Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Brooklyn Film Festival 2013 - Dragon Girls (2012)
Arriving in the cool darkness of Inde Screen I met Brian who is handling the press for this year's festival. Brian is a good guy and we talked for a bit as I picked up my credentials. I then headed off to try and freshen up.
The original plan was to try and take in the Children's film series but never having been to Inde Screen before I misjudged the walking time and arrived too late; so after freshening up and cooling down I started to head out to find a cool place to get something to eat when I saw the imposing shadow of Mr C silhouetted in the glass door. He was coming to the festival as a representative of Planet Chocko.
We then headed next door to Windmill Studios where Dragon Girls was going to be playing. The AC at Windmill was a welcome relief and we just hung around talking before the movie, eventually being joined by Hubert from Flixist.
The space at Windmill is actually quite good. Its a large room converted to a theater with a great digital projection and sound system. If there is any complaint, it's that the chairs are a mix of differing styles so some are more comfortable than others. Allowing for that it's a great place to see a film.
DRAGON GIRLS follows three girls and several trainers at the Shaolin Tagu martial arts school which is located next to the Shao Lin Temple. Founded in 1978 with a couple of students it now houses over 35,000 students and teachers who spend pretty much every day training. The life is hard with the girls and boys getting up early to train before breakfast, then diving in again after a 20 minute meal. The process is repeated for lunch and dinner, with the girls going to bed around 8pm. They get two showers a week. Their dorms have no heat. And yet the girls push on fighting the good fight and over coming what appear to be an occasional serious injury (The compare scars at one point). We also get a view of the down side of the school through the eyes of Huang Luolan who calls the school hell and who runs away.
Opening with an amazing shot of thousands of students running at the camera and then doing synchronized martial arts the film is the sort of thing that grabs you by the throat and makes you sit up and take notice. From there the film goes smaller as we see get to know the girls and their routines and their thoughts and feelings.
I am very mixed on the film. For me the the film is a couple of unanswered questions away from being great and yet at the same time the film kind of hangs around you and haunts you. Mr C, Hubert and myself began talking about the film as soon as it ended and we didn't stop talking until after we all parted and stopped tweeting at each other about the film late Saturday night.
For me the trouble is that because the film doesn't use narration or some sort of titles over the footage we're completely a drift and some key questions are left unanswered. First and foremost is the question of what to the students at the school get by training in martial arts all day long, all year long? Yes they get some typical schooling (which they can opt out of at a certain point), but the film makes no effort to explain what they are shooting for eventually. One would think a career in film or the circus or sports but it's not clear, nor does it really appear that so many students could find so many acrobatic jobs. The real answer, which is never hinted at in the film and was found in the press notes, is that they will be able to get good jobs in the military and with the police as a result of the training.
Another unanswered question is how much of the film is staged (beyond the huge scale sequences) and how much isn't. This is an important question since for much of the film it comes off as a kind of rah rah puff piece for the school. Certainly the rough life, lack of heat and free time makes it seem less than ideal, but it still seems like a good place until we meet Huang , and even then its kind of tempered by her princess-ish attitude. The answer is that they were given minders who were with them for most of the shooting. They did however shoot around them where they could and they asked the "difficult questions" when they left the room (They were eventually trusted so they didn't always stay).
There are other things not covered such as cost (300 Euros a semester), where the parents get the money (one parent talks about having trouble selling melons, the conversation seems to be about something but it trails off) and what is this talk about the school hunting down runaways (both students and teachers)? All of these questions and more make this an almost great film. Wanting to know more about what seemed like basic things made me not like the film as much as I should have.
On the other hand the lack of answers provided several hours of discussion and contemplation.
Don't get me wrong I like the film, I just don't love it and can't understand the love and awards its won in some corners of the world.
The film plays again Thursday night at Inde Screen