Bruce Lee Documentary Be Water Flows into San Diego
October 25, 2020
A guest post by Dr. Craig Reid
November, 1971, Bruce Lee appears on the TV show Longstreet as the jeet kune do shifu, Li Tsung, who teaches the title character the true meaning of martial arts. In one scene, Li tells Longstreet that if he plans to bite someone during combat that would be a good way to lose his teeth. When Longstreet complains there’s so much to remember, using a line written by Lee and Stirling Silliphant, Li philosophizes, “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Now if you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or creep or drip or crash. be water, my friend.”
It’s been 49 years in the making and now the tenet premise from that fleeting yet not forgotten TV moment has become the title of director Bao Nguyen’s Be Water (2020), an ESPN “30 for 30” film that covers Lee’s life, career and martial arts philosophy.
What separates Be Water from other Bruce Lee documentaries is the lack of narration. Instead, Bao provides insights via rarely seen videos and home movies; diary entries; letters to friends; and interviews with Lee’s students, a former girlfriend, his daughter Shannon Lee, his brother Robert Lee and his widow Linda Lee Caldwell.
Bruce’s existence has been metaphysically, thematically, and shaped by water. When his parents got married, his father, then known as Moon Lee, was renamed by his opera mentor to Lee Hoi Chuen (Hoi means sea and Cheun means stream). Bruce was born during a freak hurricane-like deluge in San Francisco. As a pre-teen, Bruce didn’t know how to swim until his friend Choi (aka The Little Unicorn) taught Bruce how to swim. Yet after the traumatic experience of almost drowning in deep water, Bruce never swam again. Feng Shui (Wind Water) is based on how one’s environs can create good or bad chi flow. On July 18, 1973, during a typhoon, a bad Feng Shui deflector of Bruce’s Hong Kong’s home was blown away. Days later, Lee passed away.
Yet the most powerful influence water had on Bruce’s life, was the premise of Be Water. Prior to moving to America in 1959, Bruce became progressively introspective, perhaps a measure of the growing challenge awaiting him, a bigger challenge that he felt he couldn’t handle. Bruce turned to martial arts for answers. Yet how could he find an answer when he didn’t know the question?
Despite Bruce’s fear of water, for reasons only he knew, fate found him alone, without a life jacket, in a small fishing boat in the middle of a lake. The boat drifting aimlessly on the lake’s surface, the willows wafting in the light breeze, Bruce calmly laid down in the boat and draped his arm over the side, letting his fingers melt into the cool water. With his body becoming one with the current, a chill enveloped his body, an epiphany. Eyes glazed, a man deep in thought, his body in slow motion, Bruce subliminally rowed back to shore to his awaiting brother.
Robert looked at Bruce’s content face and asked what’s going on. Bruce assuredly smiled saying, “The breeze, the willows, the water…this is what martial arts is all about…you have to be like water to survive. It penetrates rock and is the strongest substance in the world.” This moment of enlightenment for Bruce, to be like water, gave him the strength to tackle anything, and would become one of his most famous philosophical doctrines that he shared with the world as a way to describe one’s approach to life and martial arts.
Be Water also details the racism Bruce faced in Hollywood, most notably Lee’s 1968 submission of an 8-page treatment entitled Ah Sahm (aka Warrior, which has become a hit TV series on Cinemax, now currently in its second season) to Warner Brothers. Set in 1870s America, Ah Sahm was about a Chinese immigrant with great martial skills, who arrives in California as a hatchet man for a rival San Francisco Tong, noting that although 6-shooters flourished in the Wild West, fighting with fists was a feasible way of handling conflict. His aim was to unite the Tongs into a powerful force so they can help the Chinese restore the Ming dynasty and overthrow the Chings. Armed with a bamboo pole and with the help of his friend and guide Big Bill Walker, Ah Sahm travels throughout America in what Bruce described as a slam-bang Western adventure series.
His idea was rejected because Bruce was Chinese and Western audiences would never go for it. Shannon Lee noted in Be Water that this premise was the foundation for the TV show Kung Fu (1972-76), a story set in the 1870’s Wild West about Shaolin Monk Kwai Chang Caine who escapes to America to avoid punishment for killing a Manchu official. A second snub resulted when Lee was rejected for the Caine role because again he was Chinese. The part was given to David Carradine, a white man with no martial talent.
Yet this isn’t as demented as when actor Guy Aoki told me that when he was in contention to play Sammy Lee, a 5-foot tall, Korean American gold medalist Olympic diver in a film, he lost out to the 6-foot-tall, white actor Robert Young from Marcus Welby, MD.
Though Be Water touched upon how early Chinese immigrants were treated and through the Chinese Exclusion Act of May 6, 1882, the Chinese became the only singled out specific race and nationality with a law in U.S. history that made it illegal for Chinese workers to come to America and Chinese nationals already living here to become U.S. citizens, Nguyen failed to note that in 1871, whites and Mexicans mass lynched Chinese in Los Angeles. The punishment for killing a Chinese person was a $12.00 fine. Warrior Season 2 re-enacts this attack as happening in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s very powerful and disturbing, and something most Americans don’t know about.
Nguyen also tries to associate Bruce with the 1960s civil rights movement but his attempt fizzles. Bruce was aware of it, but it’s unclear whether he was involved.
Nevertheless, I’ve been intrigued by this issue for some time. At SDAFF 2019, I saw Chinatown Rising, a gripping documentary directed by the Rev. Harry Chuck and his son Josh. It’s based on 10 hours of footage the Chinese American Harry shot in the mid-’60s civil rights movement in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Bruce’s birthplace. After the screening, I asked Chuck the burning question: “How was Bruce Lee viewed by Chinatown back then?”
“That’s a very interesting question, and no one has ever asked me that,” Chuck said. “He was a hero. And today we need a hero like that.”
It’s likely Bruce had profound affects on the folks in Chinatown during that period and he’s also had emotional influences on many others including myself. It’s been well documented that if it wasn’t for Bruce and the inspiration I derived from his life, I would have died a horrible death from cystic fibrosis (CF) in 1973, months before Bruce passed away. Upon his death, I cried for days and promised the Gods that one day, I would pay honor to his grave in a way that no one else would ever do.
In 1986, with 30% of both of my lungs completely deteriorated by CF, I walked 3000.2 miles (26 miles/day for 115 days) from Cornell University in Upstate New York, to pay my respects to Bruce’s grave in Seattle, Washington. May everything be well with you all and be water my friends.