Editor’s Notes: Dragon Girls opens in Toronto on Friday, July 19th.
Western education has its inherent problems, especially in America. The public education system is full of holes and there have been plenty of documentaries that set out to illustrate just how broken it is. With the stresses of a less than ideal education, children are forced to bear hardships that they are entirely unprepared for and often make sacrifices that will have lasting results. At the end of the day, many of these children have an admittedly rough go of it but maintain the chance at some facsimile of childhood. Well things just aren’t that easy in China. Dragon Girls is a window into another world, with a mixed bag of results.
The massive differences between the childhoods experienced by the children within the film and the average western student are jarring.
The birthplace of kung fu sits quietly in the Shaolin Temple Monastery. Resting just a short trip away is the Shaolin Tagu Kung Fu School, a complex of over 20,000 students. Trading in the more spiritual and meditative style of the monastery for colder calculated instruction, the school is home to a modernist view of kung fu education. The children sacrifice their bodies and childhood for the chance to achieve a level of success in the martial art that resides only in their dreams. The film follows three young girls as they push themselves past the point of exhaustion in hopes of achieving a place of honor for themselves and the ones they love most.
The massive differences between the childhoods experienced by the children within the film and the average western student are jarring. Actually, the comparison doesn’t even seem appropriate, as it is to compare the haves to the have-nots. These children presented have no childhood as we would imagine it. Their lives are kung fu. Filled with nothing but training and minimal sleep, it is exhausting just to hear them recount their daily schedules. On the skill front it is difficult to argue with the results. The opening and closing segments of thousands of children performing complex martial arts routines in nearly perfect unison are breathtaking and beautiful in their precision. However its illustrious shine is hiding a deeply flawed interior. As the children are given the chance to open up, they gently reveal the inherent truths of their unhappiness. The thing is, we expected them to be unhappy. It is extremely hard to imagine any person, child or otherwise, finding a deep joy in mandated exhaustion. It just sounds terrible. It’s like watching a NASCAR race in anticipation of the coming crash; the darkness in us wanted to see it, but now we are kind of upset it happened.
Perhaps the most surprising realization is just how different China is from what we have come to expect. The school is one thing and could easily exist as a strange instance of extreme forced obedience (even we have military academies), but as the filmmakers check in with the children’s families it becomes evident that there are deep seeded differences between cultures. The parents are not simply getting rid of their children but believe that they cannot provide for them. The value of work is given such high importance that the simple idea of parenthood seems lost. The school isn’t entirely to blame for the loss of childhood; instead it is the lack of present parenting, for what is childhood without parents? This is the film’s strongest point, but like its revelations of the hardships experienced by the students it is far from groundbreaking. Adequate parenting is readily accepted as having high importance to a child’s development, so when this becomes the point of the film it lands with a thud and leaves you looking on waiting for some semblance of a unique thought that will not come. It leaves the film feeling directionless.
We get so lost in complaining about the less than ideal nature of public education that we often forget just how good things are. Dragon Girls is here as a reminder.
The comparisons between the new school and old temple are some of the more interesting parts of the film. The monastery requires a deeper devotion and life choice, requiring the students to devote themselves to Buddhism and explaining the martial art itself as a more spiritual existence rather than sport to be won. The school has taken the basis of kung fu and found a way to monetize it. This is the industrialization of martial arts. The temple is beautiful in its antiquity where the school comes across as a factory made to spit out carbon copies of a bastardized image of kung fu. It is the kung fu grip of an action figure compared to Caine’s wanderings.
The ideals of the school seem built to be unattainable. Even the most bright-eyed of the film’s focal three girls begins to break down as the film progresses. She cannot keep up with the expectations and her inability to please her father when delivering her best effort is frustrating to watch. Her later stated belief that she will never be able to be the best is heartbreaking as the downtrodden emotions belong to a beaten middle-aged man rather than a nine-year-old girl. These smaller moments are the film’s best. The film’s world is massive, the alien and emotionally stunted China too foreboding. By focusing on its subjects closely as they are forced to realize just how difficult the world is for them, the audience becomes more emotionally connected, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.
We get so lost in complaining about the less than ideal nature of public education that we often forget just how good things are. Dragon Girls is here as a reminder. The children of its focus are unable to experience a true childhood, having it replaced with dictated schedules and strict instruction. Kung fu is the lives of these girls and any form of additional education is placed on the back burner. The position of the film, that parenting has a strong importance in the upbringing of a child, is anything but novel and bores in its obviousness. Stumbling as it attempts to navigate the terrain of Chinese culture, the film finds more success when it chooses to focus on the girls behind the training and the flawed logic of its institution. Dragon Girls is engaging in its presentation of a world that we are unfamiliar with but fails to deliver a worthwhile point making the whole ordeal feel hollow.
[notification type=”star”]60/100 ~ OKAY. Dragon Girls is engaging in its presentation of a world that we are unfamiliar with but fails to deliver a worthwhile point making the whole ordeal feel hollow.[/notification]