Where would Bruce Lee be if he were still alive today? Would he still be the iconic figure that we remember? If you ask “Be Water” director Bao Nguyen, there’s a chance he might be running for president.
Speaking with TheWrap at Sundance, director Nguyen and producer Julia Nottingham of the ESPN documentary “Be Water” said that if Lee had lived past age 32, he would have nurtured young talent and become an activist. And because he was born in America, politics would not have been out of the question.
“He would’ve been more active in other fields of society, not just film, but also possibly politics. But who knows, Bruce Lee 2020 would’ve been a possibility, because he was born in America,” Nguyen told TheWrap. “He was such an inspiration to many people that I could imagine him going into politics and more realms of activism.”
“Be Water,” which premieres at Sundance this week, examines the martial arts and movie star through the lens of his influence on pushing for diversity in Hollywood and changing the image of Asian Americans in the U.S.
“He’d also be supporting younger talent, and I can imagine someone like that really nurturing younger talent and maybe we would be further along in this diversity conversation than necessarily we are today,” Nottingham said.
But the film also highlights Lee’s philosophy on life and how his training in martial arts governed not just his fighting style but also his way of working and interacting with others. The title of the film, “Be Water,” has become synonymous to some with Bruce Lee, but it refers to a mantra of kung fu of water’s ability to penetrate the strongest force and adapt to its surroundings.
Nguyen wanted to film “Be Water” in this way, and the documentary is free of talking heads and is told entirely through archival footage and voiceover interviews with people he knew and loved.
“I was really trying to immerse the audience in the film in the present day of 1960s, 1970s America, so in that sense we were trying to have the film flow like water,” Nguyen said. “But also when Bruce Lee, the way he approached life, he wanted to be open to meeting different people of all different cultures, especially today when there’s a lot of polarization, he’s kind of the example of the beauty of multiculturalism, the beauty of diversity, the beauty of people being able to express themselves freely, and that comes with just being fluid and open to things.”
Nguyen said his favorite Lee film was undoubtedly 1973’s “Enter the Dragon,” which Lee made shortly before he died and was partially written by Lee himself to fully embody his philosophy and cement his legacy as an icon.
“It is a tragedy that he didn’t live through the fruits of his labor,” Nguyen said. “But at the same time, we talk about a bit in the film, he was a man that he was when he passed away at the age of 32, and he solidified his image and his myth in that way.”
Watch the video of the interview above.