A systematic look at a Kung Fu school that moulds young bodies and minds into Chinese citizens.
DIRECTED BY INIGO WESTMEIER (Germany, International Spectrum)
Saturday, April 27, 9:15 p.m.
The Royal (608 College Street)
Monday, April 29, 10:30 a.m.
ROM Theatre (100 Queen’s Park)
Sunday, May 5, 11 a.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
“You need rules in a family and laws in a country,” an instructor explains in Inigo Westmeier’s Dragon Girls. The film is an uncommonly rich look at the lives of three female pupils at the Shaolin Tagou Kung Fu school in China, which houses over 20,000 students. Following the instructor’s deliberate interweaving of family and nation, Westmeier considers how the Kung Fu institution functions simultaneously as a school, an orphanage, and a training ground, both in filial loyalty and nationalist self-discipline.
The film’s relative brevity keeps it from reaching the depth of fellow observational documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s examinations of the complex workings of large systems as disparate as ballet companies and hospitals, but you’d be hard-pressed to think of anything Westmeier has left out. The most absorbing parts of the documentary consider how the girls are encouraged to swallow their emotional responses to the harshness of their surroundings. Over and over, we hear the students recite prescriptions against crying, which often come across as the internalized dogma of an institution that trains its adherents to think of every abuse as an opportunity for character formation. This is fascinating stuff, beautifully and fluidly lensed by Westmeier, a seasoned director of photography making good on his talents in this feature debut.