Interview: Bao Nguyen on Bruce Lee and the Fight That Never Ends in “Be Water”

Even if the images that open “Be Water” are something you’ve seen before, they surely won’t feel that way when you meet Bruce Lee looking utterly debonair in a suit, with a shirt and tie concealing the area that would normally feature his taut pectorals. Yet he is more exposed than ever — as his wife Linda Lee Cadwell will later remark this screen test for “The Green Hornet” shows “exactly who he was” when he radiates confidence, but the situation itself remains a slightly awkward one when he’s auditioning for the sidekick role of Kato, both considered a breakthrough role for any Asian-American actor and, when ultimately subservient to a white leading man, could help foster the model minority myth that had taken root in America.

“There are so many fans of Bruce Lee that have been looking for these [archival] things since he passed away 40 years ago, I never intended to make a film that [touted] ‘this is stuff that you’ve never seen before! This is stuff that was sensational,’” says Bao Nguyen, the director of “Be Water.” “My goal with the film was through the lens of him being an immigrant American, an Asian-American, as seen as the other and mostly understanding that history of the other American.”

Just as the power of Lee’s fists came from the weight of his entire body, Nguyen’s electrifying biography of the martial arts superstar is animated by its illustration of everything he had to overcome, having to leave the U.S. for Hong Kong to reinvent himself in the wake of finding limited opportunities after “The Green Hornet” was cancelled. Prone to fighting even as a young boy, Hong Kong couldn’t exactly feel like a homecoming when he was shuttled off by his father as a teen to Seattle to grow up with relatives after getting in too much trouble at school, and “Be Water” reflects Lee’s struggle to reconcile the influences of both cultures while feeling as if he wasn’t a part of either, ultimately feeling no obligation to a traditional way of doing things and seeing how various styles of martial arts could be blended into something unique and exciting.

Nguyen gets those closest to Lee to burnish his legend by making him more human, explaining how the motivation behind every career move was as well-considered as any punch he threw, and expertly pulls back time and again to show the systemic prejudices that he was battling against from the perception of Asians as an inferior race in America that began when the Chinese were brought in as cheap labor to work on the railroads, and alienated further when the Japanese and Vietnamese were seen as an enemy during successive wars, to the longstanding aversion within the Asian martial arts community to educate non-Asians. While Lee’s fighting skills have always been admired on screen, the film allows one to fully appreciate how he handled himself off of it and following a premiere at Sundance earlier this year, “Be Water” will be making waves when it premieres this Sunday on ESPN.

On the eve of the film’s network debut, Nguyen spoke about the daunting prospect of taking on the legend of the “Enter the Dragon” star and finding his own personal story inside of it, as well as gaining access to archives and stories that give a revelatory new view of the icon.

How did this come about?

It starts with my childhood memory of Bruce Lee. When I was a young boy, I wasn’t used to ever seeing heroes or leading men that looked like me onscreen, and I remember seeing “Enter the Dragon” on a Saturday afternoon on television. My mind was just kind of blown seeing Bruce Lee in all his charisma and confidence and energy, and he looked like me, which was really awe-inspiring. My parents were Vietnamese war refugees [that] came to America and I was always used to seeing the Asian depicted as the enemy in Vietnam war films or as the sidekick, so that always had a lasting impression. Over the years, having the fortune to become a filmmaker, I wanted to tell stories that came through a personal and honest perspective, but at the same time, said something about American iconography and cultural institutions that maybe we want to learn more about. So Bruce Lee was always a person I knew the name of, but I wanted to do a film that looked at his struggles and unpack the myth of who Bruce Lee was and figure out who Bruce was.

One of the revelations for me was understanding how he was really pulled between two cultures and couldn’t feel completely at home in either one, though I know his place in the culture has always been complicated. Is that something you were aware of from the start?

I knew it on a very surface level perspective, but I didn’t know specifically and I wanted to hear about his personal reactions and the fears and insecurities, [like] what he felt when someone told him he couldn’t be a hero because of what he looked like. It was important for me to dive deep into the racial history of America, especially through the lens of an Asian-American because Bruce Lee was an Asian-American. People [see] him to be this global icon and they lose sight of the fact he was seen as Asian in many eyes when in fact he was living [in America, so [I wanted to ask] what did it mean to be an Asian-American in the 1960s and to understand Hollywood at that moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s where someone with the charisma and onscreen presence of Bruce Lee would be rejected.

The way you fold in that history while keeping the film moving forward seems like a real challenge you handled beautifully in how you’ll see a moment and extrapolate the cultural attitudes that fed into it. What was it like to crack the structure?

It was important to set up the film in the world that we know Bruce Lee as this big martial arts star and as an icon, but then quickly unravel that, so that’s why we start him going to his premiere in Hong Kong of “The Big Boss.” He still has that anxiety of not knowing if the audience is going to accept the film or not, but then quickly he becomes this big star in Asia and then we go back and kind of reverse engineer all that because for the most part, I don’t think people know all the obstacles that he faced. They just assume that Bruce Lee was always a big star and didn’t face any challenges when he was coming up, so it was important to demystify things.

I also didn’t want to tell the story in a linear fashion because I felt that would maybe feel too predictable in terms of just as a viewer. As a filmmaker, I always appreciate stories that interweave between the past and present a bit and it was important that we were always in the time that Bruce Lee was living. We’re never jumping forward to a talking head interview shot in the modern day. Nothing feels nostalgic like someone is remembering a Bruce Lee story, but they’re living that story in the imagery that we see through the archival footage. I wanted it to flow like water. [laughs]

You went to great lengths to find some of the material — I understand the Hong Kong period was particularly difficult. What was it like to get your hands on some of that?

Sadly, the culture of archiving in Hong Kong is not as robust as it is in the west and Hong Kong is a very dense city, so it’s more of a logistical issue where they don’t have room to store all these film canisters or old tapes, so a lot of things are recorded over or discarded and there’s probably tons of Bruce Lee interviews that were discarded or taped over because people wouldn’t know he would be such an icon because he passed away so unexpectedly. Finding that archive was difficult, but there are really great organizations like the Hong Kong Film Archive that were extremely helpful in our search in terms of finding his older films and talking to the actors and actresses that lived in Hong Kong or resided in Hong Kong at the same time as Bruce Lee and worked with him.

And everywhere was a challenge, to be honest. People have been gathering Bruce Lee footage for 40 years, so as soon as they find something, they put it on the Internet, so this was more about finding the stories that were rare or not as well known. Like Amy Sanbo, his first girlfriend in America, had never spoken about Bruce Lee on camera. She did an interview decades ago for print, but that interview [she did for the film] was really insightful because it helps inform Bruce Lee’s identity as an Asian-American. Amy was someone who lived in the internment camps during World War II and really helped Bruce understand what it meant to be Asian in America, especially at that really volatile time in our country’s history, and also hearing about Bruce Lee getting his heart broken and redirecting his ambition more towards his school and a little away from love — [those are] stories that you can’t get from anyone else but the people who knew him most intimately.

Thinking back to your history of “Saturday Night Live,” “Live From New York,” it seemed like you might be leaning towards an all-archival treatment even then and it really gives an intimacy to the film here. Was it any different to go full-tilt in that direction? [Minor Spoilers Ahead]

From the beginning, I knew that’s how I wanted the film to be, that I wanted to immerse the audience in the world of Bruce Lee and I think talking heads work best when someone’s reciting a story that’s still pretty current. But a lot of the people that we’re speaking to were older. Bruce Lee would’ve been 80 this year and you get lost a bit in the moment of Bruce Lee in his twenties when you jump back to someone in their late seventies or eighties. So it was a very cognizant choice from very early on for me and I think the ending, where we do finally see the faces was a bit more poignant. When I see that ending, I think what would Bruce Lee have looked like in his eighties if he was still living today?

Since this movie does speak to the moment that we’re in as far as representation in the media, was this influenced at all by the cultural conversation that was happening during the time you were making it?

The film premiered at Sundance and times have definitely changed since Sundance. [laughs] But if a film can feel timely and timeless at the same time, I think it’s achieved a lot and that was my goal. In no way would I have thought what has happened since Sundance and it’s a little disheartening that the film is timely because we’re having these same conversations about civil rights and representation and how we treat our fellow human beings because of what they look like — that it’s not just on screen, but very much in society. I hope that what we can take away with the film is that Bruce always saw people for who they are rather than where they came from or what they looked like and there is this importance of learning from your neighbor. There’s a value in knowing each other and treating each other kindly.

“Be Water” will air on ESPN on June 7th at 9 pm EST and available to stream on ESPN+