ESPN film puts Bruce Lee’s rise in cul­tural con­text

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - THIS WEEKEND - BY MICHAEL ORDONA Los An­ge­les Times

“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

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