Twenty-six karate students circle the lone man. Hands flared open as he adjusts his wide striking stance, his eyes dart from one opponent to the next, ready to react. Such is our mentally ingrained evocation of the late martial artist and film actor Bruce Jun-Fan Lee.
Director Bao Nguyen’s documentary BE WATER , which world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, reveals Bruce Lee’s battle as one extending beyond the screen and into the 1960’s Hollywood film industry. Much like his solo FIST OF FURY confrontation of an entire Japanese dojo, Lee arrives in America alone, as himself: a teacher of martial arts, a student of the world, an Asian American male.
Nguyen’s film presents Lee’s state of mind as a stream of consciousness through varying seasons of his life, invoked through anecdotal accounts by his close acquaintances and archival footage of the four cities he inhabited. Most valuable are Lee’s handwritten letters narrated by his daughter Shannon Lee.
“It was always my intention that the viewer felt immersed in Bruce’s time period, perspective, and mindset. When we hear his writings and letters, we are essentially stepping into his point of view,” Nguyen said.
Contextualizing Lee’s mindset within 1960’s America, the film resurfaces several historical events that shaped the prevailing perception of an Asian face. Beginning with the ongoing Vietnam war and dating back to the abominable Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, this deep-seated anti-Asian discrimination manifested itself in Bruce’s Hollywood experience.
While describing Lee’s life as an on-going battle on and off the screen is an understatement, Nguyen’s humanistic portrayal of him is a timeless reminder of tenacity in the face of discrimination.
“Even with all the challenges he faced, he persisted and is an amazing example of a human being aiming towards their full potential,” Nguyen said.
In celebrating Lee’s 80th birthday, HIFF will host a free screening of Director Bao Nguyen’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary BE WATER, followed by an after-film panel featuring Director Nguyen, Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee, Angry Asian Man founder and culture writer Phil Yu, Chi-hui Yang of the Ford Foundation, and Momfuku founder and ‘Ugly Delicious’ host Dave Chang. Moderated by New York Magazine’s Chris Lee.
Mark your calendars for Friday, November 27, when BE WATER will be available to screen online in North America, starting at 3pm HST. Although FREE, a ticket is still required to view the film on HIFF’s streaming platform. Click here to book your ticket. Mahalo to ESPN and storyspaces for sponsoring this special event.