Review Date: 3/20/11
Cast: Jet Li
This Chinese martial arts documentary is as fascinating as it is unsettling. It also plays out like a propaganda film, which makes it uncomfortable to watch. Amusingly, the DVD menu has an option for English subtitles, but you can't select it. However, if you hit the subtitle button enough times, it will eventually land on English. Not that it helps much, because the subtitles are barely comprehensible. Basically, the film shows examples of various martial arts disciplines (referred to as "streams") performed by award winning professionals. They also show children and senior citizens practicing "government endorsed" forms, and make fun of uncoordinated foreigners. (at one point they show an American and say "how can one play so badly?") The show capitalizes on Jet Li, who they show performing swordplay when he was eight years old. They also show some awkward family footage of his nineteenth birthday. That pretty much sums up the entire show. Awkward.
The most unnerving portion of the film is watching a family who specializes in breaking rocks. Okay, so this old dude can break rocks with his head and can even cut rocks in half with his finger. That's pretty neat. Then he brings out his wife, who stands barefoot on a couple of swords while he breaks rocks on her back. Okay... THEN he brings out his fifteen year old daughter and proceeds to pile over 3000 pounds of weights on her chest. WHAT THE FUCK?!? AND THEN he brings out his ten year old son and breaks bricks over his head! This whole thing was extremely uncomfortable to watch, and I'm sure I'll have nightmares about it tonight. What a messed up family...
Apart from that, the fighting forms are fascinating to watch, and showcase some incredible skill and athleticism. The cinematography is quite good and smoothly captures the flow of the performances. Interestingly, the best (and fastest) combat performances are performed by women, which is very exciting to see (even though the narrator constantly makes sexist comments). On several occasions they use slow motion, which is extremely enlightening. Most of the weapons work moves so quickly that you literally can't see what's going on in real time. Unfortunately, all of the performances are dubbed with movie sound effects, which really cheapens the impact and kills the authentic documentary intent of the film. The worst is when they play sound effects of the audience cheering, when everyone is sitting perfectly still with their mouths closed. What were the filmmakers thinking?
Overall, if you're a kung fu buff, this documentary contains some interesting performances and insights, but little in terms of details or historical information. The pacing is challenging, the editing is awkward, and the subtitles are laughably bad. Here are some of my favorites:
"Don't bull shit, just watch."
"Children play like killing chickens."
"This play of shitting is practical."