“I was just blown away,” Nguyen said. “I’d never seen a lead actor who looked like me. I couldn’t get over the fact that he was the film’s hero. He wasn’t the villain. He wasn’t a sidekick. He was a confident leading man. Growing up in America, I was not used to seeing this type of depiction of Asian males.”
Nguyen would eventually become part of the film industry himself. Over a little more than a decade, he has directed 11 documentaries, from short films to features, and worked on several movies in other production roles. He still sees obstacles within the business for Asians, but Nguyen credits Lee for making the earliest inroads in opening those doors.
“He arrived during an era of negative images of Asians,” Nguyen said. “Americans kind of lumped together what all Asians looked like. We wear our race on our face, right?
“It was easy to make all Asians out to be the villain,” Nguyen said.
For Nguyen, there’s a fascination with how Lee was able to become an action movie star in the 1970s — a theme he explores throughout his latest documentary, “Be Water,” a 30 for 30 film that premieres on ESPN on June 7.