong Kong, and charting the less glorious stops in between, the film benefits from the participation of those closest to Lee and unearths intriguing archival footage. “Be Water” examines the actor adapting to several environments — notably the extremely racially restrictive Hollywood of the 1960s — until his “flow” becomes a tidal wave of superstardom.
The film seizes on the opportunity to reach ESPN’s audience, providing context for America’s treatment of Asians rarely addressed on the network. Given the time restrictions of a 96-minute documentary, “Be Water” does yeoman’s work in surveying the (gold) mountain Lee had to climb. Perhaps, given current events, viewers might be more open to understanding that struggle now.
There are glimpses of his relentless training and the physical feats he reeled off as casually as most people walk. There are intimate views of his home life, with him mooning over his kids. There are the obligatory frames of celebrities learning from him. But mostly, it’s his incredible martialarts prowess that never ceases to amaze. In an early screen test, his movements are too fast for the camera to capture: He’s a literal blur of power and precision.
No remarkable life can be captured in one film, and Nguyen is wise to focus on a few areas, but there are painful gaps. The essence of what made Lee’s creation, Jeet Kune Do, unique is barely touched on. The never-completed film that surely would have been his masterpiece, “Game of Death,” gets only a passing mention. (For viewers curious about Lee’s artistic philosophy, the documentary “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey” attempts to reconstruct his vision of that film.) And “Be Water” ends without fully conveying his social impact.
The doc is respectful, perhaps to a fault: It includes friends admitting Lee could be difficult, but moves on without detail. It takes a similarly discreet step around at least one of his apparent relationships.
But Nguyen — assisted by Lee’s widow, daughter and friends, including Dan Inosanto and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — succeeds in going deeper where other Lee profiles have trod lightly: The context of his struggle against racism in America, and his emergence as a superstar in Hong Kong.
For Lee fans, that makes “Be Water” a must-watch. For the curious, it’s a fair introduction to the man who became a legend.
Rated: No MPAA
Playing: ESPN, streaming and on
Running time: 1:36