Behind the Curtain. Movies reviewed: Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, The Grub-Stake: Revisited PLUS Hot Docs!
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Hot Docs, Toronto’s documentary film festival, continues through the weekend – and daytime tickets are free for all students and seniors. This is a once-a-year opportunity to really absorb all sorts of politics, people, music and ideas.
This week I’m going to look at three movies that – in very different ways — pull back the curtain to show what’s going on backstage. One doc is about a Kung Fu Academy in China, another about hillbilly entertainment in southern Missouri, and there’s a new look at a silent film shot in Yukon Territory in the 1920s.
Dir: Inigo Westmeier
This is a movie about China’s biggest kung fu centre, the Ta Gou Shao Lin martial arts academy. It’s in Henan province, north of Beijing. It has a huge number of students, both boys and girls, and they are all strictly trained in what feels like a military school (like Karate Kid times 1,000). And this school has a public square, a vast stone plaza that looks to be about the size of Tian’anmen Square in Beijing.
This documentary uses two ways to portray the school. One is aerial views of the entire academy – that’s hundreds of people – performing flawless, intricate fighting formations, all at once, on the square. And they’re all dressed in identical red jumpsuits, running around in perfect harmony.
But then they switch to close-ups of girls at the academy telling their stories. The place is unheated in the winter and Spartan looking. It’s almost like a prison, says one. Another runs away, all the way home to Shanghai – she can’t stand the life there: it’s cruel and bitter. Their trainers aren’t very sympathetic toward them – they went through the same training so they expect the new girls to do suffer like they did. They train them ruthlessly, even the little girls, to learn the kicks, the sword moves, the jumps, the punches… And there are constant competitions, with winners and losers and rankings. Some of the girls’ parents are dragons themselves – if the kids don’t come in first place they get no praise.
The movie continues like that: in and out, tight then wide. There are the close-up, touching stories about individual girls’ plights; alternating with fantastical movie-style performances in the square, involving hundreds or thousands of shaolin kids.
From far away everything looks perfect. But, up close, the flaws begin to appear.
Dir: AJ Schnack, David Boone Wilson
Somewhere, halfway between Hollywood and Broadway stands a small town in the Ozarks that offers its own, unique variety of entertainment. It’s Branson Mo., and it’s one of the best-known, unknown tourist attractions in the US.
What is this place? It’s a strange small town filled with giant music halls started a few decades ago by people like the Osmonds, the Presley Family, and Lawrence Welk. They put on old-school musicals and variety shows that are mainstream, conservative, and very, very white. It’s a world of elaborate kitschy musicals and hillbilly, Hee-Haw comedy.
But this movie goes behind the scenes, showing that it’s not quite what it appears to be. It follows some of the theatrical families who make Branson their home base. There’s a foul-mouthed single mother, who cusses a blue streak and then says – for Jesus. There’s the town mayor, a woman and member of the Presley clan, who points out that women are the ones who really run things there. There’s the Lennon family, transplanted from Venice, California, who have kept their liberal convictions even deep in Tea Party territory. And there’s a gay couple, a divorced man with two sons and his boyfriend, both of whom sing and dance in some of the kitschy, dog-and-pony shows, even while promoting Branson “family values”.
I liked this doc because, even though it starts as a conventional, reality-TV-style show, following some of the characters around, it ends up giving much more. There’s lots of music, some of which is actually really good.
There’s a lots to like: things like a brilliant analysis of the differences between borscht-belt and bible-belt humour. And some scenes are visually fantastic: like when everyone’s at this combination flea market and air show, and, all of the sudden, the planes are dropping fire bombs just behind them, and there are huge plumes of black smoke shooting up, just past the funnel cakes! (That scene made it for me…) Very interesting movie.
Dir: Bert Van Tuyl and Nell Shipman
A silver-haired prospector arrives down south with a fistful of gold nuggets. He tempts the wide-eyed young Faith (Nell Shipman) to leave her laundry shop and come north with him to the Yukon to find love and get rich. After some resistance she agrees, and they head north by steamship.
But he soon turns out to be a monstrous letch and Nell has to fight him off. She’s forced to flee by dog sled with her disabled father. She has to cope with blizzards, bears, outlaws with guns, and dangerous cliff-side chases. Luckily, Nell meets a handsome man in the woods and together they try to triumph over the bad guys.
That’s what The Grub Stake – a Canadian silent movie from 1923 – looks like. But in the new, Revisited version (that’s showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox next week) the archival print will be shown alongside an original, live performance, that comes to us from the Yukon. A group of actors supply new voices to the silent images, with live musicians creating a haunted, ambient soundtrack.
Here’s the twist: the new script is positively Shakesperean, with all the lines pulled from plays like Hamlet, Richard III and Twelfth Night. Does it work? It’s funny! It doesn’t quite make sense, though: sometimes the dialogue is in perfect synch with the images on the screen, but at other times it seems to be at war with what you’re watching. But I guess that’s what makes it… art.
The Grub Stake is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, only on May 6th. For more information, go to tiff.net.
You can see Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, and many other great documentaries at Hot Docs this weekend. Go to hotdocs.ca for details.
Also opening today is Still Mine, based on a true story about an elderly farmer in New Brunswick who vows to defy the law for the sake of his ailing wife; Kon Tiki, the fantastic Norwegian epic about a journey across the pacific on a raft (I loved the Norwegian version, but haven’t seen the English-language one (check your local listings); and various short films at TIFF that support Mental Health Week (May 5-11) sponsored by Toronto’s Workman Arts: go to tiff.net for details.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .