Sundance documentary ‘Be Water’ aims to show the man underneath the legend of Bruce Lee |

Sundance documentary ‘Be Water’ aims to show the man underneath the legend of Bruce Lee

The Sundance documentary “Be Water” aims to give audiences a more intimate look at Bruce Lee than what they saw on screen in his martial arts films.
Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

“Be Water,” an entry in the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition, is set to screen at the following times and locations:

Saturday, Jan. 25, 2:30 p.m., The MARC Theatre

Sunday, Jan. 26, 9:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Center, Salt Lake City

Monday, Jan. 27 at 9:45 p.m., The Ray Theatre

Thursday, Jan. 30, noon, Redstone Cinemas 7

Friday, Jan. 31, 6 p.m., Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, Sundance Resort

Saturday, Feb. 1, 8:30 a.m., Prospector Square Theatre

Make no doubt about it — this was personal for director Bao Nguyen.

Nguyen, the child of Vietnamese war refugees, gave up a career in law to pursue his passion for film — a decision that he doesn’t regret.

Everything Nguyen has worked for culminated in his latest film, “Be Water,” a documentary about martial artist and actor Bruce Lee returning to Hong Kong in 1971 to achieve the stardom that eluded him in America before his death in 1973. “Be Water” is an entry in the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition and marks Nguyen’s first appearance at the festival.

“I’m Asian American, so to me, Bruce Lee is one of those heroes that I connected with immediately on how he looks and appears on screen,” Nguyen said. “There aren’t many Asian American heroes, so watching him on TV as I grew up was brand new to me. His story was one I didn’t know, so I wanted to explore how he broke through Hollywood following his death.”

Nguyen said that, through his research, he learned how difficult it was to be Asian American during the 1960s and 1970s, especially as someone trying to break into acting. So telling Lee’s story in a different way from others who’ve attempted to tell it was important to him. He said it was important to acknowledge what Lee overcame to achieve greatness and a continuing place in the culture decades after his early death.

“I’ve always wanted to explore stories that were personal and could speak to a larger audience. … And lately there’s been a lot of talk about diversity on screen, so I felt that this movie about him would be right,” Nguyen said. “There are so many people out in the world who have different affections for him, so making a personal film about him that’s also not related to him, it just connects with me and hopefully others.”

If he were still alive, Lee would turn 80 this year, so the timing of the movie couldn’t have been better for Nguyen. The people who knew Lee personally are getting older, which made it imperative for Nguyen to make the film as soon as possible.

He credits his team for going through old footage to tell the story. He wanted to build an immersive world that would make viewers feel as if they’re living in a story, one in which they’re seeing Lee in the present tense, brought back to life, rather than the legendary figure audiences have come to know.

“There are so many intimate stories about him as a person that people don’t know compared to the legend, the mythical martial artist,” Nguyen said. “That’s the story my team and I wanted to show. It was difficult because back then, people didn’t have iPhones shooting everything. Finding the archival films and bringing those to new life with the relative interviews. … Building that story from the past was the goal.”

Nguyen said he found success with the film because of the questions he asked to those who knew Lee. For decades, the same people have been asked the same questions about Lee — but Nguyen wanted to dig deeper. His questions were more personal in nature and enticed the interviewees to open up and help show off a different side of Lee that has never been portrayed before.

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