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BFF Review: Dragon Girls

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One of the first shots of the documentary Dragon Girls is part David Lean and part Busby Berkeley. From a high angle we watch as thousands of children run in ordered rows and columns with their arms out, stopping on a dime and then performing movements in sync. It’s a mesmerizing display of their martial arts prowess as well as the sheer level of dedication at this kung fu school in China.

Yet the spectacle of mastery comes from years of hardened training and some Dickensian conditions of abuse and neglect. It’s by going from these immense glories of the collective to the tales of a few students that we understand the physical and mental strength required to do what these kids do.

Maybe it’s my own ethnocentrism that makes me wonder if what these kids are doing is worth it in the end.

[For the next two weeks, we will be covering the 2013 Brooklyn Film Festival, which runs from May 31st to June 9th. Check back with us for reviews of features, documentaries, and shorts playing at the fest. For more information and a full schedule, visit brooklynfilmfestival.org.]

Dragon Girls (Drachenmädchen)
Director: Inigo Westmeier
Rating: TBD
Country: Germany
Release Date: TBD

Had director Inigo Westmeier stayed on the scale of spectacle, Dragon Girls would have been a mesmerizing visual display, thanks both to the crowds and to Westmeier’s own cinematography. There are more than 20,000 students enrolled in the Shaolin Tagu Kung Fu school, and it seems like they’re all there together in some of the crowd shots. Not only are the masses beautifully overwhelming, but Mestmeier understands how to move his camera during several small-scale martial arts scenes. In a sequence that shows a girl training with a jian (Chinese sword), Westmeier’s camera swoops up and down and to the sides to emphasize the dynamism and athleticism at play.

But spectacle isn’t the whole story, especially for the students, which is why Dragon Girls takes time to paint intimate portraits of a handful of female students, though three in particular. They’re each of different ages and abilities — it’s obvious from the slouch and half-hearted kicks that one of them just doesn’t want to be there — though their backgrounds are all similar: they come from impoverished families who have no other choice but to send them off to kung fu school in hopes that they’ll learn some valuable skill. The girls live at the school and don’t see their parents for several months. Their lives are devoted to kung fu and nothing else.

There’s a major focus on dichotomies throughout Dragon Girls, which shows cultural ideals in harmony and in tension. Admittedly, I think some of my own western perspective is a source of this tension. There’s the ideology of the collective at the school which stresses discipline, but there’s also the will of the individual which is tamped down. Even the trainers are under rigid control by the school, which all seems like a function of instilling pure obedience to large institutions, whether they be a kung fu academy or the government. There’s also a dichotomy concerning these large kung fu schools which are functions of the state and the Shaolin monasteries which are spiritual places. (Fittingly, there’s a Shaolin monastery next door to the school.)

The fundamental dichotomy at work in Dragon Girls may simply be one of fantasy and reality. Each of the girls says that they were allured by the idea of kung fu school because of the superheroism of kung fu movies, particularly the flying swordsmen in the wuxia genre. They talk about being so good at kung fu that they can fly, or the possibility of dragons. It’s the stuff of dreams. In reality, they train all day with 20-minute breaks for meals. The food is so bad at times that American school lunches seem Michelin-worthy by comparison. They shower only twice a week. They’re bruised and scarred, though they show off their marks with pride like Quint and Hooper in Jaws. They’re also subject to beatings from their trainers and each other, and sometimes brutal ones.

There are some unexplored questions that come from watching Dragon Girls. We’re told about trainers running away from school in addition to the students, for example, though no former trainers are interviewed. I also wondered if globalization and rapid development in China has affected enrollment or practices at these schools. The big question in my mind is what happens to the children in these schools that don’t make it as martial artists. What options are open to them after getting out, and what skills do they learn other than how to take and administer beatings? Does it simply look good on a resume? Maybe the endurance and the discipline is as key to success as the vain, childlike belief in flight.

The pressure to succeed in a kung fu school is mind-boggling. The father of one of the girls tells her that he won’t come to visit her unless she places first for her age group. Given, he’s many kilometers away, and travel is probably expensive. The situation is sad for everyone, but it’s maybe the only possible option available. Despite my western POV on all this, the perseverance on display is inspiring given the circumstances, especially from people so young. Theirs is a strength I dream of having one day.

Dragon Girls screens Thursday, June 6. For tickets and more information, click here.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.