Dragon Girls – Inigo Westmeier and the Kung Fu girls of the Shao Lin. (Sydney Film Festival Film Review)

Dragon Girls is showing at the Sydney Film Festival.  You can get tickets here.

Just as the shores of India have always seemed to offer a kind of promise of transcendental new-age enlightenment to those of us who live in countries of excess, so too we have held a fetish of fascination for the rigors of martial arts training in countries like Japan and China. Holding a special place in this odd kind of pop-pummel-porn-passion is the hallowed halls of the Shao Lin Temple and the remarkable physical achievements of the monks who live, practice and train there. Some of this fascination is born of genuine interest, most of it is born of a weird sort of reverse racism where we dehumanize the other – glorifying them being the opposite of vilification on the racism coin. What we can’t bear, especially in countries where the day-to-day burden is difficult, is that “the other over there” is exactly the same as us. This is largely behind the fear endemic in a societal hate of asylum seekers and immigrants.

As we grow more sophisticated in our connection with “the other” (ourselves) we discover the similarities that lead us to the inevitable conclusion that the child studying martial arts with 20,000 classmates in the Tagou School next door to the Shao Lin Temple is as similar and as different to me as my neighbor or my sister. More and more these kinds of documentaries know what to leave in and what to leave out as we become better audiences and more and more we keep coming back to ourselves.

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Dragon Girls is the brain child of Inigo Westmeier, a Belgium born German educated cinematographer. Dragon Girls is his first feature-length documentary and One of the immense pleasures of having the director trained as a cinematographer is his insistence on beautiful camera work so we are spared the journalistic jolting hand-held in favor of crane held stylized shots. Westmeier’s point is to show us the immaculately crafted scenes of the 20,000 children performing their early morning exercises with the precision of a Swiss watch and then to zero in on one child to show us the small parts that go to making up this remarkable whole. Having such competence behind the broad vision camera work gives us breathtaking shots of the kids in unison to posit against the tales of the individual girls. It is the goal of every director of a documentary to keep self and personal opinions out of what is shown as much as possible, and Westmeier’s film is one of the best examples of this I have seen. The girls we are introduced to are proud and honest and therefore we are given a deep glimpse into the astonishing world they inhabit, so that Westmeier really only has to show us what he sees. The filming took place over a couple of weeks and therefore it retains its tourist-like distance, which serves to deepen the connection between what the film is showing us and what we think we are seeing. The lightness of Westmeier’s connection never tricks us into thinking we have grasped this strange world at its core.

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However, this is not to say the spirit and compulsion of the martial arts world is absent. Much of the film focuses on the girls grueling routines, that relentlessness that is so attractive to audiences experiencing excess-fatigue. The immaculate beauty of the athletic scenes, either performed by an eleven year old girl or twenty thousand students in perfect unison are awe inspiring and do give rise to the compulsion to make instant promises to fulfill on your own capabilities. The cost Westmeier is focusing on here is not the loss of “free time” its the gap between goal and accomplishment, something we rarely equate with martial arts. The parents work all day to make sure there is enough money for their daughters to stay at the school. They can’t leave their jobs to visit their children – in some cases even once a year (one of the girls was born on the factory floor while her mother worked).  The girls are working hard to break the poverty cycle, and spend their adult lives making enough money to give it back to their parents. While this is the strange circular goal of the individuals under the ideology of familial relations, ironically it is the relationship between the individuals that is sacrificed to meet this goal. When we think of elite martial arts, we think of them as disciplines separate from capitalist drive – and yet money is the driving force behind the very survival of these girls and their families.  This is summed up by a chilling moment when one of the girls states: “If I were to choose between bread and love, I would choose bread.”

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In between these amazing vignettes of extreme discipline, are the moments of humanity Westmeier injects to remind us we are dealing with human creatures; in fact  little girls. There are touching moments of sadness: “Tears are an expression of weakness. Crying won’t change it.  Only to brave the situation.” “If you don’t get a son it is said that you have sinned in your previous life.” “What is spare time?  Here you eat and you sleep and you are in school all the time.” There are many shots of young girls trying to call their parents, only to be reprimanded that they are not to call while the parents are trying to work, or to face the endless ringing of unanswered phones.  We also witness a scene where the girls laugh and play and compare “war stories”.  But these really are stories of a kind of war, complete with enormous scars that run the length of a limb or a joke about the loss of an ear to frost bite. Among these sadnesses are the pearls of wisdom from the headmaster of the school and a monk at the temple (Shi Yan Zhuang) who give their definitions of Kung Fu, and their explanations of why the girls lives have to be so hard, often contradicting each other, but united on the importance of focus and discipline. A running theme through the film is the definitions of Kung Fu.  The monk calls it “energy gained by hard work in the course of time.”  The principal adds “Kung Fu means to train and train and then train again and again. It is somewhat exhausting. That is why it is called Kung Fu.” The the kids give their definitions that include “being exhausted”, “to sway with hands and feet” and “discipline as what is taken away.” At the end of the day the kids are often so physically exhausted they can’t walk down stairs forward, they have to walk down backwards. But beneath it all is the unified belief that “A true master doesn’t show his true nature. If you fail to make a good impression, you already lost.”

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However, the hard won lessons are the gaining of wisdom. In the words of one of the young girls who repeatedly tries to escape from the school,  “In school I learned that life is beautiful. To live is beautiful. The most important thing is the here and now. You should leave the past alone.”

Dragon Girls is showing at the Sydney Film Festival.  You can get tickets here.

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